When I examined a new cosmological paradigm in one of my recent post I highlighted Eco-Theologian Thomas Berry’s notion that creative yet violent cosmological occurrences ought to be seen as “moments of grace.” This paradigm places cosmic and social changes within the dynamic of sacramental occurrences. This sacramental perspective will be extremely helpful for us as we considering how we ought perceive and come to grips with major moments of change and transition in our world and in our lives. In this post we will unpack this sacramental perspective and explore how Latino/a spirituality has developed its sacramental experience of suffering and death in a way that can present us with a meaningful way of coping with life changing transitions.
Transitions can often be experienced as a form of death. In the Christian mystical tradition there is a spirituality of “mystical death” that expresses moments of loss or major changes that force us to redirect our lives. A contemporary was of expressing this mystical concept is with the saying “let go and let God” in reference to situations where one let go of something or someone important in their lives and allow God to redirect them within this new transition. This is also expressed in the simple serenity prayer where we ask God for the serenity to accept the things that we simply cannot change. When we experience these moments of loss and change we are experiencing moments of “mystical death.” Of course one of the primary ways that we experience these “mystical death” moments is with the loss of a close relative or friend, however we also experience these changes in other dramatic ways as well such as when we lose a professional job or experience a physical or mental condition within ourselves or a family member.
Currently our western culture does not provide us with an adequate way of dealing with these drastic moments in our lives. Our cultural value for independence, personal freedom and control has forced us to try to eliminate the experience of death and deny or hide the impact of life altering changes. When I recently experience my own job loss I felt a sense of shame and kept the experience to myself, when I finally began to share my experience I became aware of so many others who are quietly going through their own similar experiences. In their treatment of death in western culture authors James Empereur and Eduardo Fernandez observe that:
Death is privatized because it is seen as a problem that should be avoidable. The details around death have been so organized that we die in hospitals, care facilities, and hospices rather than our own homes. Such facilities are supported but not visited unless necessary. People choose to see them as places of healing and assistance and not places where people die. Even assisted suicide is a way of suppressing the experience of dying in the public consciousness. [i]
The cosmological sacramental image that Thomas Berry offers us indicates that at a cosmic level these experiences of loss are not ends in of themselves but creative transitional moments. The spirituality of “mystical death” was not a morbid fascination with death itself but an appreciation for new life or “divine rebirth.” A significant element of our Christian faith is to celebrate this phenomenon within the Paschal Mystery where Christ offers us the totality of this experience with his passion, death and resurrection.
Hispanic theologians have articulated a contemporary cultural spirituality that is able to respond to this cosmological context of transition. “For Hispanics, the cross and resurrection are intimately interrelated.”[ii] In their chapter that explores the sacraments that celebrates the passage to new life, Empereur and Fernandez cite some traditional ways that Hispanics (particularly Mexicans) celebrate death in a way that is consistent with this cosmological framework.[iii] On the one hand all Catholic cultures have the sacrament of the “anointing of the sick” and then the liturgical celebration of the funeral. The Hispanic culture has traditionally celebrated these moments within the public witness of the extended family. Besides these there is also the celebration known as El Dia de los Muertos, (the day of the dead). The cosmological significance of this celebration is very impressive. Immediately preceding the feast of all saints and all souls (November 1st and 2nd) the Hispanic community gathers to honor and remember their own dead in relationship to these upcoming liturgical moments. Their own dead are publically celebrated within this liturgical season that reflects on the resurrected experience of our ancestors. In the American culture this traditional celebration is being challenged by second or third generations of Hispanic Americans. In these changing times however it will be important for us to see these traditional practices not as a source of cultural embarrassment but as source of meaning that will resonate with our global family as they adapt to this cosmological shift.
Arguably a more significant contribution that popular Catholicism gives us in witnessing to the cosmological sacrament of death and rebirth is with their public celebration of Holy Week and specifically with the Good Friday tradition of the Via Crucis. Raul Gomez-Ruiz has demonstrated the historical significance of this practice in surveying the medieval Spanish/Mozarabic development of this liturgical celebration. In accompanying Christ in his passion and death with what they consider a relic of the true cross, called the Lignum Crucis, The Mozarabic community identifies their own cultural suffering directly with the incarnational experience of Christ’s suffering. This historically marginalized community experiences the redemptive power of God not so much within the image of the resurrection but with the reality of the crucifixion which is instantly a sign of God’s victory among them.
The ritual use of the Lignum Crucis helps Mozarabs enter into an experience of Christ present in their midst. The use of the Lignum Crucis also helps them reveal, exalt, and reaffirm values that bind them together as a community. … As a pivotal symbol between Mozarab faith and life, the Lignum Crucis symbolizes the crucifixion of both Christ and Mozarabs themselves as they struggle to integrate themselves into their society and constitute their culture.[iv]
While Raul Gomez-Ruiz develops the historical narrative for this sacramental experience that identifies directly with the passion of Christ Roberto Goizueta shares with us an amazing contemporary experience of this with his description and reflection of the Via Crucis that takes place at the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio Texas.[v] Within this public sacramental witness of this largely Mexican-American community enters into a cosmological relationship with Christ and one another by accompanying Christ in his redemptive suffering. To appreciate this I leave you with this link to the weekly television news series Religion and Ethics where they describe in wonderful detail this sacramental event.
[i] James Empereur and Eduardo Fernandez, La Vida Sacra: Contemporary Hispanic Sacramental Theology, (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2006) pg. 259
[ii] Raul Gomez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2007) pg. 179
[iii] Empereur and Fernandez, La Vida Sacra, Chapter 7
[iv] Raul Gomez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross, pg. 171-172
[v] Roberto Goizueta, Caminamos Con Jesus, Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 1995) pg. 32-37