Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

Saint Charles

Honestly, I’m not sure where the idea of votive candles started. An educated guess—which will have to do in my state of limited research time—is that candles, like oil lamps, began as a practical necessity in places of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques—these tended to be large rooms and sometimes featured stained glass in their windows. Even if they didn’t, sometimes people want to pray after dark. Especially after dark. In the days before electricity, a lamp or candle was an obvious choice. Over time the practice of lighting votive candles developed. Lighting a candle for someone, living or dead, symbolized saying a prayer for them. The idea is much more common in liturgical branches of Christianity than it is in strongly reformed ones. Still, it’s a comforting idea. The few times that I’ve lit a candle for someone I’ve always felt better for having done so.

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Whenever a practice becomes sacred, parody is shortly to follow. As human beings we seem to be inherently aware that we take ourselves far too seriously far too much of the time. When I go to the grocery store—usually in the aisle with the more “Catholic” ethnic foods—I glance at the large, painted votives for sale. Secretly I’m hoping I might spot one for Santa Muerte, but this far north and east of the border that’s unlikely. Our own version of Saint Death is about to take office anyway. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Charles Darwin votive candle in my stocking this past month. Intended, of course, as a novelty, there’s nevertheless something a bit profound here. What we’re praying for is the continuity of life. Evolution itself is under threat of post-truth science which is soon to receive official sponsorship. Time to light a candle and hope for the best.

I plan to keep my Darwin candle for emergencies. The idea isn’t that the figure on the candle is a deity. Those painted on the candle are the saints who have some influence in the divine hierarchy of this cold universe. When you light a candle you ask that saint to witness your prayer. I sense that many among my own political party have recently rediscovered how to pray. The beauty of a Darwin votive is that it’s non-denominational. We all evolve, whether we admit it or not. So if you can’t get yourself to a church, synagogue, or mosque on the traditional day of worship, Darwin can shed light at any time. And maybe even support a prayer for light in the coming darkness.

Allhallowtide

Allhallowtide is a triduum. No, I’m not writing in tongues. Ecclesiastical language can often be foreign to the secular world, and the fact that it’s All Souls’ Day for some has me thinking about feasts that come in threes. I first heard the word “triduum” at Nashotah House. There, of course, the great spring coalition of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter made the holy triduum of required marathon chapel attendance. It was not unusual to spend a dozen hours in chapel during that stretch. Always considered less important, but perhaps far more human, was the autumnal triduum of Allhallowtide: All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Hallows (All Saints, or Hallowmas), and All Souls’ Day. In Mexican tradition the three days make up the Day of the Dead. For people who live close to the economic edge of perpetual poverty, that makes perfectly good sense. Even for the liturgically literate, however, parsing the triduum of Allhallowtide takes some effort. We all know Halloween, and the title All Saints is self-explanatory. All Souls’ might require some thought.

All Souls’ commemorates the “faithful departed.” We can’t all be saints. (Well, in some traditions all Christians get to use the title, but alas, in the more Catholic world, no.) What about those who’ve died believing, but not earning a place among Ralph Vaughn Williams’ masterpiece? The ordinary, like us? All Souls’ is our day. Since the macabre is considered puerile, what with its possibilities of ghosties, and ghoulies, and one-eyed beasties, the church has continued to give a polite nod to Halloween (at Nashotah it used to be done up in great style) but doesn’t take it seriously. More evangelical denominations say it’s demonic, but in actuality, historically, it is the opposing triduum to that of the spring. Liturgical life holds an incipient balance for those who don’t take things too literally. Understanding our mythologies covers a multitude of sins.

Perhaps this chilly, rainy Allhallowtide in the northeast has me far from the hot and dry Day of the Dead, but I admire the Mexican acknowledgement that something should be done about those who’ve died never knowing affluence. Somewhere just to the north lies one of the most successful (until recent years) economies in the world. Social fragmentation, violence, and drugs (which draw big money from that self-same northern economy) bring many of our fellow North Americans to their knees at the feet of Santa Muerte. The light is fading fast at this time of year, and the wind is ripping the desiccated leaves from their skeletal branches, preparing us for the long chill that is to come. While work prevents too much investment in the liturgical year, I look with a peculiar longing over this triduum, and this soul, in any case, is grateful for a weekend to contemplate it all.

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Making Saints

Some places are inaccessible in the academic world. Or perhaps invisible. I couldn’t help but have Santa Muerte on my mind as I visited the Phoenix/Tempe area of Arizona. I knew from reading Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death that the skeleton saint has a large following in that area. Having been raised in a working class religion in a blue-collar household, I also knew that such trappings might not be entirely visible around a university setting. Arizona State is a huge school and my minimal free time on the trip only permitted a wander-radius of a couple blocks from around the campus. Many universities are, because of their property-value-lowering non-profit status, on the edge of sketchy neighborhoods where work-a-day people live. It didn’t seem that way in Tempe. The areas I reached all seemed to have that adobe-solid middle-class feel to them. Not that I go looking for seedy neighborhoods when I’m traveling by myself, but I do like to see stores that aren’t part of a chain, and to get a sense of local culture. For most academics, the pedestrian devotion to Santa Muerte is below the radar.

The concept has haunted me ever since reading Chestnut’s study—why would people find appealing to death attractive? Santa Muerte has the trappings of a Catholic saint, but she is, plainly put, death personified. She is a favorite among drug lords and criminals, and that is somewhat understandable. Her Hispanic devotees, I realize, often live lives of desperate poverty. The well-heeled saints of conventional religion might not be able to see things from their perspective. Although the Catholic Church continues to make saints, many of the traditional saints predate capitalism. Capitalism creates its own insidious disenfranchisement. I realized this already as a child growing up in a setting where just about everybody I knew had it better than my family did. For some to prosper, others must suffer in such a system. I knew which end I belonged on.

As in my visits to Santa Barbara (a much more conventional saint, by the way), Austin and Houston, in Tempe the Hispanic population was evident mostly in the menial labor sector. The person who makes your hotel bed or brings the hot plate of food to you in the restaurant. The person who mops up your spills or picks up your trash. And they are the ones who’ve made it into the earning bracket of the minimum wage. Why not worship personified death? Does not Santa Muerte remind them that we all face the same rictus grin at the end of our days? Isn’t it best to be on good terms before we reach that inevitable place? It was clear that on my visit I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough from prosperity to see the skeleton saint myself. At Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my 11:30 p.m. flight back to cloudy skies, all the shops were closed. I passed by a boutique with local art, and there I possibly glimpsed her. A small statuette, possibly just the grim reaper, among other Day of the Dead motifs. Was it inspired by Santa Muerte? I would never know, I pondered, as the Hispanic airport attendants, still at work around me, were busy emptying the garbage.

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Dying for Religion

devotedtodeathReligions never lose their ability to surprise. This entire concept of belief is one with which I am intimately familiar but about which I’m completely puzzled. If we’re honest, we don’t know from whence belief comes or why it is so effective in keeping people balanced. (There are fanatics for rationalism just as surely as there are for religious faith.) When I saw R. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, I figured it would be a good read for October, when Halloween comes so readily to mind. Although I’ve studied religions all my life, I’d never heard of Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.” Probably this is because, as a representative of folk religion, Santa Muerte is not an “official” religious figure. Folk religions are what the faithful actually believe, rather than what the religious officials declare that they will believe. Many a deluded bishop would learn to his chagrin, if he deigned to speak with mere laity, that his platitudes count only in the high court of theological heaven. Saint Death is more like the experience of the rest of us.

Chestnut, a scholar of Mexican religions, discovered Santa Meurte while living in Houston. His book is a narrative introduction to the background and history of the religion, its beliefs and practices, and a consideration of what the skeleton saint offers so many Latinos. Although the news in the northern reaches of America often does not bear it, Santa Meurte has regularly made the headlines in southern climes. As a symbol of death, and therefore potential protection from death, Santa Meurte has gained notoriety by her worship being taken up by drug runners and convicts. Mexico’s regrettably long struggle with poverty and sometimes corrupt governments has led to a society in which death is very familiar. As Chestnut demonstrates, Santa Meurte likely has her roots in the Grim Reaperess of plague-ridden medieval Spain, and she has been a somewhat hidden figure in Mexican Catholicism for at least a century or two. Her first public exposure came in 2001, and since then her association with the criminal element has been repeatedly highlighted in the media.

Santa Meurte, however, is a source of consolation for those who have little in life to anticipate but death. Often, in societies driven by the acquisition of wealth, plutocrats forget that justice comes in the guise of the Reaper. To the believer, Santa Meurte is not evil. She is a natural offshoot of the Catholic veneration of saints in a culture where human aspiration is quickly and unfeelingly snuffed out. Those in positions of power claim the Santa is Satan, but they may be looking in the wrong place for evil. Pointing to the Gospel statements that death will be overcome, they overlook the passages that insist on giving away all that you have will make you ready for the kingdom of heaven. Death, even if trumped at the final trump, will greet us all by and by. Santa Meurte is a very practical saint. Chestnut’s book is a good choice to read when the chilly wind shakes the trees for their particular October rattle of dry, lifeless leaves.