Recently, I encountered an online discussion among Catholic converts and Protestants that strayed into the topic of the St. Joseph house-selling kit. It was meant to be a sort of “gotcha!” moment for Catholics defending the cult of the saints. While I have no intention of going into the arguments concerning this particular practice, I will say that I have never been overly scandalized by it. While even cradle Catholics sometimes view this sort of thing as the antics of the black sheep of the family, on one level it has always struck me as perfectly normal — maybe a little off the grid, but normal.
That might be due to my upbringing. In my family, New Years’ Eve is a private holiday. Every family member is obligated under an oath (in Mexico, a manda) to make tamales and pray a rosary around an image of the Holy Face of Jesus, hewn out of a four-inch piece of stone. The story goes that my grandfather and great-grandfather went to the United States in the mid-1940s to find work. My great-grandmother was so worried for their safety that she prayed to the Holy Face for their speedy return. When they didn’t return when expected, she became afraid and gave the Holy Face an ultimatum: Either bring them back, or He was going to hang outside permanently as a punishment. If He did return them, every New Years’ Eve, she would celebrate His feast by bringing the whole neighborhood together to pray the rosary and eat tamales. The image was then hung outside.
The Holy Face kept His promise by bringing them back a few days later, and He got to return inside. My great-grandmother, however, didn’t keep the rest of the promise, at least at first. The next New Year’s Eve, she had no neighborhood rosary, nor did she make tamales for the feast. As a gentle reminder, the Holy Face sent weevils to eat all of her corn a few days later — definitely not a good day for a family living on the high deserts of northern Mexico. Since then, my family has remembered to keep that promise, even in this country.
Is this an isolated incident? A piece of unusual family lore that was replicated nowhere else? The more I have researched the issue, the more I have found that this type of thing, like the St. Joseph house-selling ritual, is just the tip of the iceberg. You won’t find a church text telling you how to bury a statue upside down in your yard, but throughout Catholic history, you will find a sort of divine tit-for-tat between believers and their icons. Sometimes it’s harmless, and sometimes it’s nefarious, but it has always been present.
According to the book Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales from Louisiana, the Catholic Creoles used to carry small capsules of St. Joseph in their pockets, and if a favor was not granted, they would turn him upside down until it was. A similar tactic was used in Mexico with St. Anthony, this time to find lost cattle. St. Anthony was hung upside down in a glass by Italian women looking for a husband. In the Spanish-speaking world, St. Raymond Nonnatus is invoked to quiet the neighborhood gossip when she is spreading pernicious rumors about you. Usually, this particular practice involves a prayer and a coin put on the mouth of the saint. It is removed once the gossiping neighbor decides that you are no longer an interesting subject of conversation.
That is not to say that the saints and holy images have never “fought back,” as in the case of the Holy Face. Saints had a temper of their own. In southern Italy, a spider bite was thought to bring a fever around the feast day of St. Paul; it was considered a reminder from Paul to celebrate his feast. The only cure for this illness was to dance it off, from which we get the tarantella folk dance. Also in Italy, there were stories of people who were miraculously struck dead for defacing edicola, or roadside shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Michael Carroll, in his book Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy, there were even some images in Italy that could not be processed through the streets uncovered because of the harm they might do. In the 17th-century annals of the cathedral at Pisa, it is recorded that a new bishop insisted on seeing such a veiled Madonna, only to fall ill immediately and die the next day, along with the rest of his cohort. The saints were not to be toyed with.
This type of lore has been forgotten by most Catholics. It is a remnant of a “pagan” past that we have long ago left behind. Our vision of the supernatural is much more benign, moralistic, and sterilized. We thus see through the “superstition” of these practices. I find many of them suspect myself — but one priest in 19th-century France called these exercises in folk religiosity “enacted prayer,” and indeed, that deserves some reflection. The Catholicism of our ancestors was tied to the cosmos, the cycle of the seasons, and their very survival. They were more pragmatic about their beliefs, and that is why much of what they did seems like voodoo to us. Things like the St. Joseph house-selling ritual shock us because they are remnants of their world intruding into ours.
As for what was done to the saints, and what people did to them, I cannot help but think our ancestors took the supernatural world more seriously than we do. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Till We Have Faces:
I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?
I think my great-grandmother, with her statue-punishing ways, could answer the question better than I could.