From his apartment in Vietnam, a good friend lit a candle to Saint Lazarus today. For more than fifteen years, the small image that his grandmother gave him of the old man supported by crutches, with sores on his legs and accompanied by two dogs has protected him on the other side of the world. “My old Lazarus worked a miracle so that I could leave Cuba and he cured my mother when she was ill”.
On December 17th, 2001 my friend walked barefoot to El Rincón, the Shrine where Saint Lazarus is venerated in Cuba. Like him, hundreds of pilgrims went to “pay” their promises. Some make it there on their knees; others, crawling or with bricks and heavy weights on their feet. All barefoot, they arrived with sore, even bloody feet. El Rincón is a place where faith manifests itself raw.
Saint Lazarus is the most venerated saint on the island after the Virgin of Charity…Wilfredo García Beltrán
Unlike the altars built by those who profess the Yoruba religion, on my friend’s altar there are no grains of roasted corn, coconut water or dry cooking wine. Neither lit cigars nor coins at the foot of the saint, just candles, a rosary, and yellow and purple flowers. “I revere Saint Lazarus the Catholic way, as my grandmother taught me”, he explains. Many people think that altars are made only to honor Babalú-Ayé, the Yoruba deity who syncretizes Saint Lazarus, but no: we Catholics also keep vigil for Lazarus on the eve of his day. The main offering on our altar is the prayer for his intercession. We keep him illuminated for nine days”.
According to Catholic precepts, the man who was canonized was Lazarus of Bethany, the one that Jesus resurrected and who later became Bishop of Marseilles. The Catholic Church identifies the popular image of the convalescent old vagabond venerated every December 17th as a graphic representation of the beggar from the parable described in the Gospel of Luke, not as a saint. Thus, in Cuba the only association to the priest is the purple color, nothing more. Regardless of who is venerated on Catholic or Yoruba altars, the one we pray to with heart in hand is old Lazarus.
“Saint Lazarus is the most venerated saint on the island after the Virgin of Charity. Unlike Saint Barbara or Saint Jude Thaddeus, both recognized as saints of the Catholic Church, the Saint Lazarus that most Cubans idolize is the result of a direct correlation with Babalú-Ayé, associated with smallpox, leprosy and skin conditions in general. In turn, this is the homologue of the god Azowano, venerated in the area of Dahomey (present-day Benin, West Africa). According to the patakí (story), Azowano was a womanizer who, after disobeying the supreme God, woke up covered with purulent sores. This form is the one Babalú-Ayé adopts in the Yoruba religion, which is later syncretized with the character from the Bible. This is one of the few examples of a double process of transculturation in religion”, explained Wilfredo García Beltrán, Cuban investigator, at a conference about Religion and Society in 2001.
Alien to such historical details, the sight of barefoot men, dressed in sackcloths, carrying a box to collect offerings is recurrent in all towns of Cuba since the first days of December. “This is the saint of the poor and from humility beautiful things can be done”, said a man in Trinidad, my hometown, when I approached him several years ago to leave some coins for his collection.
— Has Saint Lazarus worked a miracle for you?, I asked.
— He saved my daughter, who was between life and death when she was born. I named her Lázara in gratitude. As long as I have the strength, every year I will dress like him and will build a humble shrine at home.
— But the church does not recognize Saint Lazarus as a saint…, I insisted.
— He must have something miraculous about him when there are so many people who believe in him, whether they are Catholics or Santeros. There are even those who do not believe in anything, but they do believe in Saint Lazarus. Why do we want to find explanations for everything? May each worship him in their own way. Faith is above all those things. Tell me, do you think it was a coincidence that Barack Obama and Raúl Castro talked on a day like today in 2014 to try to normalize relations between the two countries? That was the doing of Saint Lazarus, kid.
As soon as day breaks, the soul of Cubans is colored in yellow and purple. Perhaps at this moment, that devotee I encountered in my town is lighting a candle at his altar in gratitude for having his daughter with him over the years. Perhaps at this moment, an unknown pilgrim arrives at the Sanctuary of El Rincón with sore feet after hours of walking. Perhaps at this moment, a Babalú-Ayé follower offers a ritual drum serenade to his holy protector. Perhaps at this moment, my friend in Vietnam is again saying the prayer that he learned from his grandmother. Perhaps at this moment, Saint Lazarus is performing a new miracle.
(Hero image: Mariano Chavez via agentgallery.com)