Meaning of Life
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Chapter Twenty-five - The Ugly Madonna

       For several years Don Camillo struggled in vain. If the statue had such historical importance, then it could be sent to a museum and replaced by one with a decent face. Or, if this wouldn't do, it could be moved into the sacristy and thus make way for a more suitable successor. Of course the purchase of another statue would require money. When Don Camillo started to make the rounds with fund-raising in view, he came upon more opposition.
     "Replace the ugly Madonna? That statue is historical, and nothing can take its place. It wouldn't be right. Whoever heard of crowding out history?"
     Don Camillo gave the project up, but the statue remained a thorn in his flesh, and every now and then he exploded to the Lord at the main altar about it.
     "Lord, why don't You help me? Aren't You personally offended by the sight of Your Mother in such an unworthy guise? How can you bear it that people call her the 'ugly Madonna'?"
     "Don Camillo," the Lord answered, "true beauty does not reside in the face. That, as we all know, must one day return to the dust from which it sprang. True beauty is eternal and does not die with the flesh. And the beauty of the Mother of God is in her soul and hence incorruptible. Why should I take offence because someone has carved a woman with an ugly face and set her up as a 'Madonna'? Those who kneel before her aren't praying to a statue, but to the Mother of God in Heaven."
     "Amen," said Don Camillo.
     There was no other answer, but it still troubled him to hear people refer to the "ugly Madonna." He became accustomed to the thorn in his flesh, but every August fifteenth, when the statue was taken down and carried in the procession, the pain was more than he could bear. Once removed from the kindly shadows of the chapel and exposed to the sunlight, the face stood out all too clearly. It was not only an ugly face, but an evil one as well; the features were heavy and vulgar, and the eyes expressionless rather than ecstatic. And the Infant Jesus in the Madonna's arms was just a bundle of rags with an empty doll's head sticking out of them. Don Camillo had tried to mask the ugliness of the statue with a crown and necklace and veil, but these had served only to accentuate it. Finally, he removed all extraneous ornaments and let the vile coloring show for exactly what it was.
     Then war came to the river valley, leaving in its wake death and destruction. Bombs fell upon churches and thieving, sacrilegious hands plundered their altars as they passed by. Don Camillo didn't dare admit it but he secretly hoped that someone would "liberate" him from the "ugly Madonna." When foreign soldiers first appeared upon the scene Don Camillo hurried to the proper authorities to say:
     "Our ugly Madonna is a masterpiece dating from 1693, an object of both historical and artistic importance. Shouldn't it be evacuated to a safe place of storage for the duration?"
     But they told him to set his mind at rest. Historically and artistically important as the Madonna might be, the fact remained that she was ugly, and this was her best defense. If she hadn't been ugly, she would never have stayed in place for so many years.
     The war came to an end, and the first post-war years went by, and then a time came when the thorn in Don Camillo's flesh troubled him most acutely. He had painted the church walls, varnished the imitation marble columns and the wooden railings, and gilded the candlesticks on the various altars. As a result, the "ugly Madonna" simply didn't belong. A dark spot on a grey background is not too conspicuous, but on a white one it stands out like a black eye.
     "Lord," said Don Camillo, on his knees before the Lord. "This time You simply must help me. I've spent all the money I had and some I didn't have on doing up the church. In order to pay my debts, I've rationed my food and given up cigars. And I rejoice not so much in the beauty of the church as in the God-given strength to sacrifice a few of my comforts. Now, won't You deliver me from the thorn in my flesh? Won't You do something to stop people from calling Don Camillo's church the 'Church of the Ugly Madonna'?''
     "Don Camillo, do I have to tell you the same thing over and over?" the Lord answered. "Do I have to tell you again that true beauty does not reside in the face, that true beauty cannot be seen, because it is a thing of the spirit, which defies the erosion of time and does not return to the dust whence the body sprang?"
     Don Camillo lowered his head without answering. And this was a bad sign.
     The feast of the Assumption was drawing near, and one day Don Camillo summoned those who would carry the statue in the procession.
     "This year the route followed by the procession will be longer than usual," he told them, "because we must go as far as the newly built houses along the south road."
     It was a steaming hot August, and the idea of walking an extra mile over a freshly graveled road was enough to make even a strong man flinch.
     "We might carry the statue in two shifts," suggested old Giarola, who was in charge of arrangements.
     "That's dangerous," said Don Camillo. "The sun beats down and the bearers' hands get sweaty and may slip just at the moment of changing. No, I think we might rig up Rebecci's small truck. As a matter of fact, that would add to the dignity of the whole thing, and I don't see any real objections."
     In a way the bearers were half sorry, but when they thought of the length of the route and the heat of the sun, they felt relieved and gave their assent. Rebecci was glad to lend his truck, and the next day he brought it to the shed at the back of the presbytery. Don Camillo insisted on decorating it in person, and for a whole week he worked so hard that all over the village they could hear the sound of his hammer. He had built a platform on the back of the truck and then covered it with draperies and flowers, producing a truly magnificent effect. When Sunday came, the "ugly Madonna" was brought out of the church and hoisted up on to the platform. The pedestal was tied down with strong ropes and these were covered with garlands of flowers.
     "You don't have to worry about the driving," Don Camillo said to Rebecci, "Even if you go at fifty miles an hour, I guarantee that it will hold fast."
     "With all those decorations the Madonna is very nearly beautiful," people said when the truck started.
     The procession began to wind its way towards the south road, with the truck moving at the speed of a man's walk. The freshly laid gravel was bumpy and suddenly the clutch went wrong, which jolted the truck so hard that if Don Camillo hadn't tied the pedestal securely to the platform the "ugly Madonna" would have been out of luck. Don Camillo saw that something was wrong and knew that Rebecci must be worried about it, so when they reached the south road he decided to change the route.
     "The truck can't go so slowly over the gravel," he said, "so we'll cut across the fields to the highway. Rebecci will drive back at normal speed and wait for us at the bridge. There we'll re-form the procession and march on a smooth surface all the way back to the centre of the village."
     Rebecci went dutifully back, and the "ugly Madonna" made the most uncomfortable trip of her long life. The procession re-formed at the bridge and moved smoothly along the paved road, although occasionally Rebecci's clutch caused the truck to leap forward as if someone had given it a kick from behind. The village was all decked out, especially the main street, with the arcades on either side, where every house was covered with streamers and people threw handfuls of flowers out of the windows. Unfortunately, this street was paved with cobblestones, and because the truck had hard tires as well as a broken clutch, it bounced up and down as if it had St. Vitus's dance. But the "ugly Madonna" seemed to be glued to the platform, through Don Camillo's particular merit. Halfway down the main street, however, there was an especially rough bit of paving, punctuated by holes left from the construction of a sewer running below it.
     "Once they're over that, there's no more danger," people said. Although they had complete faith in Don Camillo, they left a considerable space between themselves and the bouncing truck.
     But the "ugly Madonna" did not get through the danger zone. She didn't fall, because Don Camillo's ropes held her fast, but on a particularly rough bump she just crumbled into pieces. The statue was not made of terracotta after all; it was some infernal mixture of brick dust or plaster or who knows what, and after two or three thousand death-dealing jars such as it had just received, an inevitable fate overtook it. But the shout which rose from the bystanders was not occasioned by the crumbling of the "ugly Madonna." It was a salute to the "fair Madonna," which as if by a miracle took its place.
     On the pedestal, which was still roped securely to the truck, there emerged, like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, a somewhat smaller statue of solid silver. Don Camillo stared at it in astonishment, and into his mind came the Lord's words: "True beauty does not reside in the face. . . True beauty cannot be seen, because it is a thing of the spirit, which defies the erosion of time and does not return to the dust whence the body sprang. . . ." Then he turned round because an old woman was shouting: "A miracle! A miracle!"
     He shouted her down and then stooped over to pick tip a fragment of the "ugly Madonna," a piece of one of the expressionless eyes which had once so annoyed him.
     "We'll put you together again, piece by piece," he said in a loud voice, "even if it takes us ten years; yes, I'll do it myself, you poor 'ugly Madonna.' You concealed and saved this silver statue from one of the many barbarian invasions of the last three hundred years. Whoever hurriedly threw you together to cloak the Silver Madonna made you ugly on purpose. And so you did not attract an invader already on the march against this village or some distant city from which you may have originally come. When we have put you together, piece by piece, you shall stand side by side with your silver sister. Quite involuntarily, I brought you to this miserable end."
     Don Camillo was telling the most shameless lie of his life. But he could not, in the face of his assembled parish, explain that he had chosen a roundabout and rocky route for the procession, blown up the truck tires to the bursting-point, sabotaged the clutch and even abetted the destructive power of holes and gravel by driving a pointed tool into the terracotta and starting to crack it open, which last effort he had abandoned when he had seen that the material of which the ugly statue was made would crumble of its own accord. He meant to confess it to the Lord, who of course already knew about it. Meanwhile, he went on with his peroration. "Poor 'ugly Madonna,' you saved the silver statue from one of the many waves of barbarian invaders. But who will save the silver Madonna from the barbarians of today as they press at our frontiers and eye with hatred the citadel of Christ? Is your appearance an omen? Does it mean that the new barbarians will not invade our valleys, or that if they do our strong faith and powerful arms will defend you? . . ."
     Peppone, who was standing in the front row, in order to "observe the phenomenon more closely," turned to his lieutenant, Smilzo: "What's he mean by the 'new barbarians'?" he asked him.
     Smilzo shrugged his shoulders. "Just a bit of unbridled clerical imagination."
     There was a moment of silence and then the procession continued.
Go on to chapter twenty-six, The Flying Squad    on our site.

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