In the center of Faro, amidst the apartment buildings and government offices and local restaurants, there is an old church with a somewhat ratty exterior, in serious need of a paint job.
(Note the white stork roosting on the bell tower.)
Inside this church is an altar of breathtaking opulence.
Everything is plated with gold, most likely brought from one of the colonies during Portugal’s era of ascendancy. Just after lunch on a workday afternoon, a curious explorer is likely to find no one else inside, other than the ladies who sell tickets.
The tickets are not for the church itself. As rich and interesting as it is, this is not the main attraction of the Igreja do Carmo. The real attraction is this:
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Through a side hall of the church, into a courtyard, and around the back side is the entrance to a small chapel made of bones. Unlike the more famous Capela dos Ossos of Évora, the chapel in Faro is not made of general bones from a city graveyard. These are the bones of the monks who lived and served here.
Their femurs and tibias are stacked into supporting rows, punctuated at regular intervals by their skulls. The bones form not just the four walls of the chapel, but also its roof.
As you can see, not all of the skulls have stayed put. There are holes here and there. I confess my imagination did go a bit wild imagining this skull popping out of the ceiling, while the chapel was crowded with a busload of tourists.
It’s a fascinating place, this tiny room made of bones. And if you are fortunate enough to be there when no one else is around, it’s a place that inspires contemplation. The closest we Americans get to being faced with our mortality is a graveyard, which has none of the immediacy of a wall of bones. When you stand in this chapel, you cannot help but think that inside your body are the same bones that adorn these walls, and when you die, you will eventually look no different than what you see here.
Everyone will have their own reaction to the stark lesson these bones have to teach. My thought, when I reach out to touch a smooth skull, is that we all have limited time here — so we should make the most of it. There is a difference between living, and being alive. Looking at a wall of death, I am grateful for my own life and what I’ve packed into it so far. And I am motivated to keep exploring, keep learning, keep taking chances on the unknown or unfamiliar…because that is what being alive means to me.