Recently I bought a medal of St. Peter to wear around my neck. This has nothing to do with any particular devotion that I have to the person of St. Peter, his office of Head of the Apostles, an author of the Scriptures, or even a touching figure from a literary perspective. No, I got the medal because of the prayer, la Sombra de San Pedro, which is a Mexican “unapproved” prayer of protection against everything from highway robbers to witches. I say it everyday before I leave the house. I also wear a medal of St. Expedite, who besides having a cool name, has a special relationship with this city.
I have been accused of being a snob by certain Internet personalities, though I smile every time I read this accusation. Sure, I got a lot of my religion through books and I am not going to hide that. But growing up in my majority Mexican-American town, I came to a lot of what I believe strictly through doing and observing. And not just through observing the Mexicans either. We had a large population of Italian, Irish, and Portuguese immigrants as well, with their festas and devotions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. We had the Legion of Mary as well as reasonably well attended First Fridays. This being a fairly liberal diocese, I think one saw these things in an even more pristine setting since the clergy just let the oldsters “have their own way” and interfered little, thinking that all of this would eventually die out. (It probably has by now.) But my childhood faith was not a religion by the book, but a religion of the gut. The fact that a guy who was raised in a HUD project by a single Mexican mother is being accused of being a snob is for me supreme irony.
But I will nevertheless continue roll with the whole accusation of snobbishness, for the benefit of those who did not grow up in the theological school of the hard knocks. For example, I find Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s recent piece on the Infant of Prague a little problematic and a bit patronizing. I will give him the benefit of having good intentions and say first off that this was probably not his intention. But when he starts off calling this devotion “winsome” and “unusual”, then I begin to question whether or not he has completely gotten this whole “Catholic thing” yet. (Indeed, I will say that he has caught this as well, making the almost self-deprecating remark that “I’m really a Catholic at last”). The piece deserves to be analyzed on another level, however, and that is regarding the question of how we create meaning from religious imagery.
Fr. Longenecker makes his peace with the devotion by turning the Infant of Prague into a warrior of the current culture wars. Within the Church, he associates it with the Counter-Reformed spirituality of relating to Jesus on a personal level: As I’m kneeling I begin to understand the child dressed in royal robes and crown, for the whole image tells us that although he was a child born naked and squawking in a stable he was at the same time the royal prince of the house of David. This of course has its place, and a prominent one. It is the language of Christmas carols of any tongue. But then, he proceeds to attach the Infant of Prague to what he sees as a contemporary war against childhood innocence. He writes,
Then as I’m kneeling there I begin to see that this child is also the focus of our prayers for spiritual childhood and innocence for ourselves, but it should also be the one we turn to pleading for protection for our own children and for the innocence which is being lost every day to the corrupt morals of our day.
This is also a traditional “interpretation”, but only in the sense that the clergy has always had to use symbols popular with the laity to rally them to its own moralizing agenda. Here I am not necessarily disagreeing with Fr. Longenecker’s diatribe. However, I will say that his employment of the Infant of Prague misses some important aspects of the devotion. First and foremost, Catholic devotions are only popular insofar as they work. The Infant of Prague for many Catholics is sort of a baby Santa Claus with a crown on His head. Case in point: at an average parish here in New Orleans, people were handing out “microwave novenas” to the Infant of Prague. Don’t have nine days to pray for something? Shrink it down to nine hours, and say the prayer once every hour. I remember this especially since the card was actually really pretty, but AG took it from me. The things that we do for love!
The other aspect that he is missing, one that is far less obvious to an American evangelical male Bob Jones graduate, is the anthropological side of this devotion. Flip open a Jack Chick comic and you will see a little of what I am talking about. In various religions, people have the tendency to deify childhood. It is an archetype deep in the human psyche. Kind grandmothers everywhere like praying to a little baby, and devotion to a child god is not unique to Catholicism. The pagan equivalent that immediately comes to mind is the image of Krishna as the baby butter thief. When I think about devotion to the child Jesus, I think of my grandmother’s images of the Holy Infant of Atocha or el Niño Dios next to her television set, or the crazy old Argentine woman who crammed a twenty page devotional manual of the Infant of Prague into my hand as a young seminarian. It is the other side of religious devotion to Christ as Pantocrator or Crucified God: it is God as approachable, familiar, and loveable.
Official Catholicism has never really come to terms with that last aspect, and maybe it never will. But the beauty of the Catholic system is that it is the only major religion in the modern West that is still adept at exercising what the recently deceased theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss called bricolage. One website that describes bricolage states that:
The idea of bricolage, which is the linchpin of first chapter (“the science of the concrete”), is one of the hallmarks of Lévi-Strauss’s thought. This Gallic image of the bricoleur, who is something of a handyman, something of a hobbyist, something of a gun-toting, beard-wearing, trash-picking survivalist, has proven attractive to many beyond the ghetto of anthropology. It’s a handy metaphor, a brilliant example of the spirit it seeks to pinpoint, and a marvelous demonstration of Lévi-Strauss’s own tendency to mythomancy.… the bricoleur is active, fully personified, a character. “The ‘bricoleur’,” we are told, “is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks…. the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’ …. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury is composed…. he remains within the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization.
In this sense, Fr. Longenecker’s own reflections on the Infant of Prague are well within play from the Catholic perspective. Catholicism does not try to nail a religious symbol to one particular meaning or another. Indeed, most symbols have their “official meaning” often tacked onto them to make them “acceptable”. Such symbols as the Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, All Souls’ Day, and the Cross, can mean many things to many people, all at the same time. We take “whatever is at hand” and make what we can out of it according to our needs. A symbol might not mean the same thing to the Pope as it does to the lowly street thug trying to scratch out a living, but it is there nonetheless, and they both use it.
Fr. Longenecker’s Protestant sensibility has to perform bricolage on this “fancy Catholic idol” by associating it with his favorite Catholic writings, making it acceptable to a cultural Protestant in the manner of “if you want X, you need to take Y as well, since so-and-so also liked Y”. He also re-creates it as a symbol of a moral crusade that continues to associate him with the sensibility of decent, middle class white folks with Internet access (i.e. his typical audience). This is also what happens with a bishop who might give a fairly chic theological sermon on devotion to St. Jude to members of the Opus Dei. That is one way to employ the symbol. Another is the Mexican drug dealer who wears a St. Jude medal for protection so that he is not shot up with a TEC- 9 while leaving a Tijuana bar. That is just what religion looks like, just as a Ganesh statue at a 7-Eleven is just as Hindu as the Bhagavad Gita.
Considering all of this, Fr. Longenecker’s article still ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. The main reason that the American cultural Protestant has a problem with things like devotion to the Infant of Prague is because modern religion is divorced from culture. American (white, middle class) Protestanism fears color and colorful characters; it believes that decoration and kitsch deflect from what is “really important”. In the end, it believes that religion and imagination don’t mix; faith, like economic activity, is “serious business”. It is the Christianized and kinder version of Islamic Wahhabism. I don’t like bashing converts in a country where so many cradle Catholics are little better than cultural Protestants. Nonetheless, it would be nice if some of these converts would just come right out and say:
“Look, middle class American Protestantism is not a religion. It is some of bizarre mixture of theological premises and moralizing puritanical attitudes. The reason that the Infant of Prague devotion seems so strange to us is that we have been ideologically brainwashed for centuries to think that this kind of thing is not normal. And yes, it is just fine as is, and it should not have to accommodate my own distorted formation concerning what religion is supposed to look like.”
Maybe that is asking too much, and maybe that is just the “religious snob” in me. But I would still like to hear someone say it, particularly since even within the Church, even amongst some “cradle” Catholics, we hear the same voices of “I don’t get it” in reference to old school, “gut” religion.