As far as I know, the closest my father ever got to spirituality, or spiritual enlightenment, was his connection to Padre Pio, now Saint Pio, a Catholic mystic who suffered stigmata continuously for half-a-century and was known for his power of prayer to heal those in need.
My dad’s unique attachment to Pio came to him late in life, around the age of seventy, and it may explain why he seemed at greater peace within himself the last fifteen years of his life.
As an artist, one of my father’s creative passions was portraiture, for which he developed his own expressionist style, often unappreciated by unsuspecting subjects.
Commuting between homes in London and Monaco, my dad produced art in both venues and was never happier than when at work in his studio. (If he taught me one thing—and he taught me many—it was this: Take the time to cultivate a talent that exists within you not least because it will provide serenity in old age.)
During their many years in Monaco, my parents made friends with Luigi, the sweet-natured custodian of their apartment building.
Luigi suffered a variety of nervous ailments, including claustrophobia, and every so often needed to convalesce in a sanatorium. His anxieties led to a heart condition, which eventually required surgery (I’m guessing an angioplasty). Fearing the worst, Luigi asked my father to paint a small portrait for him of someone called Padre Pio.
My father replied, "Of course, Luigi. But I've never heard of Padre Pio and I've no idea what he looks like. I’ll do it if you bring me his photograph."
This was easy for Luigi as he, like many Italians, are deeply religious and carried prayer cards featuring Pio.
As I mentioned much earlier, my father was born in the Bronx into an Ashkenazi Jewish family that immigrated to America from Poland/Russia in 1913, probably to escape religious oppression.
My father did not grow up in a religious environment; certainly, none of the traditions of his heritage were handed down to him, or to me (though I seem to have inherited his family’s anarchistic leaning, which suits me fine).
Luigi presented my father with a photograph of Pio and explained that pilgrims traveled from all parts of the world to visit the Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo, where Pio had lived in a monastery until his death in 1968. (Pio existed in a small, sparse dormitory-like room in which he battled the devil most nights, emerging bruised and bloodied most mornings—this in addition to the blood that constantly streamed from both palms and both feet.)
Even in death, Luigi continued, Padre Pio possessed magical healing powers.
For decades The Vatican suspected Pio of perpetuating his wounds himself and sent investigators to expose such fakery. But they could never prove Pio’s stigmata a fraud, and, indeed, Paul John Paul II canonized Pio to sainthood in 2002.
So my father painted a portrait of Padre Pio and gifted it to Luigi a few days before the Italian’s risky heart surgery.
Overjoyed, Luigi prayed to Pio’s likeness, entered the hospital with confidence and bounced back from surgery with new vigor and, in addition, no longer felt the nervous disorders which had plagued him for many years.
Luigi felt cured, and he credited Padre Pio—my dad’s portrait of Pio—for his recovery.
My father was oddly taken by Padre Pio’s image (he couldn't get it out of his mind) and soon began painting new portraits of the Catholic mystic.
In the early hours one night, while in Monaco, my father awoke feeling unwell. He wandered into the dark living room and noticed an unframed portrait of Pio, not yet dry, propped against the wall, barely illuminated by harbor lights in the distance. Feeling deathly ill at this point, my father sat down by the painting and prayed—perhaps for the first time in his life!
Much later that morning, after conducting tests, a doctor told my father that an ulcer in his stomach was bleeding so profusely he was amazed my dad had survived the night.
Soon after that experience, my brother-in-law, then in his early 30s, discovered a lump on his neck and was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive tongue cancer. The prognosis was bad. Doctors did not expect him to live longer than six months.
On hearing this terrible news, my father painted a portrait of Padre Pio and mailed it to my brother-in-law. A surgeon removed the base of his tongue and radiation therapy commenced. My brother-in-law prayed to his Padre Pio portrait.
He made a miraculous recovery, leaving his physicians astounded and bewildered. Over twenty years later, he remains in complete remission.
Other such recoveries took place when my father gifted those in need with a padre Pio portrait.
Word got around.
A French-Canadian priest devoted to Padre Pio learned of my father's portraits and one day arrived unannounced at my father’s Monaco art studio to see for himself what was going on.
The priest claimed to feel Pio's presence in my father’s studio. And he suggested that Pio was using my father to continue his intercessionist healing through prayer. Moreover, this priest expressed a desire to organize an exhibition of my father's Pio portraits at a church in Fontvieille (part of Monaco) but, after some planning, my father demurred, preferring not to market or promote the special blessings these paintings seemed to possess.
Another artist tried to trick my father out of his collection of Pio portraits by taking them away under the guise of professionally photographing them. A cursory background check showed the person to be a conman. When told he could not have access to the Pio portraits after all, the man’s demeanor turned menacing.
Another devil exposed (and dispatched).
I possess one such icon, in my opinion one of the finest of Pio painted by my father.
Sometimes in this small painting Pio is bruised and bloodied, and sometimes he is not.
And so today, in Cromwell, Connecticut, I visited the Padre Pio Foundation of America and, in my father's memory, donated one of his Pio portraits.