Italian American Folklore

8 04 2010

Coming from a family that immigrated to this country, assimilation has always been a subject on my mind. For those who live or grow up in ethnic enclaves, the question always arises as to how one becomes integrally connected to the societal whole. This is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when” and “how”. Perhaps most interestingly to me, I have always wondered what the process was of making a specific ethnic group, such as the Italians, into your basic run-of-the-mill WASP’s that have last names ending in vowels.

Frances Malpezzi and William Clements wrote a book entitled Italian American Folklore: Proverbs, Songs, Games, Folktales, Foodways, Superstitions, Folk Remedies, and More. The title pretty much sums up the book. In a lot of ways, the book is unique in that it shows “Old World” traditions in the state of transition and decline. How does a culture that has existed unchanged for centuries alter itself when faced with a new language, a new political order, and a new societal ethos? And do such conditions in the end lead to the inevitable decline of that cultural identity?
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On the love of God

31 03 2010

A spiritual creature can love God more than himself because the relation of a creature to God is the relation of the part to the whole. A part can love the whole on which it depends for its existence more than it loves itself. The hand moves instinctively to sacrifice itself in protecting the body whose part it is. The citizen willingly gives up his life for the community of which he is a member. So the creature can love the God on whom he depends even more than he loves himself- more so indeed than the hand or citizen in the examples cited. For the creature’s relation to God is no ordinary relation of part to whole. It is a relation of participation, the relation of a participant to the Infinite Existence in whose plenitude it shares. The creature depends on God for everything he is and does. God dwells in the creature through His creative action. In a way God is the creature while transcending it because creature and God are one through the unity of participation. As the ever-present creative source of creature’s being, God is the creature’s good more than the creature himself is. If therefore a spiritual creature loves his own good truly, he must love God more than he loves himself.

-Gerald A. McCool, S.J., From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism





On man and beast

10 03 2010

Let me now bring this letter to an end, but may I first remind you of this one thing, which clearly we should bear in mind: if the wild beasts within us are many, it is not surprising that according to Plato souls are transmigrating from men to beasts. Certainly, we have within us, from the beginning, fuel for desire and something of an animal nature. When we have heedlessly nourished these for a long time, reason is either in some way lulled to sleep, or else it is awake under the cloak of passion and desire. Wherefore, under the human skin, the man himself seems to have been transformed into beasts. Hence Socrates says in Phaedrus, “Indeed I examine myself, Phaedrus. Am I a monster with more heads than Typhon, more full of fire and fury? Or am I a simpler and calmer being, sharing in some divine and favorable destiny, partaking in a quiet understanding?”

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul





On the inherent superiority of Western culture

4 02 2010

Greek wisdom and Roman law were divine gifts that prepared the fullness of time for the coming of the Savior. Only this cultural treasure, after centuries of theological discussions and conciliar definitions, allowed the great Christian dogmas to be formulated with precision. And since they [the neo-modernists] like to speak of the “incarnation”: Just as only the most pure flesh of the Virgin Mary was capable of receiving the Word of God, thus only the “flesh” of Greco-Roman culture was sufficently healthy enough to be animated by the wisdom of the Gospel, and to build the cathedral of Christian cultural, the highest spire of which is the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas. But for the mentality that has today invaded the Church, we have just blasphemed: in Africa, India, and America we have to begin anew. And since there has been a cultural revolution in the Christian West, we have a new task for the next millenium: “A new mobilization is imposed on the Church, in order to confront the task of inculturation of the Gospel in the modern world. In this matter we should embrace the concern of John Paul II: ‘From the beginning of my pontificate I have considered the dialogue of the Church with the cultures of our time an important field of work in which the fate of the world at the end of the 20th century is at play’.”

-Fr. Álvaro Calderón, La Lámpara bajo el Celemín: Cuestión disputada sobre la autoridad doctrinal del Magisterio eclesiástico desde el Concilio Vaticano II, my translation

In spite of my perennialist tendencies, my impulse to post Hindu kirtans and videos of Vodou rituals, I agree 100% with Fr. Calderon’s assessment. Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. If there were any way to get around that, I would have found it by now. But the fact that the Gospel was written in Greek using concepts such as “logos” that had been in formation in the Greek mind for centuries is no mere accident of history. God could have been incarnated in the context of another culture, just as He “could have” been incarnated in a pearl or an ass. But He did not do that; He came into this world at a very specific time and a very specific place, as did His Body, the Church. Even the Fathers of the Church saw this, and there will always be a superiority of the Greek and Latin tongues to all others, just as the Muslims consider Koranic Arabic sacred, or the Jews Hebrew.

That being said, I think that it is profitable to study other forms of religiosity and cultures, since I do think (good crypto-perennialist that I am) that in them are embodied foreshadowing echoes of the Word of God. They also teach us concepts that we, in our sanitized, modern mentality, once understood but some time ago forgot. But this always has to be done in the mind frame of historical hierarchy. God chose to express Himself this way, and we are obligated to keep to that way as much as possible.

As for inculturation itself, it is not an easy process, and it takes centuries to happen legitimately, and not without many setbacks. I have long defended on this blog the idea that even the more “exotic” aspects of Mexican “folk Catholicism” are just as “Western” as the Pope and the Summa. Only after centuries, and not a little violence, did Catholicism become not just the religion of the State, but of the hearts and minds of even the simplest people. Indeed, if you mentioned to me the persistence of indigenous religion outside of remote parts of Yucatan and Chiapas, I would laugh in your face, as would most Mexicans, save the random New Age-style shaman trying to perform a limpia on you in the Zocalo in Mexico City. Catholicism, in its Spanish flavor with a few alterations, is the indigenous religion of Mexico, as much as that frustrates intellectual radicals who would return us to the pristine religion of “Aztlan” and the “Mexicas”.





Reading Hadot four years later

1 02 2010

The genesis of my blogging had little to do with religion. Even now, I intentionally try to avoid all fluffy religious discourse, all affected turns of phrase that seems like “devout-speak” that will get me brownie points in Heaven or at least spring me from Purgatory a few years early. What has really obsessed me is the liberation of thought and action from the modern prison of ideology. From Neoplatonism to folk Catholicism, from art to politics, why I write at this point is really due to an (irreligious?) “spiritual exercise”, an attempt to see the world from another radical perspective. It is, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of philosophy, an attempt to see the world again for the first time, as if from the eyes of a child.

The person who passed on to me this perception is none other that the often cited Pierre Hadot. You see, I was once like the normal “devout” Catholic, thinking that the Church “has all of the answers”, and if only we could be “docile” to it, somehow everything would fall into place. But unlike most, I took it all quite seriously, to the point of becoming a monk. Well, you know that didn’t work out. At some level I still have admiration for successful monastics, and I have faith that somewhere there are those who choose to live that life who are the “real deal”. I know that this life, however, isn’t for me, not because I have concluded that it is “not my vocation” (as if God sent me a telegram saying to get out of my monastery post-haste), but rather I am skeptical that anyone can live that life in the context in which we find ourselves. But that is a discussion for another time. My own coming to terms with the fact that I would have to “live normally” brought me to the question of whether or not just living your life could be a profound exercise in wisdom. To this question, the French philosopher Pierre Hadot replies in the affirmative.
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The Church as Machine

29 10 2009

veil

It has been two and a half years since I posted the following essay, but I still think it makes some good points. While I have expanded quite a bit on what I think the answer is, I think I conceive of the problem in similar terms: a mechanistic and technocratic drive in man that infiltrates even religious thinking itself.

Originally posted here

Recently, I finished reading Pierre Hadot’s newest book, The Veil of Isis, which is a thought-provoking reflection on the concept of Nature from Heraclitus to the present. More specifically, Hadot uses the fragment of Heraclitus, “nature likes to hide itself”, to trace how man has approached the world around him from ancient Greece to the present day. As a paradigm, he uses the two mythological figures of Prometheus and Orpheus to analyze how poets, philosophers, and scientists have either viewed nature as a mystery to be revered or a specimen to be dissected. The book thus centers on the dichotomy that emerges between veiling and unveiling, personified in pagan iconography of the veil of the goddess Isis/Artemis/Diana.
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Window – Roof – House – Soul

23 09 2009

Gocsej_village_house_backyard_2

Michael Carroll in his book, Veiled Threats, tells of the following:

Gian Matteo Gilberti, bishop of Verona… instructed his priests to root out superstition, and singled out in particular “the practice of uncovering the roof so that the soul [of the dead] can get out, something that suggests the soul could be held back by a roof.” In fact, Italians have long believed that the human soul has a physical substance and so can be blocked by physical barriers like a roof. This is why those present at a death leave an exit for the soul of the dead person by removing a slat from the roof or opening a window. The fact that diocesan synods throughout Italy continued to condemn these practices into the modern era… is an indication of just how rooted and widespread this view was.

“A quaint superstition”, you might think. Mircea Eliade, however, further elaborates:

the soul of the dead person departs though the chimney or the roof and especially through the part of the roof that lies above the “sacred area”. In cases of prolonged death agony, one or more boards are removed from the roof, or the roof is even broken. The meaning of the custom is patent: the soul will more easily quit the body if the other image of the body-cosmos, the house, is broken open above. Obviously all these experiences are inaccessible to nonreligious man, not only because, for him, death has become desacralized, but also because he no longer lives in a cosmos in the proper sense of the word and is no longer aware that having a body and taking up residence in a house are equivalent to assuming an existential situation in the cosmos.

The Sacred and the Profane

If we are to give any creedence to Eliade, institutional spiritual institutions are not always the best apparatus in preserving the ancient religious ethos. It is probably not to be doubted that such an Italian practice originated with paganism, but the reasoning behind it (again, if we give Eliade creedence) transcends even the tired pagan/Christian divide.

For Eliade, reality only has meaning insofar as it conforms to the symbols of the divine. Once the language of these symbols breaks down, even the spiritual gatekeepers begin to conceive of the universe in increasingly desacralized terms. That is perhaps behind the sectoralized and atomized character of religion today, “orthodox” or not. In a place where even basic religious paradigms are separated from everyday life, any sense of continuity with the past becomes boderline farcical. Quomodo sedet sola civitas