Santa Muerte


I have a master’s degree in theology, and one of the things that has always intrigued me is what happens when there is a meeting and melding of cultures, particularly with respect to their religious beliefs.  One of the most interesting I think is the varieties of faith that have grown up around Central and South America as a result of the mixture of Catholicism and the belief of the native peoples.  Santa Muerte is a striking example of the product of this melding.  She is thought to be the combination of the Virgin Mary and the goddess Mictecacihuatl.  She certainly appears to be sinister; however, Latin American cultures typically have a very different relationship with death than we do here in the States.  To us death is an enemy.  To them, it is often an old friend, or a favorite uncle.  The devoted pray to Santa Muerte for healing, for a good death, for a speedy journey to the afterlife.

What fascinates me is how this take on religion, on what the divine is and how it relates to us, illuminates aspects of faith, of God, that we might not have otherwise considered.  Catholics who pray the Hail Mary ask for her to be with them at the hour of their death.  Considering this devotion to Santa Muerte gives a certain depth to that prayer, a deeper understanding of what those words mean, why her presence at the hour of death is something that we desire.

[If you would like to see more photographs an learn more about Santa Muerte, this article is a good place to start.]

Heavenly Bodies

Click on the image for more. Hat tip Who Killed Bambi.

(Note: I get religious here.  If you find religious talk uncomfortable or offensive, feel free to enjoy the rest of my blog 🙂 )

I love these images from photographer Paul Koudounaris.  I’ve actually always loved relics.  Part of it is, of course, because I have a macabre streak a mile wide (as anyone who has read my stuff or followed this blog may attest).  Part of it, though, is that the practice of venerating relics is a deeply Catholic practice, and I love the theology behind it.  Catholics are a physical people.  We believe that our salvation is through the Word made flesh, who lived and died for humanity.  That the church — that is, the people of the faith — is Jesus Christ on earth.  And our central sacrament is the consumption of the Body and Blood, which we believe is made the actual body and actual blood of Christ (transubstantiation is a tricky wicket, which I won’t go into here.  If you’d like to know the specifics, feel free to ask in the comments).  So these bodies of the holy men and women are adored and adorned as not only touched by the holy, but suffused with it.

If you think about it, though, this is not only a Catholic practice, but a human one.  Think of the various political figures who have been preserved, from the pharaohs in Egypt to Lenin.  Sometimes there are religious beliefs at work, but sometimes the reasons are entirely secular.  Recently a cloth that had St. John Paul II’s blood on it from when he was shot went missing.  The level of derision online for those “freaky Catholics” was…well, entirely predictable, actually.  Thing is, though, is that something similar has happened with the pink dress that Jackie Kennedy was wearing when her husband was assassinated, that was covered in the president’s blood and brains.  People have been fascinated with and clamoring to see it for decades.  Imagine the reaction if it was discovered that the dress was stolen or destroyed.

I think we all have an attachment to the tangible.  It can be pathological, such as in the case of hoarding.  But I think it can also be important to recognize that the holy is not just some remote nebulous concept.  It is all around us, in the physical world we touch and breathe and are an integral part of.

Not all who wander are lost

There was no post last week because we were in Illinois for Northwestern’s commencement.  My husband completed his PhD in Astrophysics last August, which was too late for him to participate in graduation activities with the class of 2012. Hence, he did it this year, voluminous robes and silly hats and all.  I’m incredibly proud of him.  His journey has been long and arduous, and his tenacity and pure, bullheaded stubbornness is amazing and admirable.

My own academic journey has been somewhat different.  Whereas Pete majored in astronomy as an undergrad and single-mindedly pushed toward a PhD in astronomy through rounds of rejection and years of toil, I majored in philosophy and pretty much knew that I wasn’t cut out to do much more with it.  By graduation I had an interest in studying theology and possibly becoming an Episcopal priest like my grandmother.  I was advised to get a taste of the real world first before pursuing seminary, so I got a job after undergrad.  A couple years later, I was still interested in theology, so I did a two year Master of Theological Studies degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA (The school was absorbed by Boston College a couple years later).  I wanted to do a PhD, but it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.  In retrospect, that’s a good thing.  The academic market, particularly in the humanities, is brutal, and I would have spent a lot of money (actually, borrowed a lot of money) for a degree that probably wouldn’t have gotten me a job.  Not to mention I had a young family, and if finding a job for one academic is difficult, finding jobs for two academics at the same institution…well, it happens, but that’s the exception.

So, I decided to cultivate my writing.  I can write anywhere, which is extremely useful as we follow Pete to post-docs and, god willing, professorships.  I have a great amount of flexibility, so Pete and I can work out childcare between the two of us.  And writing is something I’ve always loved, something I did even when I was studying philosophy and theology.  It makes me happy.  Which is good, considering I make almost no money doing it.

My path is really atypical, though.  There was a time when, if asked what I did, I would say I was an unemployed theologian.  I have this degree, and I’m not doing anything with it, right?

Well, not really.  One of the beauties about writing is that nothing in your past is useless.  The phrase “grist for the mill” is hopelessly cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  All of your experiences, your studies, your loves and your fascinations, all of it weaves into your stories.  I’ve found that I bring a lot of theology and philosophy into my work.  For instance, I have a science fiction piece I call “Incarnation” where I explore the mind-body problem.  Another piece I’m working on now, more mainstream, concerns the capacity of people to be simultaneously admirable in some ways and worthy of condemnation in others, and whether those two sides can be separated, or if the admirable qualities are irrevocably tainted by the not so admirable ones.

I might not be writing articles or teaching classes on theology or philosophy.  But I’m telling stories that raise the same questions, that will hopefully get people thinking about the same issues.  That’s how I’m using my degree.