Wednesday, June 14, 2006

St. Anthony: help me find a good husband!

[Well. Not me! Read on, however ... As I mentioned, I was going to dig up this piece I wrote on a visit to a shrine dedicated to St. Anthony in Pune. Actually, my laptop's backup doesn't go that far. Bill dug this up and emailed it to me. ¡Gracias! This dates from June 2003.]

Earlier today my friend S, his new bride M, and myself found ourselves on St. Vincent street, in downtown Pune, heading to the Shrine of St. Anthony. As I navigate the car through the normal jumble of traffic as we approach the shrine, on one side of the road a number of men are spotted running pell mell in the opposite direction. "The police are probably about," explains S. These are probably beggars who gather outside the shrine, among whom are likely pickpocketers and petty thieves ("miscreants," that favorite word of Indian journalism); occasionally a police van will drive by, and they scatter. It seems routine enough an occurence, since no one else appears to bat an eyelid.

The shrine itself is in a small concrete structure off the street, in a room barely seven to eight feet square. There is an altar against the back wall, under a faded print of the Sacred Heart, in classic Catholic kitsch-style, on which is a statue of St. Anthony enclosed a glass case. Several garlands of bright marigolds and fragrant white moghras adorn the altar. In front of the case are numerous fliers, with prayers to St. Anthony, the Sacred Heart, the Miraculous Medal, and other devotions, in English, Marathi and Konkani. The small space is completely filled with people. It takes several minutes of shuffling along in the large crowd outside to get in. There seems to be an unwritten crowd control code - people move in and out rather smoothly, without much ado. The men, as is common, largely in Western dress, the women, far outnumbering the men, in dresses, shalwar kameezes or saris, the pallu covering the head in a sign of reverence and respect. Most people go up to the altar, pause a moment, touch it and make the sign of the Cross and leave. A few are standing on the sides, eyes closed in prayer, or praying one of the several devotions and novenas to be found at the altar. One woman bows profoundly in front of the altar, her hand pressed tightly against the glass encasing the statue of the saint. Others drape more garlands against the altar. Sadly, my thoughts are far from pious, being distracted by some rather earthly, pecuniary concerns. My left hand is nervously guarding my back pocket, where I had stuffed a wad of hundred rupee notes (which don't fit conveniently into my wallet, obviously designed with dollars in mind, even though it was purchased in Bombay several years ago!). I reach the altar, touch my hand to the glass and bring my fingers to my forehead in reverence, trace the sign of the Cross and ask the intercession of the Saint for my friends and family, and his forgiveness for my wayward thoughts, and step out of the shrine.

To the left of the shrine is a small store selling pictures, medals, cards and other religious trinkets, and another stall where one can purchase the garlands to adorn the altar, as one would expect at any center of pilgrimage, big or small, the world over.

"Did you notice that most of the people are women?" S asks. "Yes." I reply (and that seems to be true nowadays almost everywhere when it comes to religious practice, though less so in far from secular India than in the secularized West). "The reason is that unmarried women and girls come to ask St. Anthony to send them a good husband!" "Aaah!"

Immediately there came to mind the ritual of the goro that young Gujarati Hindu girls practice upon reaching puberty, in the month of shravan. Nine days of fasting and prayer, to propitiate one of the godesses and ask her help to ensure that the girls eventually find a good husband. I recall an incident from long ago, when I was 11 or 12, when we were living in Ahmedabad (in Gujarat). One of my cousins was observing this ritual that year, and I had asked her why she was doing it. "I don't know! Bas karvu pade che. One simply does it!" That is indeed how, I suspect, many approach religion and the inherited practices of tradition.

I have always found popular expressions of piety and devotion to be especially touching and moving, and there are several common elements across the different religious traditions. The atmosphere at the shrine was not unlike a Hindu mandir or a Muslim dargah in any part of India, where people gather to pay respect to a saint, or a manifestation of the divine, ask for help with the troubles that beset daily life, petitions for success, or prosperity, or fertility (in India, sadly, the request most likely being for the birth of a son) or a good husband, or blessings on a new child, or healing for a sick loved one.

Of course, a Hindu temple would be much noisier - the bell that every devotee would ring before entering the sanctuary, to draw the attention of the god, and the recitation of individual prayers aloud by both priest and devotee, creating a burbling cacophony of background sound. And, of course, there would be a mound of footware outside the temple. One does not enter a holy place shod! I suspect that this custom is followed in Christian shrines as well in the more rural parts of the country.

It is indeed a strength of Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) that it incorporates these elements of popular religiosity so readily. Whether it be women (Christian, Hindu, Muslim) asking St. Anthony's intercessions for help in securing a good husband at a shrine in India, or women (Christian as well as Muslim) asking the help of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus for the birth of a son in Syria (see William Dalrymple's excellent account in From the Holy Mountain), or crowds gathering in Naples to see the annual miracle of the solidification of the blood of St. Januarius, each of this reflects the richness and the catholicity of the Church, and the sense of sacramentality that is at the heart of the Catholic religion. I have always felt that in this respect, Catholicism is closer to the various religious traditions of the world, and to the various traditions it supplanted in Europe as well. Perhaps it is only to the zealous Protestant eye that such practices seem a bit too "pagan." (maybe that is too unfair a generalization!) Granted there are several important issues that one has to keep in mind (the boundary between popular piety and superstition; or borrowing elements from different religious traditions and a syncretism that loses the heart and the edge of the Gospel, and that ever-present temptation, not just with popular piety, to simply subsume the Gospel into the surrounding culture), but still, I only find myself praising God at the various opportunities to witness such devotion and faith in my fellow human pilgrims.

Further down St. Vincent street. one sees the fruits of a couple of centuries of missionary activity. On the right, in the typical Indo-Gothic style that was favored in the 19th century, the grey basalt buildings of St. Vincent boys' school (as well as an evening college for post-secondary education), run by the Jesuits. Across the street, made of equally intimidating dark grey Deccan basalt, the Convent of Jesus and Mary, also home to the Convent school for girls, both institutions of excellence in education (as are most Catholic educational establishments in India). Further ahead on the left, another imposing, basalt, Gothic structure, the Church of St. Francis Xavier (the only Jesuit parish in Pune), dating from the mid-19th century (where, incidentally, my friends were married a little over a week ago), with the parish offices and hall across the street. And at the end of the street, where it spills into the chaotic traffic abutting the odoriferous confines of the Shivaji meat and vegetable market, a small, simple, white, concrete structure, the St. Francis Xavier Clinic and Dispensary (Dr. Henry Rodrigues, MBBS, family physician and surgeon, the sign hanging over the street proclaimed). This little stretch of road - with a Shrine to a Portuguese-born Italian saint that attracts members of different religious traditions, a parish church, two educational institutions, and a medical clinic that in all likelihood makes a special effort to cater to the poor - encapsulates neatly the various elements that make up the presence of the Church in India.

1 comment:

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Thanks for the great descriptions of people responding to the very human need to be somewhere sacred, to experience physically, not just intellectually, persons and truths that transcend their own lives.

It was that realization that this was true (I hadn't considered it previously) that made Thomas Howard's Evangelical is Not Enough resonate so well with me. Once worship moved beyond wrods, could conversion to Catholicism be far behind?


who wishes to point out that the street described could compare to a stretch of road in our Fair City, where in ~1.5 miles you have 1 cemetery, 9 churches (Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Independent Baptist, Bible, Seeker-focused, United Methodist, Catholic & Assembly of God), home office of Presby [Nursing] Homes, 1 Catholic Book Store (other religious bookstore just closed), 1 public elementary school, 1 private Christian elementary school (moving into former location of Southern Bapatist Church), + Thai food, Mickie D's, Goodwill and the Dollar Movies. Something for everyone.