El futuro que se acerca y el pasado que nos hechiza

29 04 2008

On Holy Dirt, Mi abuelita (que Dios la tenga en Su gloria), religious atavism and why I write this blog (with a footnote on telenovelas)

The soil is kept in a small, dry, shallow well in a side chapel of the church, and the faithful queue to collect it, using a children’s plastic beach shovel to pour it into containers brought from home. They touch samples of the soil to affected areas, they offer it to dying relatives, they ask priests to bless their sample. And they believe.

This excerpt was taken from a rather fascinating BBC article that I have just found on the visit of Pope Benedict to the United States last week. The place that the author is referring to here is the sanctuary of Chimayo in New Mexico where people go to be miraculously cured by the dirt found in the shrine. It is the author’s thesis that Latino immigration will change the face of American Catholicism, making it more open to these sorts of charismatic and atavistic elements.

While I wish this were the case, having grown up at ground zero of this phenomenon, I know that this is not true. Modern secularism changes everything it touches. For example, many say that Europe is in great danger of finally falling victim to an internal jihad that will accomplish what all of the other jihads haven’t accomplished since the emergence of Islam. While this may be the case, it is equally possible that the jihad will be subdued by the opium of free sex, flashing lights, and the orgy of moral licentiousness. That which is killing Christianity in Europe is not just noxious to the true faith of Jesus Christ, but to all religious ideologies, no matter what form they take. At best, what will emerge is a playground of fuzzy spirituality where we are left alone to be the ideological freaks that we are already becoming.

In my own experience, the “Latino church” in this country is just a liberal, just as modern, and just as problematic as the rest of the Catholic Church. It just has more of the tone of Mexican T.V. : loud, superficial, and incredibly tacky. To be fair, many of the aspects that are the glories of Spanish Catholicism are still there: the fiery emotion, the Marian piety, the familial atmosphere that reflects much better the traditional ethos of the Church. Unanchored from the rhythms and cadences of traditional Roman liturgy and spirituality, however, they begin to morph themselves into something that is neither fish nor fowl. The Hispanic Church in this country is no more traditional than the Anglo Church anymore than Spanish soap operas are of better quality than their American counterparts.

Nevertheless, I do remember some of the elements spoken of in this article from even my childhood. It’s just beginning to fade more and more now. People who read this blog are probably really confused, and this is for the most part my fault. The problem that I have been trying to resolve in my own life is to give voice to the religiosity that I grew up with, and this religiosity seems so radically different from the world that I have found myself in as a mature adult. I look at the Catholic media and thinkers in this country, and it feels sometimes that I am speaking English and they are speaking Sanskrit. It just feels at times that we are approaching everything from different angles, different perspectives, and from different strata of society.

For many intelligent Catholics who reflect and write about their Faith, it seems that the starting point is somewhere high up there, like the Pope, the Magisterium, Biblical criticism, Counter-Reformation theology, and so on and so forth. It is deemed that these “official” channels are the surest and safest paradigms on how to conceive of God’s actions in the world. That may well be the case, but I simply can’t start from there. If I have a humble intellectual project, it is to give voice and theorize upon the world view of my ancestors, none of whom were priests, none of whom had degrees in divinity, but all believed in ways that I find far more appealing than the “official story”.

Specifically, I want to a voice to the beliefs of my deceased grandmother. She was barely literate and wracked with worries. She had to walk two miles to church every Sunday, and the church hierarchy was at best something out there that one could reluctantly go to in case of emergencies and thus, spiritually, one had to fend for one’s self. My grandmother never took off her mantilla after the Second Vatican Council, never stopped saying the rosary. And my grandmother had some curandera tricks up her sleeve like curing people by making the Sign of the Cross over them with an egg. As I have written before, she had a picture of Juan Soldado up in her personal shrine and a bizarre devotion to him. For me, then, who is to say that my grandmother’s Catholicism is passe, dangerous, or superstitious? My grandmother’s Catholicism now seems more shamanistic and pagan than what passes for Christianity these days. But, as I have said in the past, she was one of the most Christian people that I have ever met.

I have probably read and understood things that my grandparents can never imagine with their elementary school educations. I actually read and understand that mysterious cultic language, Latin, that they heard growing up that veiled their God behind the mumblings of the priest. I would probably not discuss Iamlichean theurgy, Neoplatonic thought-forms, scholastic theology, or aesthetic theory with my grandmother if she were still with us today, but there is something inherent in the way she did things that serves as the primordial basis for all I believe and write. It is the idea, to quote Proclus, that all things are “full of the gods”: that the Divine is an all-powerful intruder in our daily lives that either haunts or enchants us according to the circumstances. The primitive, “superstitious” Catholicism of my ancestors has a rigorous philosophical basis that I wish to articulate as a kid from the barrio who got a lucky break and can read Aquinas, Nietzsche, Heidegger, St. Basil the Great, and all of the other gifts of high culture. I myself will probably never be able to pray to Juan Soldado with a straight face or cure a person with an egg, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t let those things continue to inform my life and maybe transmit a bit of that spirit to others. 

In the end, I put no opposition to my peculiar version of Catholicism and the one that is more current with most people. Going with your gut, however, is not the same as private interpretation. Private interpretation assumes one’s intellectual superiority to authority. In my case, I cannot conceive of a religion that begins and with ends with authority if we conceive this authority as a thing to be served in itself. There is something more vibrant and primordial to me than that and I embody it in the figure of my grandmother. And, to paraphrase Newman, if I am forced to make religion a subject of after-dinner toasts, I will toast to the Pope if you please. But to my grandmother first, and then the Pope.

[Note: Actually, Spanish soap operas are far superior to their Anglo counterparts. Part melodrama, part action movie,  part tragedy, part social commentary, part comic relief, these dubious works of low culture are operatic in every sense of the word, having a comprehensive scope and sweep that would put Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk  to shame. Aside from having lots of human eye candy, their non-chalant employment of predictable dramatic tropes (poor girl falls in love with rich boy, long lost twin brothers, etc.) liberates them in their ability to work in a thousand different subplots that are often more interesting than the main story. Latin American soap operas are one-stop entertainment juggernauts that are addicting to watch and easy to follow, and are viewed throughout the world from Tierra del Fuego to Ukraine.]



4 responses

30 06 2008
¡Ay caray! I hope this isn’t true « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] course, I suspect that it is, as I have said in the […]

30 04 2008
The Shepherd

Your need to emphasize the greatest aspect of Spanish Soaps: the consistently world class hotties….

30 04 2008

I have nothing to say about Soap Operas, although, if I could, I might watch Spanish SO’s as a way to learn the language, something I really need to do.

About your grandmother, I think your instinct is correct, and I hope you seek her intercession on a regular basis. Like Sean, I too wish I had had a “Catholic childhood”. The bottom line is this: A Christianity shorn of mystery is no Christianity at all and especially, is not CATHOLIC Christianity, and in my case, a quasi-Pentecostal upbringing was a rather poor substitute.

29 04 2008

Maria del Barrio was good with Thalia

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