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Murti overtones of Marion Devotion

Flashback: Pilgrims touch the statue’s garment at last year’s La Divina Pastora celebrations. Photo: Elmo Griffith.

by Fr Martin Sirju

Last September marked the departure of the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima from Our Lady of Perpetual Help RC Church to its next destination. The goings-on in the parish and the behaviour of parishioners and pilgrims comprise a good lesson in the anthropology of devotion vis-a-vis doctrine. In order to properly describe what I am speaking about I would have to depart a little to speak about a Hindu notion—murti.

Murti is used in different ways in Hindu devotional language. More commonly it is taken as a symbol or image. Hindus speak of a murti of Krishna or a murti of Lakshmi. The little figurines we see selling in Hindu shops are also called murtis.

Hindus also commonly speak of a murti of Jesus or a murti of Mary in referring to these Christian figures. However, on the deeper Hindu theological level the understanding of murti goes much further. For devout Hindus the deity itself dwells in an image of each.

From the date that solemn puja is performed the deity is regarded as living in that image. These kinds of images we find especially in Hindu temples where the statues of the deities are not, unlike in orthodox Catholicism, merely images and symbols. They are the real thing. It is their version of ‘real presence’.

Stephen P Huyler’s wonderfully picturesque book, Meeting God, carefully chronicles this when he remarks “once the images are consecrated they are viewed as deities themselves and are accorded profound respect”. He notes the deities are gently awakened, bathed, anointed, dressed in garments, adorned with jewellery and garlanded with flowers.

For Catholics, however, sacred images are reminders and symbols of the person being called to mind. They never become the real thing, except of course when the symbols of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2132 states: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it’. The honour paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration’ not the adoration due to God alone.” Well it’s not that simple.

It seems to me that if one studies the anthropology of devotion to the saints including and especially Mary, Mother of Jesus who is the holiest of the lot, one finds traces of murti behaviour among Catholics.

More than just a reminder or symbol, sacred statues in the Catholic Church seem to have an aspect of being attached to them. I am not here concerned with doctrine as such but people’s behaviour. What does their religious behaviour tell us?

La Divina Pastora in Siparia, aka Siparee Mai, is more than a simple image calling to mind the mother of Jesus. I am not saying the statue is in some sense ‘alive’ but I am saying people relate with it as if it were alive.

People always want to touch La Divin, or the dress she wears, or speak of her eyes casting blessing upon them, what in Hindu devotion one calls darshan. People talk to the statue, speak of it as ‘her’/‘she’.

I once asked one of the ladies why I must be out of the room when La Divin is being dressed. The answer I got was it would not be proper; that being a man “she would blush”—a nice way of saying: “Father, buss it!”

Neither Eloise Ramdeen nor Mr Aguillera, both deceased legendary devotees of La Divin, saw the statue merely as an object of devotion. Mr Aguillera would pass in the church and talk and sing to La Divin. In his younger years, while intoxicated, he would always find his way home in the early evening but not after stopping in the church and paying respects to the lady of his life.

Peter Brown in his highly acclaimed book The Cult of the Saints devotes an entire chapter to presentia or presence. He speaks of this presentia in relation to relics in 14th century Europe and the devotion to the saints thereby generated and propagated.

While regarding the Pilgrim Virgin we are dealing with a statue, we must not forget that embedded in its base is a piece of the holm oak which marked the spot of the apparitions. Regarding relics he notes: “The devotees who flocked out of Rome to the shrine of St Lawrence, to ask for his favour or place their dead near his grave, were not merely going to a place; they were going to a place to meet a person” [italics mine]. He notes further: “What mattered was the arrival [italics mine] itself” as when the Pilgrim Virgin arrived in parishes with fervent and joyous anticipation of parishioners. Here she was, Mary, coming as it were, for the first time!

This is more than symbolism or remembrance. There is presentia or a quality of being here. This is murti-like behaviour. It came to its epic height on the day of departure, with parishioners saddened and weeping. She was leaving. And so, there they were, with their handkerchiefs waving and saying goodbye, as she was hoisted on the truck.

Suddenly, for a few moments, a vivid scene entered my mind; they reminded me of Hindu devotees saying goodbye on last day of the grand Ganapati festival in the great cities of south India.

NEXT WEEK: A dirty Mary