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Senior Correspondent

I spent many years studying the fascinating figure of St. Francis Assisi and his impact on the religious life of the later Middle Ages. He remains the most popular post-biblical saint not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also among the general public, including the irreligious and even the anti-religious. Just at the moment I have been revisiting Francis’ best loved poem, his “Song of Brother Sun” (“Cantico di frate sole”), a “lauda” or vernacular hymn of praise inspired by the sub-genre of “praise poems” in the Psalter.

Francis was not a learned man. He called himself an “idiota” — a word not to be polluted by its modern English reflex — using the same term applied to Peter and John in the Book of Acts. It meant a person without formal education or intellectual pretension. In my opinion, however, he was more simple of soul than simple of mind; and I have been trying, with mixed success, to persuade my colleagues of the literary evidence of his intellectual sophistication. He wrote the “Song of Brother Sun” late in his life in various stages. His hymn commands that God be praised through/by/on account of numerous items of the physical creation: sun, moon, wind and water, fire and earth. As he neared the end of his life, he added some final lines that have proved rather mysterious, beginning “Laudato si, mi signore, per sora nostra morte corporale …” (“Be praised, my Lord, on account of our sister, corporal death …”). This stanza, which has puzzled some of his admirers, seems rather a downer for a nature mystic. Hold that thought, to which we shall return.

Over the weekend we were in Brooklyn at my son’s house. The official agenda was a quick visit with the eldest granddaughter Sophia, in for a flying visit from Los Angeles, and a delightfully wacky play (“Nice Fish”) at St. Ann’s Warehouse. My son Richard is partially responsible for my blog. He encouraged me to start it six ½ years ago, and I haven’t missed a week since. He is a considerable expert on the popular culture of the Caribbean. His book “Walking to Guantanamo,” the travelogue of a long walk through millennial Cuba, is already an underground classic, and can only become more valuable as Cuba rapidly becomes better but less interesting. I expect to see his current project on Haitian barber-shop art to show up eventually in one of the New York museums.

He has a library somewhat smaller than mine, but stocked with intriguing books I would never stumble upon in the daily round. I picked up one of these in an idle moment between grandchildren and could not put it down: Professor Frank Graziano’s “Culture of Devotion, Folk Saints of Spanish America.” The concept of the folk saint — a figure venerated outside the church’s process of canonization, and often enough in the face of active ecclesiastical hostility — is well known to most medievalists. Many popular medieval cults honored mythic, imaginary or etymological saints — like St. Christopher, St. Veronica, the Seven Sleepers, St. Nicholas and the Pickled Boys, or St. Scholastica. In the German-speaking areas of late Middle Age, the Vierzehn Nothelfer — 14 saints with individual specialized helping powers, twice the repertoire of the Magnificent Seven — enjoyed wide popularity. Many of these imaginary but earnestly venerated saints were born of the marriage of the textual traditions of nascent Christianity and ancient pagan history, folklore or philology.

As I learn from Graziano’s fascinating book the process had a modern rebirth in the Americas with Spanish Catholicism’s coercive encounter with Amerindian religions and folklores. The cultural historian documents a number of fascinating cults. Old Argentina was a particularly fecund incubator of dubious saints. There is in Argentina an elaborate devotion to “the Little Cowboy” (Gaucho or Guachito Gil). There is another, an off-the-books holy woman known as Difunta Correa who died in the desert, as Hagar would have done without angelic help, but continued to suckle her babe from her dead teat. Her shrines are decorated with used auto parts and old tires. But the one that leapt off the page for me was San La Muerte, Saint Death, the holy skeleton, known also by half a dozen other names: San de la Muerte, Señor La Muerte, San Justo (“the just one”), Pirucho (from the Guaraní word for “skinny”), San Esqueleto (“Skeleton”) etc. The cult of San la Muerte moved north from the vast homelands of the Tupí-Guaraní, crossed the isthmus, and is now widespread in Mexico and our own borderlands. San la Muerte has a strong appeal among liminal groups, including narco-gangsters. San la Muerte tattoos are common.

Despite the shared iconography of the ossuary, the cult of San la Muerte seems independent of the macabre festival of the Day of the Dead (All Hallows’ Eve), for which there are clear liturgical antecedents in many parts of Europe. But I am left wondering about the Franciscan “Sister Death” viewed by Francis as he approached his own demise not as the Grim Reaper but as a comforting and natural force, as natural as the very material elements of Nature itself — earth, air, fire, and water. There are many things to puzzle me about the Mexican Muerte, beginning with gender. The figures in Francis’ poem are “brother” or “sister” in accordance with their grammatical gender. This is the norm for early personification allegory generally. But the Amerindian cult turned a feminine abstract noun into a male saint, then complicated things further with gender-bending ambiguous clothing. Like so much else in Graziano’s book, the Muerte cult is obviously a syncretism, a cultural blending of Iberian Christianity and probably unrecoverable traditions of the Tupí-Guaraní peoples. Yet I would suggest, tentatively and without the necessary anthropological knowledge, that the beneficent aspects of San la Muerte — a helper in difficulty, a comforter in distress, an inspirer of penitential pilgrimage — may have had medieval European Catholic antecedents in the complex mind of Francis of Assisi.

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