Friday, 25 October 2013

Death in the Midst of Life: Exploring Devotion to Santa Muerte

Comedian Chris Rock once joked, 'Here's a horoscope for everyone: Aquarius- you're gonna die; Capricorn- you're gonna die; Leo- you're gonna die; Gemini...' and so on and so on. I think you see where he was going with this... 

... and he's absolutely right- death comes  to us all.  While it is often said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, lots of people don't pay their taxes, cheat on their taxes, pay too little taxes, defraud the government out of their fair share of taxes. 

Nobody defrauds death. 

No one cheats death. 

The healthiest, wealthiest, most privileged people on Earth will die- and despite all their best efforts, might die very soon.

That said, many Christians- and people in general- don't spend a lot of time meditating on their own death. To do so is seen a morbid, and indeed, it certainly can be. But death is a natural part of our existence, and all of our various religions and philosophies agree on this. 

For Christians, the Bible is full of death, much of it very unpleasant, violent and cruel. Some Christians revel in it, others are repulsed by it. But it is all there.

Of course, the central event in Christian theology and worship is a death-  the death of Jesus. But even the death of Christ can be glossed over or rushed through in an effort to skip on to the resurrection and cosmic victory (‘Yay! We win!’). I've often noticed that there are usually far fewer people at the Good Friday service in the churches I've attended than the Easter morning service. I once reflected with an Anglican priest that those who come to Easter Sunday service- with the church festooned with flowers, a riot of colour and beautiful sound- will never appreciate how beautiful it is unless they've consciously come and worshiped in a dark, colourless building on Good Friday and contemplated that Jesus is dead and decomposing in the ground on Holy Saturday. 

There is an image of death in Mexican Catholic folk theology that has had a significant influence on my personal theology and belief- Santa Muerte, 'Holy Death', 'Saint Death'. Santa Muerte generally appears as female skeletal figure in a long robe. She is usually holding one or more objects, usually a scythe, a globe or an hourglass. She somewhat resembles a ghoulish version of the Blessed Virgin Mary, though in belief and practice, the two women are quite distinct.

She has many nicknames: the Skinny Lady (la flaquita), 

the Bony Lady (la Hueseda), 

the White Girl (la Niña Blanca),

the White Sister (la Hermana Blanca), 

the Pretty Girl (la Niña Bonita), 

the Powerful Lady (la Dama Poderosa), 

the Godmother (la Madrina). 

All these eponyms point to the fact that reverence for Santa Muerte is a mixture of the sacred and the irreverent, the serious and the playfully, darkly humourous.

The rituals and practices that surround the devotion to Santa Muerte are rooted in their Catholic context- masses, processions, votive offerings, prayers, litanies, home and public altars, clothing and jewelry. In the interest of brevity, I'll not go into the historical, sociological or cultural understandings of the veneration of Santa Muerte in this post, but for anyone interested in exploring any of these topics in depth, I would unreservedly direct you to R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D's definitive work Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, December 2012). Chesnut is a scholar of Latin American religion, holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. I've read several of his books and he really knows his stuff.

My own work in Latin American liberation theology, ecumenics, and the global Catholic experience (not to mention my fascination with all things skull-related, to which anyone who knows me well will attest) all initially sparked my awareness of Santa Muerte and fueled a desire to learn more.  

As liberation theology's starting point for reflection is the lived experience of the people of God, I was particularly interested in the type of people who were devoted to Santa Muerte. They are very often the socially and economically poor and marginalised and people whose lives or employment carry the real potential for immediate death. 

Many followers of Santa Muerte tend to live on the margins of the law or outside it entirely. As such, her devotees often include street vendors, taxi drivers, bar keepers, street musicians, vendors of pirated merchandise, street people, prostitutes, pickpockets, petty drug traffickers, gang members and prison inmates- as well as, ironically perhaps, police and soldiers. Many of these types of people do much of their work at night; as one of Santa Muerte's titles is Señora de la Noche ('Lady of the Night'), devotees believe her intercession can protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence, and all types of violent death.

Another group that tends to give a good deal of devotion to Santa Muerte is Mexico's LGBT communities, members of which tend to be outcasts from society, and she is often invoked for intercession at same-sex marriages.

Needless to say, although the vast majority of Santa Muerte devotees are at least nominally Catholic and liturgies, prayers and litanies to her also very often include mention of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints, the Catholic Church in Mexico is implacably opposed to any devotion to Santa Muerte, deeming all of it satanic. Devotion to Santa Muerte is regularly denounced from pulpits, with parishoners sternly admonished that devotion to her is at best a confused version of Christianity and at worst a dangerous diversion and a slippery slope to criminality. And as is true with any aspect of religious devotion, devotion to Santa Muerte often has a dark side. Her name and image figure prominently in the narco-terrorism and brutal violence of the drug trade along the US-Mexico border. This has, however, done little to put off those drawn to her, the majority of her devotees insisting that there is no contradiction between their place in the Christian faith and their adoration of ‘la flaquita’.

So what lessons have I drawn from my own experience with Santa Muerte, and what lessons do I think she might hold for all Christians, regardless of their interest in her image or person?

First, again drawing on my work in liberation theology, there is that theology’s emphasis on the Christian faith being a meditation and reflection on the God of life in an environment full of death. 

For many of us in the stable and wealthy west, not thinking about sudden and imminent death is one of our greatest unconscious luxuries. For many people in the world- many Christians- death is very present, and it is no wonder that they might embrace a personification of death that is powerful yet benevolent and approachable. 

It is up to Christians who do not live under those conditions to reflect on why those conditions persist, how they or their governments might be complicit in it, and what the whole body of Christ can do to stand and act with them toward social change.

Secondly, there is the reality of the hierarchical church’s attempts to ‘own’ and control people’s beliefs and spirituality. Of course, it is the place of Christian leaders, through the spirit of God, to lead and disciple, to live with and stand with the people in their lives, but it is vitally important to remember that no church can ‘own’ Jesus. No church can control control his grace, mercy or salvation. 

The fact is that many people- particularly the ‘least of these’, those for whom Christ came, lived, died and rose, and particularly the Mexican LGBT communities- do not feel comfortable approaching him or his mother through the narrow and guarded gate that the church has placed them behind. And the church needs to reflect on why that is so and repent. The reality is that for many, like it or not, Santa Muerte meets them where they are- which is what Christ and the Blessed Virgin do, and what the church should be doing and often does not.

This is similar to concepts that Ikon, the creative community I’ve been a part of for many years now, have been exploring for some time. Sometimes we might need to abandon our Christianity to live as a Christian.

We need to reject our faith in order to embrace Christ. We need to face death in order to know how to live.

We might also need to broaden our vision of what Christian faith is, beyond our sectarian notions of what is permissible in our own context to do and believe. Christians who are uncomfortable with thoughts or images of death, thinking them weak or unfaithful, might reflect that Christianity has always had its reflections on death, none more  stark than the Latin antiphon Media vita in morte sumus (‘In the midst of life we are in death’). They might explore more deeply Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the days we worship a dead God. We might explore these things together, across our man-made boundaries, which I believe God hates. 

Feeling my Santa Muerte rosary against my chest reminds me throughout the day that death is near us all and that life is precious and relatively short.

It spurs me to live my life to the full, like every day might be my last,

to compliment my wife, to play with my children,

to help my neighbour, to work for peace and justice in my community and beyond it.

And to die happy.


  1. Bloody Brilliant Jon. Thank you. You know you left behind a Santa Muerte picture in Belfast - it's part of my office holy space.

  2. As my Dad, then my dog have demonstrated, the Simpson tradition dictates that one shouldn't bother dying unless there is some fun involved.

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  3. Very well said. I would love to share this article on my WordPress blog, Thing That Isn't (dedicated to applying theology to pop-culture). I've come to similar conclusions about how drastically the Body of Christ must shift her perspective, priorities and methods in order to begin to rightly represent Christ to the underclasses, criminals, the lonely and hurting, the lgbtq community and others of our time. Please let me know if you would be willing to allow me to reblog this. God bless you in your work!