On Gozo, the second island comprising Malta, now a state with EU Membership, with under half a million inhabitants, a strategic bulwark against two tidal waves of invasion, Suleiman’s Turks in the sixteenth century, and Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the twentieth, on a promontory with no adjacent town or habitation stands a sandstone church with a high spire visible from all sides: Our Lady of Pinu. It happened that my visit to Malta coincided with the return of a native, my janitor from 85th Street in New York, who took me on a tour of his island, not five miles wide, not twenty‑four long; our sightseeing, including in short order a prehistoric temple site, Calypso’s reputed cave, the capital city, Victoria, with its fortress and prison for recreant knights whose handprints are still visible on its whitewashed walls, culminated in a visit to this local shrine. We parked the car, entered, and walked along the nave to arrive at the apse in back: it was hung with ex‑votos, signifying praise and thanks to the Lady of the House for blessings conferred and mercies rendered: a mortal illness cured, a barren womb filled, a lost child restored – human frailty and the multitudinous chances of life writ large. As I stood with Mike at my side, perusing this chaotic jumble of answered prayers, I asked him: “Do you think it’s true?” to which he answered firmly: “Yes, and on the way out, reverted to this exchange with no further cue from me: “And it’s all true.” Among the crutches and scribbled papers and idiosyncratic mementos was one item that held my particular attention. It was the photograph of a redcheeked, darkhaired overweight man with a mustache attired in an unfamiliar uniform, posed against a TV set and a plush sofa. His note to the Virgin, accompanying this photograph related that on 9/ll she had led him from a high floor in the second Trade Tower, where he worked as a guard, through the enveloping smoke and flames, advising him at every turnng which way to go. It was by dint of his prayers to her, and her counsel to him, that he had emerged from this inferno which had consumed so many others, less lucky or less pious. What a bridge of faith had been thrown up by one of her sons from this small Mediterranean island to the hub of the world a continent away.
So Malta had figured in yet another, more recent invasion, if only in respect to one man’s fate, and the symmetry of the thing made it tempting to speculate: Were Bin Laden’s lieutenants any different from Suleimen’s suicidal Janissaries, bred up to ruthless destruction and indifference to personal well being? Were they no different from the Turks who had scaled Valetta’s walls in their flimsy flammable garments flung back like living torches into the harbor? What had happened to five hundred centuries of intervening discovery, in fine arts, medicine, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and political science? Was mankind no closer to restraining his thirst for vengeance, his hatred and his rage? And how did the Virgin, at home not just in Malta, but in Heaven itself, where she reigns with a chaplet of flowers on her head and a carpet of clouds beneath her feet, figure in this tale of one century emerging to defy another? Hadn’t generations of husbands, sons, and fathers found her likeness in their daughters, their wives, their sisters; hadn’t her image nurtured, sustained and inspired over centuries, not a slave, not a servant, not a toy for the senses, but a metaphor for the womb ensouled? Her features are not to be found behind the burka, her tears do not gush from the oil‑rich desert, her voice does not praise her Maker issuing from the throats of prostrate men behind the thick walls of a mosque; conceived with her God from the beginning, in her sex she is the equal of any man in the community of saints, a Teresa or Joan as richly haloed as a John or Thomas. The rights of women ‑ political, social, economic ‑ so fiercely debated in our time could not, one thinks, have been secured without these centuries of spiritual equality. And in countless houses of worship, from as many vaults and apses and transepts, hang these trophies of gratitude to a surrogate mother, the civilizing idea one misses so acutely in the austere patriarchies of the East.