I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the autumn of 384, the year the future saint Augustine of Hippo arrived in Milan to take up a post as professor of rhetoric. It was during his time in Milan that he encountered both heartbreak and religious conversion, which turned him from an an ambitious provincial nobody into a sadder but wiser man.
What kinds of things would a North African visitor have noticed in the city? Surely the bitter winter of Lombardy came as a shock, but as summer fell into autumn, it was not really the weather that told him that that he was not in Carthage any more. Milan, of course, was in many ways very different to Carthage – for one thing, it was a boom town in the 380s, since in 381 the imperial entourage had swept in, beginning what would be a twenty-year stay.
Thinking over the calendar for September and October, it struck me that one of the early autumn festivals was that of the miraculous virgin trouble-maker Saint Thecla, whose feast day falls on the 23rd September in the western churches (it falls on the 24th in the East). And of course Thecla is Milan’s patron saint. We don’t know whether the Cathedral of Milan was already dedicated to Thecla when St Ambrose preached there.
But we do know that Ambrose was making every effort to inspire the young women of Milan to become ‘Brides of Christ’, choosin virginity over marriage, and that he placed great stress on the example of Thecla. Ambrose probably preached on Thecla’s feast day in 384, and although Augustine was not thinking of himself as a Christian in those days, it is entirely possible that he would have come along to hear the gifted preacher on one of his favorite themes, which was an entirely normal thing for a professor of rhetoric to do.
With this in mind, I was over the moon when I discovered that I would have a chance to visit the ‘new’ cathedral in Milan (in other words, the fifteenth-century Duomo) in time for this year’s Solemnity of St Thecla, which took place on Saturday evening. A dear old friend hwo lives in Siena offered to come up for the night so I would have company for this wonderful adventure.
The fifteenth-century Duomo is nothing like its Roman predecessor – it is a massive, soaring Gothic concoction, totally out of proportion to the churches of the ancient world. But it is a marvel. I am happy to report that the nave of the Duomo was full for the solemnity – not standing-room-only full, but pleasantly dotted with people all the way to the very back.
GIven that Thecla has had such a patchy history in the Church (she seems to have been quite actively ‘forgotten’ by the Latin Churches in the Middle Ages, although the Greek East has always revered her as Apostle and Proto-Martyr) I was curious to see how a modern preacher would tell her story. Would he be exhorting the young ladies of Milan to take a vow of virginity, as St Ambrose did centuries ago? If I’m entirely honest, I can’t say that the sermon was inspiring – in fact, I was not entirely sure that the priest had read the Acts of Paul and Thecla. But he did seem to be aware of the outline of her story, so at least he wasn’t confusing her with the duller and more respectable virgins and martyrs of antiquity.
The liturgy itself had a lovely awe-inspiring quality to it, uplifted by the soaring height of the sanctuary and the lashings of incense. One of the things that fascinated me, however, was the sheer quantity of other things going on in the Cathedral at the same time. In particular, in the North Aisle, there was a bank of something like a thousand candles lit in front of a gold-haloed painting of the Virgin Mary, each lit by a visitor who had stopped to make a prayer. A large number of people had settled in to pray there, focusing their mental energies on the Virgin and ignoring Thecla altogether.
After the service, we also noticed another quite damning sign of how Thecla piety in Milan has waned since the days of Ambrose. A quick, essential visit to the basement shop where religious trinkets were on sale revealed that among hundreds of icons and medals dedicated to various saints, not one bore the image of Saint Thecla. We were shocked! When asked why Thecla was so neglected, the shop-keeper told us that she orders her stock based purely on how often a certain item is requested, and Thecla isn’t really a very well-known saint. My companion was indignant, and suggested that we shoudl write to the bishop. We came away with the impression that the shopkeeper might not be aware that Thecla is the heavenly patroness of both the Duomo and the parish, which is the historic centre of Milan.
Once the liturgy was over, we went out for a stroll through the city, along with everyone else who was in Milan this weekend. Presumably because of Milan Fashion Week, one of the streets radiating out from the Piazza del Duomo had actually been carpeted, in black, with a metre-wide stip of red carpet slashed down the middle.
Everywhere, young people were dressed in extravagant costumes, sometimes being photographed by people with huge cameras, and other times taking mutual photos with their friends as part of the festive atmosphere. Occasionally, the spirit of the thing was clearly meant in fun. My favourite outfit was that of a young man whom we met in Via Monte Napoleone, a street graced by Prada, Armani and the other maddeningly glamorous boutiques. He was dressed in a woman’s wedding gown, with a fuschia lei around his neck and a platimum blonde wig, and carried a sign that said, ‘I’m getting married in 21 days, and this is what I’m going to wear!’
My companion and I thought, at first, that it must be a campaign of some kind for gay marriage. But in the carnival atmosphere we found ourselves talking to the bride and the group of young swains in his entourage, and it emerged that one of them was his future brother-in-law, and this was actually an early stag party. After more chat and some mutual photograph-taking, we came away feeling that he would have made a very fetching bride of Christ. It’s more difficult to get a fix on how Augustine would have reacted to the ‘bride’ and his groomsmen. I suspect they would have got on very well. But I’m fairly sure Thecla would have loved him.