The Los Angeles Times Sunday edition, July 13, 2014, carried a front page article about the “visit” to Southern California of the holy statue of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez from Mexico. Santo Toribio was a Catholic priest who was killed, martyred as it is said, during the so-called Cristero War in Mexico. The usual dates given for this conflict are 1926-1929, but some fighting and killing continued on during the 1930’s, and even into the early 1940’s, a time of land redistribution, anti-clericalism, and civil disturbance, pitching an educated, socialist, governmental elite against an uneducated, but devoutly religious peasantry. Toribio Romo was shot in 1928 by federal soldiers because he continued to conduct Catholic religious ceremonials, which were at the time against the law. He was canonized in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
Curiously, although Santo Toribio had nothing to do with immigration northward during his lifetime, in recent times he has been venerated and celebrated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans, desperate to make the border crossing into the United States. He is even said to have appeared numerous times to some who are attempting to make the perilous and uncertain journey across the border, dressed in the same cowboy hat and boots worn by many of the migrants. The four-foot tall statue of the saint displays in a glass case in the center of the chest a part of Santo Toribio’s ankle bone, and thousands have lined up to reverently touch the glass casement, in hopes of securing special favors from the saint, either for themselves, or for loved ones contemplating making the dangerous crossing.
Modern people, even many Catholics, dismiss such acts of devotion as nothing less than the superstition of the uneducated. How can the ankle bone of a priest, who died over 85 years ago, be of any use to living, breathing human beings, facing extreme hardship and challenge? Better to rely on your own wits and resources, and to spend your money getting practical legal help, rather than chipping in, as many Southern California Latinos have done, to buy a first-class seat on an airplane from Mexico for a wooden statue and its keeper. What contemporary person can argue with this kind of reasoning? How can help of any kind, spiritual or temporal, be somehow transmitted to and bestowed on people by a dried piece of bone, no matter how holy the body of the saint it was taken from?
But here’s another question that can be asked: is it possible that the world is more mysterious than even modern, educated people can ever fully understand, using only the evidence of our senses and of the logical mind? Another way to phrase it might be: does Spirit exist, and if so, does it infuse, permeate, and manifest itself in physical form?
These are questions that have been repeatedly asked over the ages and answered in different ways by various cultures. Here is another example of how people understand and explain the manifestation of Spirit in nature, what I call the “imminence of transcendence.” The Yanomami are a loose cultural and linguistic configuration of indigenous peoples who inhabit the remote rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. There has been a great deal of destruction over the years, not only of the Yanomami culture by Christian missionaries, but later on of the rainforest itself, once gold was discovered in the region. Many Indians of the Americas have known for centuries that both religion and gold make Western peoples crazy. They will do anything for gold, including bribing, threatening, stealing, despoiling the natural environment, and even killing those who stand in their way. The Yanomami have, in fact, experienced all of these tactics, and more. Yet, large segments of their culture and of the rainforest (the two are intimately intertwined) still remain intact, in part through the assistance of some not-so-crazed Westerners (Brazilians and others), who have become their allies. But what has helped most of all is the knowledge and the “dreaming” of Yanomami shamans.
As is true with many other indigenous peoples, the Yanomami believe that the forest is alive. And not just the forest as a kind of abstraction, as Westerners might think, but each segment thereof, including every rock, tree, stream, and river. Overseeing all of these are a spirit-people called the “xapiri” (pronounced “sha-PEE-ree”). Yanomami shamans go through a long and arduous apprenticeship. Partly using this tradition and training, and partly through the aid of powerful hallucinatory drugs, they contact these “xapiri, who appear in the form of tiny humanoids wearing very bright, feather-covered garments. And not only do shamans contact these spirits, they become them. It is in this spirit-form that shamans then defend and protect the forest from evil, both foreign and indigenous.
Here we see another level of belief in a spirit world. Not only do devotees of a religion get to touch the glass that covers the bone of a man believed to have attained spiritual knowledge and, in so doing, contact and attain some of his power, but through the process of chanting, and “dreaming,” and of entering into an altered state of mind, they become the very spirits they see and interact with.
The Yanomami, in fact, have a ready explanation as to why many Westerners are so crazed, so cruelly acquisitive, avaricious, and destructive. White people, according to Yanomami myth, are the offspring of Yoasi, the evil brother of Omama, their Creator God. It is believed that Yoasi gave birth to white people, who come from “the back of the sky,” and who are associated with the evil spirits of the forest. According to the myth, if not controlled, these evil spirits will bring about the end of the world through the “falling sky.” By this, the Yanomami mean the toxic invasion of the deadly smoke of metal and fuels. As Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who has co-authored a book entitled “Falling Sky,” says: “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the White people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest we say that ‘xawara’ (epidemic fumes) have seized it and it becomes ghost.”
What do Santo Toribio and Yanomami shamans have in common? Some might say only the ignorance of the uneducated, and an attempt to achieve some level of control on the part of those who otherwise feel disenfranchised and powerless. And there may be some truth in this. However, others may also point to a less logical, more innate, unconscious, chthonic, or even deeply spiritual way of seeing and understanding a world that even modern science does not claim to fully understand.
What I mean by the phrase “imminence of transcendence” is the inherent, essential, deep-born, fundamentally ingrained presence of the Great Mystery of the Universe intertwined with and imbedded in nature. Can it equally be felt in the ankle bone of a saint, or in the tree that grows in your backyard, in the great forests that still, here and there, cover parts of the earth, or in the vast oceans that struggle today with the poisons humans have dumped into them? I will leave that for you to decide for yourself.
In the end, whether we think of all this as some kind of manifested spiritual essence, or merely the ordinary, everyday ebullient effervescence of nature itself, it is our job as human beings to respect the planet. Otherwise, it may not be too far fetched a myth to think that the sky will, in a sense, someday come falling down upon our heads, and that we and our children will no longer be able to breath the very air that surrounds us. Who knows? Maybe with the help of Santo Toribio and the Yanomami shamans, and a bit of our own native wisdom, we, too, may someday learn our lessons and mend our ways. There is, at least, always that hope.