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A handful of fruits and vegetables

· Silvia, the Saint of the month, as told by Silvia Gusmano ·

That little thud was the sign of a daily feast - the thump the silver laid on the bare stone - announcing the midday meal and a bit of relief from the pains of poverty. Silvia had no idea that the habit of carrying a handful of vegetables to her son in order that he wouldn’t miss a meal would in a short time be transformed into a gesture of love widely anticipated and expected by many. And she rejoiced in it even though it was so increased her daily load: not just a silver bowl but a platter laden with fruits and vegetables from the garden, for the poor who were welcomed at Gregory’s table, and all the hungry that she met along the way from Cella Nova, her home on the Aventine Minore, to the monastery of St. Andrew on the Caelian Hill.

Portrait of  St Silvia (XVII century)

It was here in fact that her firstborn son had decided, at the height of his political career, to retire as a monk and embark upon a life of devotion to God, with a small community served as support for the weaker brethren. Silvia, now a widow, did not hesitated to go along with his plan to give him her beloved family home and help as mothers do: by seeing first and foremost to the practical needs. She moved to a more humble dwelling, which immediately became a beloved home thanks to the proximity of some Palestinian monks who were followers of Saba. Their joyful faith and their woes - fleeing from Jerusalem and their recent arrival in a rough city like Rome - had made them dear to her heart, other sons to look after with love and discretion.

And so every morning after prayers with the Sabians, when the sun was high in the sky, she left the Cella Nova with the heavy silver platter in his arms and walked along the Circus Maximus towards the Clivo Scaurus, the steep climb that would brought to her old home. That short walk, always so full of meetings and smiles, refreshed her soul.

Everyone knew her, the lady who had come from far away Sicily, who had married the senator Gordian, as impressive in appearance as he was generous and caring to others. She helped whoever she could, by carrying her silver platter to the poor. Whoever was in need stopped and asked her: a little food, a prayer, a hug. Many followed her to the monastery, eager to listen to the words of his very special son.

Silvia smiled at hearing Gregory explain the Gospel to visitors, and it seemed to her at times to hear herself so many years ago, a mother kneeling beside the bed of her little ones: a tale of adventure every night, every night new discoveries, suspense and twists in those stories where the hero was always Jesus, and the happy ending was never missing. So that they might love Jesus as she loved him. Gordian sometimes pretended to scold her. The parables, he said, are not fairy tales to entertain little ones. She was smiling. He so serious, so focused in his religious fervor, this is why he chose her and so love her: Silvia was mild, light and fanciful, even when carrying heavy loads, even in the midst of storms. Severe storms, such as the sack of Rome by the Goths, the invasion of the Lombards into the lands of Italy and, most recently, the plague, a disaster, Silvia thought with relief, that Gordian did not have to live through. Yet her sons did, and she feared for Gregory who, unlike his brother resembled her, physically frail and of poor health.

He, like every adult child up to that time and for all times to come, protested against certain thoughtfulness which he considered excessive, against the daily food that he feared cost her too much effort but which for Silvia represented a happy epilogue to the maternal care she had given him in times past. Gregory protested, especially against the silver tray, not realizing that it was not something frivolous but rather a sign of love, where the good and the beautiful, whenever possible, always go hand in hand. Silvia would hear none of it, and the day that Gregory gave the tray as an alms to a poor man who came too late to his table, she took a larger one. She knew he was not wrong, but she did not imagine that within a few years the poor man would come knocking at Gregory’s door in the figure of a winged angel to thank him for the precious gift and reveal the identity that always lays hidden behind the neighbor who is welcomed and fed.

Neither did she imagine - though she would come to see it - that her simple teachings on life would lead Gregory to become the Great, a Pope loved on earth, and blessed in heaven.

Finally, Silvia had not imagined the places where she sojourned in this world would continue to produce valuable fruits of charity. The fruits of the great abbey of San Saba whose foundations still preserve the second home of the saint and that, in addition to much more, every night serves as a home to dozens of poor homeless. And the fruits grown in the garden at Celio, where almost certainly St. Silvia rests.

Today the Missionaries of Charity move freely about here, happy to show the faithful the room where Mother Teresa stayed when she was in Rome, each time finding the time to act on the tradition started by Silvia: offering food to the poor, using the same stone table as Gregory had along with those who, with the help of his mother, he welcomed as brothers.

A graduate in Italian Literature and a professional journalist, Silvia Gusman (1979) - after having worked with Vatican Radio and “Shadows and Lights” - has for some time been working as part of the press office. Founder and editor of the website, she is a collaborator with “L'Osservatore Romano”.




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