Our bodies, our saints

This morning I am thinking about icon worship and its connections not merely to sexuality (as in yesterday’s post) but to the literal imitatio Christi of many mystics, especially since St. Francis (who was, in many ways, a second Christ). Not content with taking into themselves the body and blood of Christ, they seek to replicate his suffering in their own bodies, often receiving the stigmata as a reward. The fact that so many of these mystics have been women subverts traditional concepts about the gender of divinity. Beth at The Cassandra Pages posted about “holy anorexia,” the subject of a recent article in the London Review of Books. The author, Hilary Mantel, observes about many fasting female mystics that “Starvation was a constant in these women’s lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross . . . ” This post provoked some interesting reactions in the comments thread, as well.

To say this is a disturbing subject would be a vast understatement. Anorexia and bulimia both fall into the category of what anthropologists consider cultural afflictions: conditions endemic to specific cultures and rarely found outside them. The “running amok” behavior of Melanesians is one example. Such conditions are often greatly susceptible to treatment by traditional, faith-based medicine, so perhaps in the case of anorexia we should consider to what extent Western Christian practices may have helped young women exert control over a condition that seems to derive, at least in part, from the fear of losing control. One of Beth’s readers stated that she felt as if she were “feeding the jinnis” when she put food into her own body. Apparently, then, she experiences her body as no longer fully her own.

From both a religious and a romantic perspective, this perception is not necessarily problematic. (I know – that’s easy for me to say. Can the canons of romantic love be supposed historically to have fed this neurosis, if that’s what it is?) In fact, if traditional ways of knowing can be trusted, this experience may be initiatory, leading to a profound realization of communion or exstasis. Then, too, it makes sense to try to conquer the anorexic’s fear or sense of helplessness through a homeopathic approach: fear can be conquered by love, and the anorexic can only love her own body if she regards it as, in some sense, the body of another. So she turns herself into an icon.

But this latter analysis privileges the modern, “scientific” framing of the problem, which I find perhaps even more unsettling. Modern psychology will medicalize everything if you give it half a chance; even love is regarded as a neurotic obsession. I feel Bakhtin gives us better clues in this case: the self-denying, self-escaping body of Lent contrasts with the self-indulging and self-exceeding body of Carnival. Both are expressions of transcendence, but face in opposite directions, as it were. And since Aristotle if not before, the Western soul has been deprived of any obvious route of escape from these opposing terms, these twin archetypes. Paradox has not been honored as an authentic way of self-knowledge. The law of the excluded middle traditionally ruled out any transformation of negative Lack into positive Openness (sunyata) such as Buddhist ontology encourages.

I was reminded of this a little while back by a citation in Log24.net of a paper about Hamlet, pointing out that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for the vagina. This gave me a funny feeling, because I remembered a paper I wrote about Hamlet way back in college in which I analyzed the language of nothingness in Hamlet, and I sure don’t remember finding any such discussion of the true meaning of the insults Hamlet flung in poor Ophelia’s face. But thinking now about the original meaning and sordid history of so-called hysteria, I wonder how I could have missed it? In a semantic system where “nunnery” could mean both a holy community and a whorehouse, and where “want” – meaning both desire and lack – was the basis of innumerable puns, it only makes sense that woman’s sex be seen as both nullity and matrix – the world/stage for (male) action.

What passes through the mind of the more ordinary worshipper of saints? Does she see something of herself in the starved child or the virgin burned alive by sadistic pagan kings? What role does the saint’s image play in the worship of believers both ordinary and mystical?

Those who didn’t have the time to soldier through the entire, lengthy essay I linked to the other day, A Saint in the City, by Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, would’ve missed the following quote: “Mourides use the term ‘mirror’ to refer to how they see themselves in Bamba’s portrait, and in the words of the Mouride artist Mot Gueye, such reflection occurs as he paints the image. Such visual hagiography is an active process of identity formation conceptually located between memory and history. That is, hagiography retains origins as diffuse as memory, yet it can be as purposeful and politically driven as history. Hagiography causes or permits one to become swept up by a saint’s biographical narrative in such a way that one’s life becomes an extension of the saint’s. As Edith Wyschograd [Saints and Postmodernism, University of Chicago Press, 1990] asserts, saints’ lives do not merely exist, they are constructed and reconstructed endlessly, ensuring that they are perpetuated in a present that is continuously grafted onto the pure potentiality of a remembered past.”

In a footnote, the Robertses state that “Similar metaphors abound in Sufism outside of Senegal, for ‘the mirror (mazhar) of signs reflects the visible and announces the invisible,’ while the speculation that Sufism encourages ‘consists of polishing the mirror of the soul.'” (The quotes here are translated from Jean-Michel Hirt, Le miroir du Prophete: Psychanalyse et Islam, Bernard Grasset, 1993.)

Perhaps the logical next step in this discussion would take us toward Eastern Orthodoxy, but let’s return to Roman Catholicism instead. There’s a beautiful book by the Chicana poet Pat Mora that should interest anyone who wants to understand the inner experience of icon devotion. It’s called Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints. Beacon Press spared no expense in publishing it – the full-color reproductions of folk-art saint’s images (santos) are crucial accompaniments to the poems. We learn about what scholars call Sonoran Christianity through a delightful series of prosopopoeic prayers. “Aunt Carmen is impatient with cerebral notions of faith,” says the dust-jacket blurb, “but she knows her saints.” And learning about her life and thoughts inter alia, in the course of reading what she has to say to the santos, is of course half the fun.

Carmen honors and reveres the saints without becoming in any way subservient, a distinction I think that may be lost on many who have abandoned ritualized religious expression in favor of a purely private spirituality. Carmen’s “practical” approach to icon devotion is revealed in her prayer to the patron saint of cooks, San Pascual Bailón:

Like all saints, you’re a mirror.
We make of you what we need.

Carmen is an octogenarian widow and pillar-of-the-church who plays at being crotchety and inscrutable in order to keep the young priest in his place. This is important because some local practices are far from orthodox, such as the very Mexican reverence for La Muerte – not a saint, but a black-shawled, female skeleton with a Cupid’s bow and arrow:

You don’t belong, fea Doña Sebastiana.

Some pull you in a rock-filled cart,
a penance they impose
when the priest’s not looking.
They fear his frowns.
He fears mine and well he should.

Carmen wonders at the reactions of her God (mi Diosito):

¡Ay! What must He think,
this modern religion with no backbone,
no Latin, no chanting, no confession,
no fiery scoldings, just priests frowning
and electric candles. A church that fears
fire – and women. The same world inside
and out. No transformation. No mystery.

The poem’s concluding stanzas are appropriate to the season and worth quoting in full.

Ash Wednesday. “Thou art dust
and unto dust thou shalt return,”
the priest said today. He frowns
when I drag you from the closet at Lent.
You don’t belong,
but I save what can be useful.
You’re not official, yet you’re persistent,
¿verdad, Comadre? You and I
can be informal. Dos viejitas.
You don’t scare me.
I’ll look you eye to eye.

Shoot, Doña Sebastiana. Go ahead.
Slipping out of this crumpled body
will probably feel good, like slipping off
my winter coat in spring. I’ll feel
lighter, more my true self,
ready to visit with mis santos,
have a real conversation, revel
in their words, shining, like candles.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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