Regnum Mortis

17 11 2008

Conclusion: A Morning at the Movies, Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Santa Muerte

Weekdays for me can be a little hectic now. So if I need to catch up on some activities that I’d like to do during the week, I have to do it on Saturday morning. Most of the blog entries for the week are written in one or two sittings on the weekend. This time, however, I wanted to watch my new DVD on the cult of Santa Muerte. A very well-made production narrated by Gael Garcia Bernal, I can honestly tell you that if you watch the trailer above, that is pretty much all you need to know about the movie. Its one main weakness is that it focuses only on the cult to Saint Death as manifested in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. While one realizes that the Mexican film crew would have liked to expand its geographical range but couldn’t due to lack of funds, they nevertheless do a good job with what they have. It was a real eye-opener for me in many ways.

First, there is one correction that I need to make. The documentary opens with the historical blurb that the oldest image of Santa Muerte is actually in the state of Hidalgo and dates back to the eighteenth century. This statue, still in existence and the object of pilgrimage by many Santa Muerte faithful, was originally an image of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that became the personification of death itself. It was in a church originally, but when the friars realized that people were worshipping death through the statue, it was moved to a private residence where it has been ever since. A similar story is one already told in this series of St. Paschal Baylon in the exact same avatar of a hooded skeleton.

Overall, the documentary gave me a far more nuanced view of the cult to Santa Muerte than my other sources. (I should say here that when I say, “cult”, I mean it in the sense of the Spanish word, “culto” or cult of the saints. In Spanish, what we would call a “cult” would be translated as “secta”.) In my last installment on the cult as manifested in a popular magazine, I saw a highly secularized, highly exclusivist version of the veneration of the Grim Reaper. This is not at all surprising because that is what it takes to sell magazines. In this movie, what one sees is normal folk just like my grandmother who have an altar to Santa Muerte as well as their altars to St. Jude, St. Lazarus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, etc. The fact is, because it has no hierarchy, no set of doctrines, and no real official history to speak of, there is really no way to say that the cult to Santa Muerte is bad because it believes in X, Y, or Z. Indeed, the scenes of the rosary to Santa Muerte in the film were ones of any other rosary, and it even ended with an “Ave Maria Purisima”. In a word, at least in this film, most people saw it as a devotion in a world where worship of the Trinity, the Virgin, and the saints was a given. Santa Muerte was just one saint among them.

I really like the little speech given by one of the guys in the above clip who says that he doesn’t ask Santa Muerte for eternal life, but for a good death. No one, he says, wants to die in a gruesome manner, either stabbed in the streets of Mexico City or alone in a sterilized hospital in the hands of the marvels of modern medicine. I ask St. Jospeh for this in my rosary, but he happens to ask the Reaper herself. Compared to our country where young men his age make it a habit never to think about death, such a simple discourse speaks volumes.

I have to address the priest’s contention that the cult to Santa Muerte is a veiled form of Satanism, one that dupes its followers into worshipping the devil. In this way, I am making a retraction of what I have written on this blog before. The priest argues that since Christ conquered death on the Cross, to worship death is to worship Christ’s enemy, and thus the devil himself. It’s a good argument, but it only tells part of the story. While many do worship Santa Muerte as a personification of death itself, and these people have long ago cast off any identity as Christians, most of the devotees here seem to think that Santa Muerte is the angel of death spoken of in certain passages in the Bible. She is a creature of God, not replacing Christ, but in His service.

Here we have to go a bit deeper into how modern Christianity conceives of the world. Modern theologies are essentially deist. They tend to see the world as a big clock that God wound up back at the beginning of the world that sort of tick-tick-ticks away automatically until time runs out and Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. Historically, that is not how the Church and ancient peoples saw the issue. In the ancient cosmovision, things moved because God moved them through the mediation of what we would today call angels. The planets had their angels, nations had their angels, and of course we human beings have our own personal angels. So when God does something in the physical cosmos, He doesn’t just jumb right in, roll up His sleeves, and get right to it. No. The lex divinitatis states that lower things are moved by something in the ontological sphere directly above it. While it was the Word Incarnate Himself who came to redeem us on the Cross, that does not now mean that angels are free to sit on their wings and do nothing. All good and bad things in the world involve the actions of angels, good and bad.

In this sense, it is really not that far-fetched that one angel is in charge of gathering the souls at the point of death. And if we can pray the St. Michael’s prayer at the end of every traditional Low Mass, why can’t you pray to her too? After all, an angel is an angel, right? What we may have here is a case where the official Church has forgotten its own cosomology while the common folk have preserved it. In this sense, it is perfectly orthodox for me to pray to the angel who keeps the planet Juptier in orbit or guards the fate of this nation, just as it is a pious exercise for me to pray to my guardian angel every morning.

Here I admit that the imagery and some of the aspects around the cult to Santa Muerte are unappealing and not in harmony with Christian imagery. The idea of the angel of death as a female skeleton is a little out there in left field. It is probably best if the cult remains unofficial, as many say it always has been, and that people keep it “on the down-low”, so to speak. But in a church that now has little idea why it prays to saints instead of just going “directly to Jesus”… in a church where a saint is increasingly seen in official sectors as merely the “Christian of the week”… in a church that is slowly losing any sense of a truly Christian universe, lighting a candle to the Grim Reaper may be a necessary act of piety. While many accuse those Catholics who venerate Santa Muerte of being poorly catechized dupes, I would accuse many in the hierarchy and learned theologians of being “poorly catechized” when it comes to how the Christian cosmos actually works. Therefore, I retract my outright condemnation of the cult that I have written previously on this blog. Maybe if official Catholicism ever got its act together again, I could side with it on this issue. But if there are many devotees who are good Catholics who want to ask Santa Muerte for favors, all power to them. I may never do it myself, but I am willing to defend it on principal.

The purpose of this series was for me to come to grips with my grandmother’s devotion to Santa Muerte, and how la Flaquita has been dancing around in my sub-consciousness since I was a boy. I now realize what I have stated above is the way I would like to think my deceased grandmother believed in Santa Muerte. It wasn’t an exclusive cult at all; if anything, she was just a minor hanger-on beside her picture of Juan Soldado, whose picture I carry around in my wallet. Chances are, she never did any of the weird things seen in this film like offering Saint Death a cigarrette. She was just one saint amongst the other Christs, Virgins, angels, and animas that she had floating around the house. Better the bitter imagery of the inevitible end of all flesh than the happy-clappy celebrations of Resurrection and automatic canonization that you get in much of the rest of the Church. The cult to Saint Death is an imperfect devotion for an imperfect Church with an imperfect hierarchy in an imperfect world.

In the end, if people want to use it for Satanic purposes, they can and no one will stop them. I can’t tell you how many radical Berkeley feminists have the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging on their walls thinking that she is really an Aztec goddess. On the other hand, one can see the cult as preserving part of our Catholic heritage that the mainstream Church is increasingly neglecting; one that is realistic about our entry, travels, and parting from this valley of tears. Life for many is ugly, death is especially ugly. That is the message of the Spanish Baroque crucifix, the Pietà, and the old Requiem Mass, and it is a lesson that the Christian people took to heart. Just because the hierarchy changed its mind and decided to teach the universal optimism of “Christian Resurrection” (celebrating funerals in white vestments and so forth), this doesn’t mean that the people are going to march right in lock step with them as if they were a bunch of trainees at boot camp or frightened Jesuit novices. In this case, it is the people, in a distorted and confused way, who are keeping the traditions that the powerful and erudite have discarded. In the end, this is one of the most valuable lessons of all, one best summarized by Blaise Pascal in the Pensées:

Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. We must not sleep the while.




8 responses

19 11 2008

Glad I came across your blog. This has been a very interesting series.

I agree that there’s a certain amount of disconnect between people who identify as “traditional” and the stuff I remember, or that my mother remembers, from childhood. I come from an area where nobody (except the odd visiting Italian or Hispanic) wore veils to church unless they were a nun, until beehive hairdos and Jackie O. made them fashionable. You look at pictures of Catholic women from here, you see everybody wearing cute little hats. After Jackie O. went away but hats were still gone, women who bothered wore small square scarves over their hair, the same as my mom wore out in the wind. Needless to say, this is not the picture presented by local traditionalist women. (Except for a few tough old ladies with cute old hats.)

I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that lace veils (nearly always called mantillas and nearly always not, in the strict sense) have become a symbol and devotional aid — maybe even a devotional object — and really do have deep meaning for these folks. Wearing one would be silly for me, but it isn’t for them.

The other thing is that — if something is strange to someone in modern society, they distrust it if it can’t be easily explained in words. However, there are plenty of things they accept and can’t explain in words, but they never notice this and so aren’t bothered by it. Similarly, a lot of people talk airily about how they don’t believe urban legends and commonly held myths — but pretty soon, you find out that they do, but it’s just a different subset. Academic myths are particularly entertaining and hard to stamp out.

The last thing I was thinking about was that, really, a lot of this stuff isn’t dead in modern Catholicism in America. You just have to look in odd places; and again, a lot of people don’t realize when they’re doing folk Catholic stuff, because it’s so much part of their lives that they don’t think of it as anything different (unless they run into somebody who doesn’t do it that way). For example, I always thought as a kid that everybody in America who was Catholic got their stockings filled on St. Nicholas’ Day. I was very surprised when I went to Catholic school to find out that it was not so. (Though since the order of sisters that taught at my school had originally come from the same part of Germany that the German side of my family did, we did celebrate St. Nicholas Day at my school with candy and pictures of stockings.) Of course it would originally have been shoes, but things do adapt and change. 🙂

I did know that Catholics in other countries did different things, though. My mom had a book on Christmas around the world which was very informative about these things, though not as comprehensive as I once thought. Anyway, my feeling as a kid was that we really needed to adopt most of these customs all at once, and I did in fact try to convince my mother that I should dress up as St. Lucy with a ring of lit candles on my head, and that we should have lit candles on our Christmas tree. Seeing as I had once managed to burn myself badly while blowing out candles on a birthday cake, I guess it’s not surprising that I failed on both these points. Also, no luck getting to celebrate the Three Kings in any other way than taking down the Christmas decorations. Sigh.

(OTOH, my mother herself decided to cook Hoppin’ John on New Year’s as well as pork and sauerkraut. So we’ve got good luck pretty well covered, there!)

My feeling about the saints is largely “the more the merrier”, also. Most of the books about saints I read as a kid were pretty strong on miraculous events and who was patron of what.

St. Martin de Porres really lost out, though. Until I started reading pages in Spanish, I had no idea that he had done anything miraculous! (And I think this was by design of his popularizers in the English-speaking US — in fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of Latin American saints are “toned down”.) I’m angry about this, honestly. It’s one thing to be ghettoized as just the black saint who does the same good works as every other saint, and another to be a saint who teleports around and helps animals. (I can understand why they didn’t want to get into the racial stuff with little kids, but there was plenty of Cinderella stuff treated in the stories of saints like Genevieve and bad stuff with Augustine; so I don’t know why they didn’t come clean about his dad.)

19 11 2008
Ian Woolcott

This is a fantastic series. Thanks.

19 11 2008

Sorry if that last post was too off topic. I also meant to add: nice surprise ending to this mini-novela.

19 11 2008

The problem is that when people talk about the “pre-Vatican II” days, what they actually mean is America in the 1950s and early 60s.

I know there has been some deep soul searching on this blog as to what constitutes traditional catholicism. While I have never self-identified as a traditionalist, I would like very many things to regain the appearance that they had in America in the 1950s. But to me that isn’t the core of traditionalism, and therefore I might identify as a nostalgic, but not as a traditionalist.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but traditionalists is more than just about praxis, but about orthodoxy as well, and most traditionalists have some major disagreements with the teachings of the Vii fathers, not just what happened after. There is legitimate discussion in some circles as to whether the NO is valid, about Vii teaching on religious liberty, etc. (I’m not even about to go down that road, so I stick to being nostalgic.)

Doesn’t that not answer the question what is traditional catholicism? Isn’t it at heart a matter of doctrine, albeit with tons of inked spilled on this or that aesthetic of the latin mass, etc.? The word traditional may be a misnomer in the great big crunchy context of universal catholicism over the past 50 years, but nonetheless, it’s a nod toward the fact that traditionalists wish to maintain some aspects of the pre-Vii church doctrine that now appear threatened? Mantillas in hand, or not.

17 11 2008


So is the “traditionalist Catholic” culture essentially Archbishop Lefebvre’s idea of how Catholicism should be? Since the first FSSP priests came from the SSPX, logic assumes that they would have brought much of the latter’s way of doing things with them. I would have a hard time believing that pre-Vatican II Spanish Catholicism or African Catholicism resembles what I experience every Sunday at an FSSP parish. The problem is that when people talk about the “pre-Vatican II” days, what they actually mean is America in the 1950s and early 60s. Granted, Lefebvre was in Africa during that time, but he also seemed to have a very specific idea of what “pre-Vatican II” meant as well.

17 11 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“The Catholicism seen in such circles is curiously homogeneous and exhibits little of the local variations that one would have experienced in the pre-Vatican II world.”

Reminds me a lot of my seminary days with the SSPX. I went to seminary in Latin America, where if felt that the priests there felt it was their duty to pass on the ethos of 20th century French integrism to their Latin American students. There was a lot of variations of Spanish Catholicism that were displaced by what was deemed to be more correct and in the spirit of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Although we did do things like begin the rosary with an act of contrition, as is done in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.

17 11 2008

Reading this post made me wonder what exactly is “traditional Catholicism?” Going to a TLM, wearing a chapel veil, objecting to altar girls and extraordinary ministers, all seem to represent “traditional Catholicism” on the Internet, but statistically speaking the people who engage in these activities are a very small demographic. The Catholicism seen in such circles is curiously homogenous and exhibits little of the local variations that one would have experienced in the pre-Vatican II world. Folk religion seems to be quite traditional, but such devotions are written off as paganism by Internet Catholics of all stripes. Given this, “traditional Catholicism” as it currently exists seems to be a curiously modern invention, much like Protestant fundamentalism developed as reaction to very specific intellectual and theological developments that were occurring in the Western world. I’ve seen posts on traditionalist forum that ask whether Office X is “more traditional” than Office Y, but what does that really mean? Is being a traditional Catholic mean exclusively attending a TLM or does it mean lovingly maintaining twenty different saints, some official and some not?

Very thought provoking post. Keep up the good work.

17 11 2008
Fr. Anthony

Every time I see the 1986 movie “The Mission”, I have been impressed by the words of the Cardinal Visitor saying: “The Indians might have preferred that the sea and the wind had not brought us”. In the words of Christ, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”

Bringing Christianity to Latin America would seem to have been less out of a desire to bring goodness to those people than to take slaves and plunder natural resources. Plus ça change…. The only difference is having the technology to chop down more trees faster!

Unless the institutional Church can start getting its act together, perhaps it is best to leave people in peace with their “natural religion” and perhaps find their way to a happier afterlife.

I read the words of Christians squabbling about which is the “true church” and really begin to wonder. As a priest, I would say, let folk religion regulate itself, and it is only on that basis – not on sanitized rationalism – that people may one day discover Christ and what about Him really stands out.

What is better? Some weird pagan religion or western materialism that has just about killed the soul of man?

Keep up the good work, Arturo.

Fr. Anthony

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