St Vibiana Loves Us All

Nightmares have been relentless. They come in packs throughout the night, tearing sleep to shreds and demanding wakefulness during the wee hours of the morning or else suffer the torture of nuclear bombs, falling from great heights, or other overwhelming states of grief. One episode after another. The dreams don’t stop.

It’s all anxiety; that’s perfectly clear. A new nervousness about life has settled in among the already existing paranoias and it’s too much for one conscious brain to figure out, particularly one that’s so bent on not thinking about them. So the subconscious has to shoulder the load, working out terrors in the dark. Sometimes it even whispers things to the conscious mind, things that seem like distractions but are actually subversive ways to make sure the waking mind starts to work something out.

Susan Orlean’s tweet about writers feeling like impostors made me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside, something that it wouldn’t have before. Living in Los Angeles for almost four years now, I don’t feel like any more of a writer than I did when I left Atlanta with my stuff reduced to 8 boxes shipped UPS across the country. It’s something I’ve been trying to suppress, that sad feeling being the jitters of the uncertain. And if there’s anything I’ve been certain about in my life is that I have a skill in stringing words into sentences. Reading Susan Orlean’s tweet would’ve made the 29-year old Nick Campbell roll his eyes at another attempt by a well-established writer to pander to the hacks who can’t find time to get their uninspired thoughts onto the page. It doesn’t seem so silly now.

But this isn’t a story about my (temporary) pit of anxiety. It’s about a Roman virgin laid to rest less than a mile from my house.

I walk by Vibiana, now an event space, every day but had never been inside until a bread festival brought me there. Or a bread talk. It was a celebration of bread. My girlfriend is very much into making bread, reading the books and perusing the blogs. She knows about bread celebrities. I eat her bread and am suitably impressed because (1) she made bread with her bare hands and (2) it’s delicious. But, perfectionist that she can be, no loaf is as good as she was hoping it would be. So we went to this bread love-in at Vibiana to listen to bread experts talk about cold-proofing and hydration ratios.

The altarpiece at the Cathedral of St Vibiana with the table at which bread nerds would soon give sermons on DIY flour and glutens.

Since my primary concerns regarding bread are eating it and eating more of it, the conversation gave me a lot of time to look around the gorgeous space. There’s an amazing altar near the front with marble and onyx all around. It’s a little slice of Italy across the street from an okay pizza place and its barely tolerable coffee house neighbor. I couldn’t imagine why people would abandon this as a church. It held all the properties of wonder and talent that make the great European churches so inspiring. So I read up on it.

Without going into all the sordid details, damage caused by the Northridge earthquake gave the local archdiocese in Los Angeles an excuse to build another, grander, more modern church on Temple dedicated to someone that wasn’t as obscure as Vibiana. He went with Mary, which seems a little obvious to me. But her honorific of “our lady of the Angels” is appropriate for the City of Angels. And the church itself turned out to be gorgeous inside if a bit weird on the outside.

The Los Angeles area is in a weird space as far as Catholic patronage goes. Santa Barbara is very Franciscan. Our Lady of Guadalupe is understandably very popular. But the patron saint of Los Angeles is this Roman martyr, Vibiana (not to be confused with the century-younger Bibiana), of whom no one actually knows anything.

She wasn’t even discovered until the mid-1800s underneath Rome, with her relics, a vial of her blood, and a marker that briefly described her with a laurel that noted she was a martyr. She was canonized soon-after and then given to the archbishop of Southern California in order to bribe him back to Los Angeles. He’d absconded to Spain because he so badly didn’t want to be put in charge of the SoCal archdiocese that he ran away. From the Pope. He came back reluctantly after he was given the remains of an honest-to-goodness saint to build on.

Nothing is known about Vibiana except for what’s printed on her marker: she was a virgin, she was a Christian, she was a martyr. Everything else about her is a mystery. Her life is completely lost to history. There’s no mention of her anywhere before her canonization.

So she’s perfect for Los Angeles.

My subconscious whispered things to my waking mind and I thought about her a lot before deciding to make the short journey to the mausoleum in Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (where she was moved upon completion of the mighty church). About how she had no history before arriving here. About how she was just tossed here without her consent to appease a holy man with his own reasons for why he should not be in Southern California. But mostly about something said on the Cathedrals of California site, that she is the patron saint of nobodies.

Los Angeles is a place where dreams go to die. It’s where dreams go to be born and where dreams go to thrive but, for so many, many more than those that are nurtured, this place is where they grow sick and wither and pass on. There isn’t enough room for everyone’s dream, the city seemingly too crowded for every dream to see sunlight, so some grow but most don’t. And people with those dreams die without being recorded by anyone other than obscure tombstones or in the recollections of family members who will, eventually, also pass with those recollections among their relics.

Los Angeles is a place with a great population of homeless and destitute. It’s a city that almost seems paralyzed trying to deal with this untouchable class. So many of them can only depend on each other to get by and to remember them when they’re gone. Their histories are only recorded in memories and they will pass with paltry and esoteric relics of their own. There are some that may pass on their own with no one to even see or notice their disappearance. Their personhood evaporates without a trace and their remains become a nuisance to someone in the coroner’s office.

Los Angeles, though it stands in the shadow of celebrity and world-renown, is like anywhere else: it functions based on people that do nothing remarkable on a macro-level but every piece they contribute goes to making everything work. But they’ll be buried in the graves and crypts just like everyone else with limited fame and legacy that will, in fewer generations than we’d like to think about, soon forget them, too.

The connotation of a martyr is that someone is killed for a cause, that the injustice of their murder is their legacy. No one intentionally chases martyrdom. Because chasing martyrdom negates the awe-inpiring context of dying for something you believe in. If all you believe in is the fame dying unjustly, there’s no dignity in that. There’s no purpose. And martyrdom is full of purpose.

So maybe we can assume the virgin Vibiana died for something she believed to be greater than herself. And that was all that mattered to her. That she could give her life to a thing and, even if history couldn’t be bothered with penning her name somewhere so that she could be remembered for it, the giving was the most important part.

In a city that’s so well-known for being a population of idealists willing themselves into fame, it seems right that the patroness of this city is someone that is mostly known for not being famous. She didn’t have the stigmata. She wasn’t pummeled with arrows. She wasn’t nailed to a cross. Or she may have been. It’s not important. She gave everything she had to something she believed in, no matter what that meant for her. She had no legacy to speak of. No descendents. No one except those that took the time to chisel out “ANIMA E INNOCENTI AD QUE PUDICAE VIBIANE IN PACE” on a crypt underneath Rome.

I went to her shrine to take pictures but couldn’t bring myself to do it. There are plenty of pictures online so you can see them. But it didn’t seem appropriate for me to snap anything while I was there. Instead I stood against a back wall and teared up looking at someone that gave everything of herself to something because it was the only thing that mattered to her. I watched a man read a lengthy prayer from a booklet and tenderly touch the top of her stone casket. I watched a father kneel down in front of her and pray despite the confused looks on his children’s faces. And I stood there and felt overwhelmed.

I still have the nightmares. But there’s a clarity I’ve gained from remembering Vibiana. If I truly believe in something, I should continue fighting for it. Because that’s a life. There’s no timeline. There’s nothing that needs to be done now or it’ll never happen again. And while nothing I do will lead to my untimely demise at the hands of the unjust (probably), I need to stop worrying so much about whether I’m doing enough for what I believe only so I can scale a ladder toward fame and renown or some false vindication. I just need to keep working on what I believe in. I’m in good company with nobodies.

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