The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, November 05, 2007

On the Periphery of Roman Catholicism

At the Margins of Theology

In the process of codifying a certain system, the silences can be deafening. That which is considered imperfect, neither here nor there, nor worthy of belief can be discarded in the quest for purity, sobriety, and reason. It is always those who have the power of expression who silence those who have very little of that power. And before we know it, the many colorful things that we had we end up losing, and we substitute them with supposedly ancient visions of the world that are in reality very new creations. That which was in the margins no longer remains in the margins. It is merely erased.

In my own particular family, I have found that my own approach to religion has changed from how my parents and grandparents conceived it. Just I am much more literate and cultured than my parents, so is my faith much more "formed" in a matter of speaking. I have assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon First World culture of the United States, and this fact is not to be lamented. It is inevitable, and to pretend the contrary is at best a patronizing romanticism. The real hubris would be to somehow think that the way I believe is superior to that of my ancestors. In many ways, I think that it is far worse.

One of the ways that I tried to revive this more primordial religious sentiment was to search East, to Byzantine Christianity. Somehow I thought that this pilgrimage East would inspire me with its strangeness and primitive beauty. However, I soon learned that it was just as "Western", just as "modern", just as "rationalist" as modern forms of Western Christianity. The real primitive Christianity, the real "Church of the Fathers" is the Church of my fathers: it is a church of imperfect sinners, always in crisis, and always struggling.

Juan Soldado

Above is pictured the "saint" that my deceased grandmother used to venerate that I spoke of in this post. His name was Juan Castillo Morales, a Mexican soldier from the state of Jalisco convicted and executed for a brutal child rape and murder in Tijuana in 1938. He is known to Mexicans in the borderlands as "Juan Soldado", John the Soldier, and his cult used to be quite prominent all over northern Mexico. After his swift execution three days after the murder under the Fugitive Law in which he was told to run for his life while a firing squad shot him to death, blood began to emerge from his grave and signs began to emerge to ask for prayers for his soul. Some protested that he was framed for the crime by a commanding officer in spite of his confession, and some said that he was an "anima sola" which in Spanish Catholicism is a soul in Purgatory most in need of prayers. Nevertheless, in spite of warning from the official Church, people began to pray for his intercession and these prayers worked, as the below photo testifies:

Above: The chapel of Juan Soldado in Tijuana

Also: This is a rather interesting segment on this subject on YouTube.

As I said in a previous post, when I was growing up, I remember that in my grandmother's shrine in her bedroom, aside from Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, there was also a small altar to a picture of a soldier. A freak encounter with Paul Vanderwood's book on Juan Soldado in a completely random place in the university library sparked again the memory of that mysterious portrait. When I asked my mother about it, she said that my grandmother had small rooms in her backyard she used to rent mostly to men who had come straight from Mexico. When my father went off to Vietnam, these men told my frightened grandmother to pray to Juan Soldado that my father would come back alive. And he did, barely. But from then on, it would appear, my grandmother felt that she had an obligation to the soul of Juan Soldado. And for her, if it weren't for this questionable devotion, I wouldn't be here typing this.

As James S. Griffith puts it in his book, Folk Saints of the Borderlands:

The Catholicism of the upper and professional classes of Mexico probably comes closest to the international norms of the Catholic Church. As we move downwards on the Mexican socioeconomic scale, we also move farther and farther from the formal teachings of the contemporary Church, and we enter a system that, though fully Catholic in its basic values and narratives, seems to have as a primary purpose survival in a hostile world. Another world, however, occupied by potential helpers and potential enemies, is also close at hand. Supernatural help is freely called upon, and dangers such as witchcraft are real and can be dealt with. Much of this emphasis would not seems so strange to mainstream Catholics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century...

It isn't that people are against the Church and its official teachings. Rather, traditional folk or popular Catholicism, with its daily and seasonal rituals, its multitude of saints upon whom one may call, and its means of coping with the results of human nastiness, provides many working-class people with what they feel they need.
(pg. 11)

Letting Silences Speak

Whether or not one agrees with my deceased grandmother's devotion to this questionable figure, one cannot dispute the orthodoxy of it. One can pray to a soul who one thinks is in purgatory and even ask it for favors, supposedly once she reaches Heaven. Perhaps it appears superstitious, perhaps it gives us Catholics "a bad name". Part of me is starting to dispute the wisdom of automatically assuming that the best way to practice Roman Catholicism is to make it conform as closely as possible to the tastes of Protestantism. While perhaps this is a matter of aesthetics and not theology, I would ask why in the back of our minds "real Christianity" conforms more to the tastes of Calvinist Geneva than it does pagan pre-Columbian Mexico. Why is it that the fantastic, the superstitious, and the grotesque are automatically silenced to be replaced with something much more defined, safe, and sterile? This is all the more pressing since the life of most people on this planet does not conform to these values, and I would even say that perhaps it falls under the strong assumption by many European Christians that people of color will never really be able to accept the Gospel fully.

As I have written in another post:

My professor in the history of Brazil class that I am taking has done a great amount of field work in the Brazilian Northeast, and she has lived there for extended periods of time since the 1970’s. She has befriended all sorts of people there from all walks of life, including the clergy.

Many of you are aware of the inroads Pentecostalism is making in Latin America. In a discussion of this phenomenon, my professor contributed something that many members of the Roman Catholic clergy in the Northeast told her. These priests said that much of the pull of this new Protestant phenomenon came from the vacuum caused by the rationalization of Roman Catholicism since the 1960’s. That is to say, the fact that Vatican II wanted to make Catholicism into a religion of “grown-ups” (getting rid of certain devotions, “questionable” saints, etc.) has made people leave the Catholic Church, and it is many of the members of the clergy on the ground who are saying this, not just crazy traditionalists.

The greatest threats to Roman Catholicism, in my opinion, are not any arguments that an agnostic society can throw at it. It is the lack of belief in the miraculous, the wondrous, and the "strange". The Divine must be present not just as a detached watch-maker, but truly as a participant, and sometimes an odd participant, in our day to day lives. If we cannot see it, we are no better than atheists. For this is truly the eye of Faith; it is Faith that works miracles. This does not mean that we need a "name it, claim it" attitude towards our Faith. It does mean that we must conceive of the universe as a much more fascinating and unpredictable place than our unbelieving neighbors.

True, these things will never be defined or even approved of by the Magisterium or any other authority. They do not need to be nor would it be appropriate if they were. But the sum of what we believe is not simply what we have to believe; it encompasses much more than that. In the end, one of my intellectual ambitions is to let the silences of Catholicism sing, the silences of the everyday life of Faith as lived by people like my grandmother. It is about not just reading what is in the letters, but also what is in the margins.


At 6:41 AM, Blogger Archistrategos said...

The greatest threats to Roman Catholicism, in my opinion, are not any arguments that an agnostic society can throw at it. It is the lack of belief in the miraculous, the wondrous, and the "strange".

Wonderfully said. When I visited my grandfather's grave just this past Friday, I was surprised to see that there was already a candle lit, even before we got there. It turned out the family keeping vigil next to lolo's tomb thought he was an anima sola, and therefore prayed for him that he might be loosened from purgatory.

It's unfortunate how my Protestant relatives reacted; they were all basically chiming 'once you're dead, you're dead' and went on about the futility and folly of these prayers (in private, of course). It is indeed strange that the believer today is the one who can disprove as much of the 'supernatural' as he can, and the heathen is one who freely, truly believes in these things of 'superstition'.

It would be interesting to know what your thoughts on the icon of La Trinidad Trifacial (even the so-called 'Andean Trinity' depicting three Jesuses sitting side by side) are. Back here, it has practically been demonized by Protestants, and even some Catholics. I think it's wonderful.

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm always intrigued by your posts, though as a Protestant, I also usually end up disagreeing, even as I enjoy it. I guess it is similar to my reading The Sun Also Rises or even somone like Bukowski. Filled with objections, even perhaps revulsion at times, I still feel that I'm being edified and built up, however ineffable.

With that pre-critical praise (In the South we'd just say "Bless your heart"), I was wondering if you could help me out with this part:

Nevertheless, in spite of warning from the official Church, people began to pray for his intercession and these prayers worked, as the below photo testifies:

Is it the fact that the prayers worked that confirmed the legitimacy of this practice in the people's mind?

How would this sort of principle ever work in other contexts? What if the prayers stopped working eventually?

Is this the means of validating belief in Latin American religion, and if so, can you see why so many Anglo-Protestants find it easy to look down upon it?

To us ("white people") it seems like all the other forms of paganism in the world.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...


If I could answer all your questions, I would be a much wiser man than I am now. The intention of this post is not to attack anyone in particular. I suppose it is just something that I would like people to think about.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would Iamblichus think about the cult of saints?
or Santa Muerte
or your quasi justification of this popular saint of your family San Juan Soldado

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would Iamblichus think about the cult of saints?
or Santa Muerte
or your quasi justification of this popular saint of your family San Juan Soldado

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At 5:20 AM, Blogger bhaktibaya said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, brother! I think only a visceral Catholicism is a Living Catholicism. The more folk elements we add to it, the more alive and human it becomes.


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