Saints: When They Look In The Mirror We See Us

Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America. Frank Graziano. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xii + 322 pp.


Growing up in a southern Italian Roman Catholic family as I did, saints were like members of the family. They made their presence felt either through the images we had of them around the house or as invisible beings in a world that was as much populated by these disembodied sacred personages as it was by my embodied family and friends. Back then, what fascinated me most about saints were their supernatural powers and their heroic ability to control their emotions and appetites, or so it seemed. It was not until I first saw actual photographs of St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)—a young French Catholic girl who lived her life in obscurity; who entered the cloistered Carmelite convent of Lisieux at age 15; who died of Tuberculosis at age 24; and who was canonized in 1925 (see Furlong 2001 [1987]; Harrison 2003)—that the scales were removed from my eyes. It was then that I realized saints were (and are) much more than how they were depicted through their images on holy cards, icons and as statues. Indeed, saints were also more than larger than life, fantastic figures portrayed in the "hagiographies" written about them, replete as they are with miracles and superhuman feats of virtuous living, all designed to instill in the believer both devotion as well as the imitation of their lives (Heffernan 1988).

In my adult years, both because of my scholarly interest in vernacular religion and the cult of the saints and for personal spiritual interest, I took to reading critical biographies of the saints. I sought to deconstruct the personalities and lives of saints such as St. Augustine of Hippo (Brown 1969; Wills 1999), St. Teresa of Avila (Medwick 1999) and St. Gemma Galgani (Bell and Mazzoni 2003). I did so as a way of gaining a more sober understanding of the lives of these strange figures that had such a profound effect up on me as a young man. It was upon reading these critical biographies and seeing actual photographs of St. Therese that I began to realize that saints are real people with a whole range of human emotions, vulnerabilities, problems and shortcomings that most other human beings share with them to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, a certain kind of healthy disenchantment took place, at the same time that my fascination with saints increased, this time simply because they seemed as human, as neurotic and as vulnerable, to the vicissitudes of life as the rest of us are.

Similar to most southern Italians and other peoples from the Mediterranean, Latin America and the Caribbean, my family's Catholicism was centered more at home, revolving at times around a domestic shrine rather than the institutional Catholic Church per se. When it came to saints, we exhibited a certain logic of reversal that sociologist Michael P Carroll says departs from that which the official Catholic Church teaches with regard to saints and the quality of our relationships with them, with Jesus, who was God incarnate, and with the Virgin Mary (Carroll 1992: 14-29). Latria, or worship, was the proper relational attitude we were to have toward Jesus and the Trinity; hyperdulia, or extraordinary veneration was the proper relational attitude we were to have to the Virgin Mary; and, dulia, or veneration, was the proper relational attitude we were to have when it came to the saints.

Yet, despite this hierarchal ordering by the official Church, for southern Italians, Carroll suggests that the order was reversed (1992: 15). He gives many reasons for this. The central reason, however, is because more than Jesus or the Virgin Mary, saints are more approachable and closer to the nitty-gritty elements of life in all of their messiness. Because they were once human in a way, according to this logic, Jesus and the Virgin Mary were not, saints can and do relate to our pain and our suffering, our weaknesses and our faults up close. Because saints are less busy with maintaining the order of the Cosmos as God the Father and Jesus His son are, and because the Virgin Mary is not as easily approachable about the sexual arena of life due to her virginal status, it is to the saints that we turn to plead our cases, to make our deals, and to ask their intervention in the Heavenly court. "A saint, in other words, is someone close and accessible" (Carroll 1992: 26).

While the context is not southern Italy but rather Spanish America, there is a similar logic or reversal at work in Frank Graziano's Cultures of Devotion, Folk Saints of Spanish America (2007). As ethnography, Cultures of Devotion is a work of "thick description," as this now ubiquitous concept made famous by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973: 3-30) is used to describe an ethnographic work that strives to penetrate the deepest levels of meaning of whatever may be the subject matter under investigation. In Graziano's case it is the existence of various "folk" saints; the devotees, shrines and devotional practices associated with the respective saint; and, the sacred biographies (or hagiographies) orally transmitted or written about them.

With the exception of the Introduction and Conclusion, each chapter of Cultures of Devotion, of which there are seven, is dedicated to a particular saint. None of these saints would be easily recognizable by most Catholics outside of Latin America—with the exception of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas in the United States—saints such as San La Muerte, Gaucho Gil, Sarita Colonia, Difunta Correa, Niño Fidencio, and Niño Compradito.

The Roman Catholic Church has officially canonized none of these saints. In two cases, that of San La Muerte and Niño Compradito, there is considerable doubt as to whether or not they were ever historically situated people. Devotion to these saints is certainly not limited to specific countries in South or Central America or only the southwestern United States. Nevertheless, as Graziano notes, most have their origins in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Mexico. The majority of the cults of these saints covered in Cultures of Devotion are in Argentina, thus my drawing a parallel between the reversed logic that Carroll associates with southern Italian Catholicism is not as far fetched as the reader may think, given that large numbers of Italians emigrated to Argentina in the late nineteenth century and for a good part of the twentieth century too.

Graziano does a thorough job of integrating into each chapter the diverse local hagiographies and devotional literature about each saint—some of them contesting and counterbalancing each other. But what really brings each of these saints to life is the interaction Graziano documents between the saints, their devotees, and the activities that take place at each saint's shrine or chapel. Here, Graziano illustrates, even if not intentionally or consciously on his part, the complex dynamics of what scholars have termed "lived religion" (see Hall 1997 and Orsi 2004), a burgeoning and interdisciplinary genre within the academic study of religion.

Despite discouragement and/or condemnation by the official Catholic Church hierarchy, devotees of the folk saints that Graziano highlights understand themselves to be thoroughly Catholic. In some instances the official Church actively legislates against the existence of the shrines and chapels dedicated to these saints and to the public liturgical and private devotional practices that take place within their walls. Yet, from the perspective of "lived religion", Graziano underscores the creative agency that these Catholic devotees possess with regard to their saints. Erroneously, some scholars of lived religion have rushed to make too facile a distinction between "practice"—in other words what the "people in the pews" actually do in their devotion to the saints—and the official theologies, dogmas and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Magisterium.

On the one hand, it is true, as Graziano writes, that folk saint devotees are actively resisting the authority and control of the official Church over their devotional lives when they participate in devotion to saints that have not, nor will officially ever be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. For many of these folk saints are morally ambiguous characters from the Catholic point of view. This is especially so for the Robin Hood like saints such as Gaucho Lega (Graziano 2007: 122), "Frente" Vital, and Pedro Perlaita (Graziano 2007: 123-125)—all minor "folk saints" mentioned by Graziano within the context of Chapter Two on the cowboy folk saint "Gaucho Gil". With other folk saints there is good reason to suspect, as Graziano rightly does, that they never existed at all. San La Muerte, a Grim Reaper type figure, and Niño Compradito are good examples of the latter (Graziano 2007: 77 & 217). Though even in this regard, to elevate non-historical figures to the level of sainthood is not outside of Catholic practice. "Not all saints were […] Christian," Kenneth Woodward reminds us, "In some cases they were figures out of texts" (1990: 60).

On the other hand, devotees of these folk saints are doing exactly what Catholics have done historically, and obviously still do, for centuries before the institutional Catholic Church assumed total control of the canonization process—canonizing saints by popular acclaim (Woodward 1990: 50-52)—a point Graziano makes in the frontispiece of the Cultures of Devotion, where he writes: Vox populi, vox dei.

As the title of this brief review suggests, the relationship between a saint and devotee, whether officially canonized by the Catholic Church or not, is in a sense a mirror exercise not unlike the one in which I participated as a young man in an undergraduate acting class. The purpose of the exercise is to mirror, as closely as possible, each and every unanticipated movement of one's partner and vice versa. Since I did not know what my partner would do next, I had to be especially attentive to her every gesture while at the same time keeping the focus on myself to make certain that I was correctly mirroring her. A similar exercise takes place, I suggest, when a devotee encounters a saint's hagiography whether orally transmitted or in written form.

When paired up with a particular saint whom he or she encounters through the tale of the saint's life, the devotee's life and the saint's life intermingle. Thus a devotee locates her- or himself, the conditions and circumstances of her or his life, no matter how ambiguous or ambivalent, in the hagiography of the saint. Standing before each other, the mirror game begins. As the saint looks at the devotee, and then in trying to anticipate and reflect the saint's every move, the devotee must watch his or her own movements. In so doing, the saint's life and the devotees life become "braided" (Orsi 2004: 9) so that it is difficult to tell one life from the other. In my own work I refer to this braiding of the saint's life and the devotees as "processual hagiography" (Savastano 2002: 77).

In each of the chapters of a particular folk saint, rich with the braiding together of the saint's life and the devotee's, Graziano captures the moral ambiguity that more accurately reflects the reality of human life and the life of the saint who has been mythologized in the hagiographic process. And this is what makes Cultures of Devotion the richly textured book that it is.

As has been pointed out by Chris E. Garces in his own review of Cultures of Devotion in the recent issue of Anthropology and Humanism (2007: 212), Graziano is not an anthropologist and, therefore, does not sufficiently "critique or engage in depth with the imposition of secular idea(l)s on his own religious interpretations of saintliness" (2007: 216). I am inclined to agree with him. What Graziano fails to do in this really fascinating book is, as the ethnographer, to locate himself within the text. What I do not know and would want to know, specifically because in my own style of ethnographic research it is crucial to include my own subjectivity in the writing because I am coeval with my informants as I conduct my research, is to what degree Graziano actually participated in the cultures of devotion which he explores in this ethnography. In reading Cultures of Devotion, I do not get a clear sense of what Graziano thinks and feels about his interlocutors or how they feel about him, and how he processes what he encounters in the field.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of this reviewer what Graziano does do, and very well at that, is open up for his readers a window onto the spiritual, emotional lives and the rich material cultures of his ethnographic subject, folk saints and devotees alike. In this regard, Graziano's book, while not a work of in-depth social analysis or critical insight is definitely a book that I will assign in my anthropology of religion course.

Peter Savastano holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Religion and Society from Drew University. Dr. Savastano's research and writing interests include religion and sexuality (especially homosexuality); the cult of the saints in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; the practice of lived religion within Roman Catholicism, the African Diasporic traditions, and especially Haitian Vodou. More recently, Dr. Savastano’s research interests are in extraordinary or altered states of consciousness. He has published essays in Theology and Sexuality; White Crane, Gay Wisdom and Culture; and a chapter in the anthology Gay Religion. Dr. Savastano is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Seton Hall University. For the 2007/08 academic year Dr. Savastano is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Society at the Drew University Theological School.

Works Cited

Bell, Rudolph, M. and Mazzoni, Christina. 2003. The Voices of Gemma Galgani, The Life And Afterlife of a Modern Saint. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Peter. 1969. Augustine of Hippo, A Biography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Carroll, Michael, P. 1992. Madonnas That Maim, Popular Catholicism In Italy Since The Fifteenth Century. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Furlong, Monica. 2001 [1987]. Therese of Lisieux. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Garces, Chris. E. 2007. "The Ethical Turn…to Saintliness? An Ethnographic Challenge." In Anthropology and Humanism, Volume 32, Number 2, December 2007, 213-217.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Graziano, Frank. 2007. Cultures of Devotion, Folk Saints of Spanish America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, David, D., Editor. 1997. Lived Religion In America, Toward A History Of Practice. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Harrison, Kathryn. 2003. Saint Therese of Lisieux. New York: Penguin Books.

Heffernan, Thomas J. 1988. Sacred Biography, Saints and Their Biographies in the Middle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medwick, Cathleen. 1999. Teresa of Avila, The Progress of a Soul. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Orsi, Robert A. 2004. Between Heaven and Earth, The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Savastano, Peter. 2002. “‘Will the Real St. Gerard Please Stand Up?’ An Ethnographic Study of Symbolic Polysemy, Devotional Practices, Material Culture, Marginality and Difference in the Cult of St. Gerard Maiella.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.

Wills. Gary. 1999. Saint Augustine. New York: Penguin Books.



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