Monday, May 6, 2013

Of saints and superstitions


Deeply ingrained in Mexican culture is the belief in the supernatural. With the arrival of the Spanish and the imposition of the Catholic faith, the precolumbian and newly arrived beliefs mixed and intertwined so closely that something completely particular emerged. If you wanted rain, as an Aztec you'd dance for Tlaloc. But, since colonial times, to avoid it,  you'd bring eggs to Santa Clara. Replace fertility godess Coatlicue for Virgin Guadalupe, and you've got everyone following you. The list goes on and on, as the rituals in which many of us, just for good measure, cautiously believe in. If you are looking for your life-long partner, get a San Antonio and turn him upside down. Make sure the broom never goes close to your feet when cleaning the floor or else you might never marry (you'd sweep your luck away). And rice has to be thrown at newlyweds as they emerge out of the church, after the ceremony.


I am very much aware that devotion to saints is one of the most controversial aspects of the Catholic faith, and one of the reasons that ignited the iconoclasts rage and led to the Protestant reformation. Yet, every time I go inside a church I feel the urge to light a candle and pray. It's not that we adore saints... it's that given that they are "closer" to God in the celestial court, they can whisper in His ear, and perhaps, perhaps, help in granting you what you ask for. The short story "Aunt Isabel", by Angeles Mastretta (a part of the book "Mujeres de Ojos grandes" / "Women with big eyes") reflects all of this so well.  This is why it is one of her short stories that I appreciate the most. Here's the start of the story, in English, but scroll down for the original version in Spanish.

"The day her father died, Aunt Isabel Cobián lost faith in all unearthly power. When the illness began she went to ask the Virgin of the Sacred Heart for help, and a little while later, to ask Señor Santiago, who had in his parish a saint with such an efficacious appearance that he was riding on horseback. Since neither of the two obliged by interceding for the health of her father, Isabel visited Santa Teresita, who looked so good; Santo Domingo, who was so wise; San Joseph, who, merely by dint of being chaste, should have everything granted to him; Santa Mónica, who suffered so with her son San Agustín, who suffered so with his mama; and even San Martín de Porres, who was as black as his disgrace. But since throughout the course of five days no one had interceded on her father's behalf, Aunt Isabel made her way to Jesus Christ and his selfsame Father to pray for the life of her own. Anyway, her papa died as had been decided at his conception: On Wednesdey the thirtheenth of February, 1935, at three in the morning. Then, surprisingly to Aunt Isabel, the earth didn't open itself up, nor did the day cease to dawn, nor were the birds that made a daily scandal in the ash tree of the garden quiet. Her brothers and sisters were not left speechless; her mother didn't even stop moving with the grace of her lovely body. Worse still, Isabel herself remained perfectly alive, in spite of always having believed that this event would kill her."


"El día que murió su padre, la tía Isabel Cobián perdió la fe en todo poder extraterreno. Cuando la enfermedad empezó ella fue a pedirle ayuda a la Virgen del Sagrado Corazón y poco después al señor Santiago que había en su parroquia, un santo de aspecto tan eficaz que iba montado a caballo. Como ninguno de los dos se acomidió a interceder por la salud de su padre, la tía visitó a Santa Teresita que tan buena se veía, a Santo Domingo que fue tan sabio, a San José que sólo por ser casto debía tener todo concedido, a Santa Mónica que tanto sufrió con su hijo, a San Agustín que tanto sufrió con su mamá y hasta a San Martín de Porres que era negro como su desgracia. Pero ya que a lo largo de cinco días nadie había intercedido para bien, la tía Isabel se dirigió a Jesucristo y a su mismísimo Padre para rogar por la vida del suyo. De todos modos su papá murió como estaba decidido desde que lo concibieron: el miércoles 13 de Febrero de 1935 a las tres de la mañana. Entonces, para sorpresa de la tía Isabel, la tierra no se abrió ni dejó de amanecer, ni se callaron los pájaros que todos los días escandalizaban en el fresno del jardín. Sus hermanos no se quedaron mudos, ni siquiera su madre dejó de moverse con la suavidad de su hermoso cuerpo. Peor aún, ella seguía perfectamente viva a pesar de haber creído siempre que aquello la mataría."

Santa Rita, advocate of the Hopeless and the impossible, is clearly whom I should turn to.

9 comments:

  1. I think I need to make an appointment with St Rita too! Although not religious, I was raised with a confusion of Catholic/Jewish superstition which was more tradition than spiritual faith. And I'm not religious now but very spiritual; I love all the paraphernalia that comes with Catholicism, moreso since my son died. I always light a candle for him if I'm near a church, and I am especially fascinated by the Mexican traditions around the Day of the Dead.

    Thanks for a little more education!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, Santa Rita is the one. And I am like you kind of, though raised Catholic by a father who strongly mistrusts organized religion to put it mildly.
      But candles, I have to light them.
      I find this subject fascinating. At a folklore museum the other day I saw an analysis pointing out that the devotion to Saints in countries like Mexico or the Philippines has to do with the fact that the original religions were pantheist / multitheistic. They replaced their original gods with saints and something else emerged. And of course there is all the influence from Africa, (voodoo, etc.) brought by the imported slaves so those traditions were added in the cocktail as well.

      Delete
  2. I LOVED this post! Mujeres de Ojos Grandes has got to be one of my favourite novels (along with Como Agua Para Chocolate). And funny enough, I was just having a chat with a friend the other day on how Catholics are at times more fixated on saints than on God himself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks :) I'm glad you liked it. I actually got "Mujeres de Ojos grandes" and "Como Agua para Chocolate" in dual Spanish / English versions (translated along each other) so that Mark can use them to learn (and have some insight into Mexican culture as a bonus).
      That's really funny :) I think mostly in Latin America the saints are really important.

      Delete
  3. This is fascinating to me. As someone who was raised in the Protestant tradition, the whole saints "thing" was a complete mystery to me, and generally spoken of very negatively. In the last few months I've made a new friend here who is a devout catholic and we've been having these loooong chats over cups of tea about all the differences and similarities between our different expressions of Christianity, and I've learnt so much.
    She explained it that if you have a problem, you ask the friend who is wisest for advice. In the same way, when she has a need, she prays to the saint who has the greatest experience and faith in that area. She spoke of them like friends, which was so new to me.
    Oh but I do understand candle-lighting. That is beautiful and oh so meaningful to me...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes exactly, it's like asking for a friend to help you.
      I was raised Catholic, but I had some contact with Prtestantism because my father's original faith is Protestant, and when I would visit relatives in Switzerland we would go to church with them, and I would see the differences and similarities too. Later, while I was there I would had long chats with my uncle about it.

      Delete
  4. I love the ad you posted. "Te doy suerte en el juego y atraigo dinero el dinero." Y tambien se puede salvar a los matrimonios y quitar enemigos? Que maravillosa. I listen to mexican radio stations a lot, especially the "doctora" (psychologist) who gives out advice and I'm always amazed by the use of faith and belief in miracles/magic to solve problems. At first I didn't really get it, but now I think it is so hopeful and optimistic and also accepting of what we cannot control.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I absolutely love that ad , pretty much they solve any problem you might have. That sounds like a funny program to listen. And you are so right, it is hopeful and optimistic with a bit of acceptance of the uncontrollable. (But we'll still try a way around things).

      Delete

I love your comments, let's talk .

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...