Some First Things stuff

29 07 2010

First, a political post I can finally get fully behind:

I too have a fervor—a fever, in fact—for political inactivity. I want to be part of a movement that makes electoral politics so boring that rather than having term limits, we’ll need laws requiring politicians to serve their full term. I want to join a party that make politics and government work so dull that political journalists and elected officials dream of leaving their fields for the exciting worlds of actuarial science and telemarketing.

I want to thrown in my lot with others who want to throw a wet blanket over politics and whose desire is to dampen the enthusiasm for all forms of political activity. I want to consort with citizens who are willing to arrest the ardor, dash the devotion, sap the spirit, and zap the zeal from anything that remotely resembles political enthusiasm. I want to create a new party, dedicated to the mastery of the art of anti-propaganda and committed to the conscientious devotion of alert inactivity.

I consider myself to be profoundly a-political, yet with sensibility of a European-style social democrat. As an ex-Trotskyist, I am well aware of the tendency of my fellow ex-Trotskyists (Burnham, Irving Kristol, etc.), to become right-wing hacks after leaving the movement. I have sought to avoid being an apologist for the capitalist leviathan without being under any illusions that the international working class shall be the human race. I still sing the Internationale to myself sometimes. I think it’s pretty catchy, especially if you can sing it in three languages.

I suppose now I am a Platonic republican.

Also, I found this post that I put in my “gangsters need God too” file regarding the Calabrian mafia:

According to a report in Britain’s Telegraph, Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of the Calabrian Diocese of Locri-Gerace has written an open letter to the bosses of the ’Ndrangheta—the Calabrian Mafia—“imploring them to stop using holy shrines for their initiation ceremonies.” The bishop, says the Telegraph, decided to speak out “after more than 300 alleged mobsters—including the 80-year-old ‘Godfather’ Domenico Oppedisano—were arrested in a police blitz earlier this month.” The Telegraph article is accompanied by a screen capture from an Italian police surveillance film showing Oppedisano “being ‘sworn in’ under a statue of the Virgin Mary at Polsi near Reggio Calabria.”

I think one difference between Italy and Latin America is that Italy was more “clericalized” in its Catholicism than Latin America. On the one hand, the clergy had more supervision over what the people did, so the symbols that people employ even in expressing their “folk Catholicism” are the same as those of “clerical Catholicism”. On the other hand, people will employ those symbols in the exact same way that the Latin American, “un-clerical” Catholic does. In this case, while mobsters in Mexico will pray to Jesus Malverde or Santa Muerte for success in their criminal endeavors, the Italian mobster will use an image of the Virgin Mary for the same purpose. Also, even such figures as St. Jude or St. Dismas will also be used for these less than Christian purposes. So the whole idea of a “folk saint” may itself be a construction, for even “approved” saints will be used for unapproved intentions.

Fundamentalism and modernity

14 06 2010

Editorial note: I’m unavailable until Thursday. Posts will continue to appear, but this blog is on auto-pilot

I highly recommend the article, Rush Hour of the Gods by William Dalrymple (found via the Western Confucian blog). The article makes many counterintuitive points that I think any student of modern religion needs to take into consideration. While his analysis of Islam in south Asia was known to me, his analysis of modern Hinduism was particularly informative. Such an “ancient religion” is really not so ancient all things considered, and modernity has come to shape it just as much as it has contemporary Christianity.

My own exercise here is to compare and contrast what is going on with Hinduism and Islam in India with the long evolution of Catholicism in Latin America. In both cases, nationality, technology, scholarship, and the media are striving to define what Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism are on a national and international scale, often in contrast with more local manifestations of these faiths.
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High John the Conqueror : African-American “folk saint”?

4 06 2009


From Bay Area botanica to Muddy Waters

The following is a translation of a prayer I found in a religious store in San Francisco:

In the name of God Almighty. Soul of John the Conqueror, who some call the Great John since you were a great lover and guardian of money, for this reason and because of the hours they are giving you, I ask that you put me in the heart of so-and-so and favored by my Guardian Angel, it be granted to me what I sincerely and of good faith ask you: that my fate and luck change and may the pains and torments of my life cease just as your punishment for your foolish actions and ambitions ceased in purgatory. To the Guardian Angel of so-and-so: do not give him/her tranquility until s/he is by my side.

At first glance, this is another prayer in the midst of many to “questionable” figures who may or may not have existed, such as Jesus Malverde, Maria Francia, or Juan Minero venerated in many places in Latin America. What is more interesting is that this man definitely falls into the category of an “anima sola“: a deceased person whose life was by no means virtuous but is miraculous nonetheless because of his suffering in Purgatory. It is one of the most interesting finds that I have encountered in my botanica hunts.

However, I have begun studying as well the religious traditions of African-Americans, and I have found a John the Conqueror there as well. Indeed, in “rootwork” or Hoodoo, John the Conqueror is a trickster figure who has great power. As it is explained on one website:

Who was John the Conqueror and what is the root named after him? Ethnographers, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life — perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined — was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master supplied many a story with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Bre’r Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu. He gave — only to take away. He bet — and never lost. He played dumb — but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of High John is so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words “John over John” and “John the Conqueror” is a powerful spell of magical protection against being hoodooed.

Like the Catholic binding prayer above, one of the uses of “John the Conqueror root” is for love spells. The blues musician Muddy Waters even wrote a song about it, an excerpt of which you can hear by clicking on this link.

How this tradition got to Mexico and ended up on a “prayer card” sold in a botanica is an interesting question, perhaps one we will never be able to answer. But if it is indeed an African tradition, it is interesting to see how it was incorporated into the Catholic ethos in Mexico and how it evolved in the Hoodoo tradition.

Ars poetica

19 05 2009



Que el verso sea como una llave
Que abra mil puertas.
Una hoja cae; algo pasa volando;
Cuanto miren los ojos creado sea,
Y el alma del oyente quede temblando.

Inventa mundos nuevos y cuida tu palabra;
El adjetivo, cuando no da vida, mata.

Estamos en el ciclo de los nervios.
El músculo cuelga,
Como recuerdo, en los museos;
Mas no por eso tenemos menos fuerza:
El vigor verdadero
Reside en la cabeza.

Por qué cantáis la rosa, ¡oh Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema ;

Sólo para nosotros
Viven todas las cosas bajo el Sol.

El poeta es un pequeño Dios.

-Vicente Huidobro
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Oración de la Sábila

1 04 2009


Sábila Virtuosa, Sábila Bendita,
Sábila Santa, Sábila Sagrada;
Por la virtud que tú le diste a tus Apóstoles
te pido que me alcances esa virtud…
porque te venero y te quiero
para que me libres de los maleficios,
enfermedades, mala suerte.
Te pido que me vaya bien en mis empresas,
en los negocios que comience…
y te pido que ahuyentes de mi casa
el mal y me libres de enemigos ocultos,
donde quiera que estén. Dame dicha, fortuna y dinero…
con todas las facilidades y con el menor esfuerzo,
tu virtud me hará fuerte, famoso, afortunado y dichoso;
no se me interpondrán obstáculos en todo lo que yo ambicione,
quiera o me proponga hacer.
Todo constituirá un éxito halagüeño para mí;
esta virtud divina que Dios te dio,
en Dios creo y en ti confió.
Por todas las virtudes que tú tienes concedidas
Venceré todos los obstáculos que se me presenten
y mi casa se llenará de venturas
con tu virtud sublime, Sábila Santa.

Powerful Aloe, Blessed Aloe, Holy Aloe, Sacred Aloe, by the power that you gave to the Apostles, I ask you to give me that power because I venerate you and love you so that you may free me from curses, illnesses, bad luck, so that everything can go well for me in my daily tasks, in business, and so that you cause evil to flee from my house and free me from invisible enemies wherever they are. Grant me happiness, fortune, and money, with much ease and with the least amount of effort. Your power will make me strong, famous, fortunate, and happy; nothing will be an obstacle to anything that I will strive for, want, or propose to do. All will be a pleasant success for me. This divine force that God has given you, I believe in God and confide in you. By all of the power that has been granted to you, I will conquer all of the obstacles in front of me and my house will be filled with blessings with your sublime power, Holy Aloe.

-This is a prayer common among Mexican curanderos.

The Hanging of Maximon

17 02 2009


About a month back, the Shrine of the Holy Whapping site wrote an interesting article on Maximon, or San Simon, of Guatemala. It is well-worth reading. I have actually encountered this “saint” in front of my baptismal church in Gilroy, Ca., in the form of multiple candles in front of the grotto of the Virgin of Guadalupe there. This was some years back now, and I thought little of it other than, “there go my people again with their Voodoo”. Recently, as you all know, I have been more and more fascinated with this stuff.
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19 11 2008


In Panama, Aguilera Patino speaks of Seniles, a man who was punished for not respecting the sacred command to not to slaughter animals on Good Friday. He was banished to the far ends of the countryside, where his duty is to herd and protect animals hurt by the hand of man. He shows the animals where they can find good watering holes, the safest pastures, the most comfortable places to sleep, and he protects them from hunters on Good Friday.

-Felix Coluccio, Cultos y Canonizaciones Populares de Argentina

One of the major ways for someone to become a folk saint in Latin America is to help people find their lost animals. More to come later.

Hey, you can’t paint that!

22 10 2008

A Baroque Latin American artist’s rendition of the Most Holy Trinity from the Ecce Ego… blog. Search this blog for posts on Filipino folk Catholicism.

Makes me want to finally buy my own picture of la Mano Poderosa, along with novena booklet:

I wish they spoke about that stuff on the Catholic Answers website. You know, the important stuff.

Also, see this post about a convert coming to terms with the ol’ timers of the Catholicism. Good reading.