I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher, although occasionally forced by circumstances to venture into those realms. I am, I suppose, by trade a critic, by vocation an historian, and by avocation a folklorist. All three came into play back in 1990, when I wrote an essay, “A Catholic Look at The Lord of the Rings,” which has been anthologised and frequently quoted in the decades since then. Its most recent reposting online, by Tumblar House, has led to comment, some searching questions, and requests that I write something on the relationship between Catholicism and Folklore. That seems like a more than fair proposal, given the calibre of the questioners, so here we are.
Now something must be laid down, in order to help my reader understand the views propounded herein. I believe the Catholic Faith to be absolutely True. True in the way that our having to pay the Income Tax is True. True in the way that our needing to eat in order to survive is True. Not merely “nice,” “interesting,” or even “stimulating,” but unshakably True. Now what does that mean? It means that in, with, and under this everyday world of shapes and shadows, this twilight in which we dwell, there are greater realities at work which we ignore at our peril.
What are these? First, that everything we experience was called into existence out of nothing and is sustained from moment-to-moment by an omnipotent Being. That this Being is not merely a static unity, but a dynamic Trinitarian continuous act of self-generation and self-love — all the while having a personality of His own — and I say His, because He has chosen to express Himself to us in a Masculine manner. As part of His continual loving, He performed the Act of Creation referred to, and produced at least two intelligent races: Angels and Men. A goodly chunk of the former rebelled against Him out of pride, and under the direction of their Chief plotted (and plot) the ruin of the latter — that is, us. They succeeded in tempting our first parents to join them in rebellion — the famed Fall of Man, which produced the blighted atmosphere in which we and our kind have lived ever since, and closed Heaven to us. But the Second Person of the Trinity became Incarnate of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was Crucified for our sins (and so reopened the possibility of Salvation to us), rose again from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. He founded His Church to provide the Sacraments for those would accept them — the means of taking on His nature and so — if we persevere — making eternal Union with Him possible; in pursuit of that goal, He daily descends into Bread and Wine on the altars of Christendom. His Church with one hand distributes the doctrines and rites that open Heaven to us, and with the other fends off the Spiritual dark, which now as ever goes about seeking whom it may devour.
So, this seems perhaps like a mere restatement of the Catechism. But think of what it means for our everyday lives! It means that literally everything we say and do is important! It means we are all part of a great struggle as titanic as anything imagined by the late Professor Tolkien — indeed, much of the strength of his writing comes from transferring to the world of Middle Earth certain realities that characterise our own. Wine and Bread may become God Himself; various ceremonies can consecrate almost anything — even War and Government (well, at least Knighthood and Kingship!) — to His service, and endow inanimate objects — “creatures” — with unimaginable spiritual force. In the midst of all of this, Divine Providence and innumerable Free Wills engage in a dance that ends only with the Salvation or Damnation of each of those individual wills.
Such is the Catholic Faith. Armed with it and little else, Christ’s Twelve Apostles and Seventy-Two Disciples set out from the Cenacle on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion to conquer the World for Him. The mighty Roman Empire was overcome, the Germanic and Slavic tribes converted, and in time Christ made His daily descent unto altars on every Continent. In so do doing, the cultures of each of the peoples who accepted Him were changed; their new Faith became part and parcel of everything they did, even as their old religions had been.
Now, mind you, these people were not educated in the sense our scientists use it to-day; indeed, most people now alive would not be so considered. But they were not stupid. Necessity made them close observers of nature — especially the nomads and mountain, forest, and swamp dwellers among them. We know that pre-literate cultures put great stock in memorization — which is why the Illiad, although unwritten for the first five centuries of its existence, was sufficiently well recalled for Schliemann to follow its clues to the ruins of Troy in the 19th century. Closer to us, our illiterate ancestors could “read” the artwork in their churches and cathedrals the way we can a newspaper — a feat we require years of art history classes at university level to attempt to duplicate.
Before ever they had heard of the Faith, they were aware of unseen presences all around them — some they deemed good, and others evil. At times these might erupt very strongly into vision, if the stories they told had any reality to them at all. And when at last the Church reached them, she not only gave them a means of understanding these occurrences, she gave them powerful weapons against their unpleasant aspects. From this mixture arose the folklore of Catholic and Orthodox countries in a process that continues to-day in mission lands. Although differing wildly in specifics from place to place, in general outline it was remarkably similar from Ireland to Russia, and later from Spanish New Mexico to Portuguese Indonesia.
As we know from everyday experience if not from history, fallen nature is always with us; from the beginning the remarkable march of spiritual (and sometimes military) conquest of which we spoke was accompanied by defections due to various heresies. Perhaps the most vociferous of these, Islam, has threatened at times to sink the whole Christian world in blood. But instead of drawing ever closer in the face of the threat, Western and Eastern Christendom split. Where they have remained most similar, however, is precisely in this realm of folklore — that is, in popular response to the unseen. Certainly, that background, combined with miraculous relics, shrines, and images, and indeed, the Sacraments themselves, created a world of wonder.
A real change however came with the Protestant revolt. Although, at this — one might almost say — sociological level, the alteration was not that great in Anglican or Lutheran regions (where rejection of the Catholic Liturgical heritage was similarly ambiguous), it tended to be in Calvinist areas. There, there was little question: whether in worship or calendar customs or folk beliefs, if it was not explicitly in the Bible, it was of the devil. Hence, in Quebec and Louisiana the lutins frolicked and easier-going Calvinist Dutch of the Hudson Valley saw their new home as thronging with such folk as ensorcelled Rip Van Winkle (his literary creator, Washington Irving, had drunk deep of the local legendry). But in Puritan New England, there was only Satan in the woods — and sometimes, as at Salem, Old Scratch might visit the settlements.
Another chasm opened up in society as a result of the new religion — and it extended to areas that retained their old ways. This was the division between high and folk culture, which had not existed before. Neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare scrupled to speak of magic and fairies; but until the late 18th century for reasons we shall notice presently, subsequent writers for an educated public would not do so. Class distinctions mankind has always had; but in the wake of Luther, these also came to involve world-views as well.
Europe’s educated classes, horrified by the religious bloodshed of the 16th and 17th centuries came slowly to lump religion of whatever kind with folk belief — and this affected even theologians and religious philosophers, who felt the need to justify spiritual beliefs in materialist terms, and minimalised to the best of their ability the wondrous and miraculous elements of their Faith. Out of this mix arose the Enlightenment, and eventually the Scientific and Industrial revolutions. From it too came the French and subsequent political revolutions, which in their haste to purge public life of all superstition (with which they lumped monarchy and nobility as well as the Church) committed mass murder on a scale unseen until bested by the far more enlightened folk of the 20th century.
These atrocities in turn gave rise in the early 19th century to the Romantic revolt which, while possessed in some of its wings of a strong affection for Catholicism, in others simply embraced the irrational in ALL its forms as a way of escaping from the horrors unleashed by the proponents of materialistic reason. So in its wake came the birth of fantastic and horror literature, of the Occult Revival, Spiritualism, Theosophy, and all sorts of other things dedicated to “liberating” Mankind from either reason or orthodoxy. In the 20th century, these were followed by the synthetic neo-Paganism of “Wicca.” At the same time, Catholicism went from 19th century Neo-Scholasticism (first ignited, it must be said, by Romantics) to the 20th century “Nouvelle Theologie,” which appeared to appeal to the Church Fathers to get rid of the Scholastics, and ended (at least in its incarnations of Hans Kueng and Karl Rahner) by meaning nothing at all — save the overthrow of the necessity of Faith and Church.
So where did that leave Catholic Folklore — or, if you will, “Folk Catholicism?” In a bad way, besieged on all sides. For more scholastically-minded priests, it was rife with superstition and an embarrassment; for their Modernist brethren, it was part and parcel with anything “other-worldly” — like Transubstantiation, which might deflect the Church from her “authentic” mission of social improvement. For the Fundamentalist, it was proof of Catholicism’s Satanic origins; for the “Mainstream” Protestant it showed that Catholicism is merely for the lower classes. The so-called Rationalist haughtily affected to see no difference between such beliefs and anything else “otherworldly,” and laughed at it all as pagan survivals — something which led Wiccans to appropriate elements of it, and attempt to “purify” them of their Christian trappings.
But what if they are all wrong? What if, from the elderly Jesuit all the way down to pagan priestess Moonbunny, they have the wrong end of the stick? Could it be that the ignorant peasants in Guanajuato and Calabria are — if not absolutely correct in every jot and tittle — possessed of a world view that is, on the whole, more accurate in a general sense than either their Bishops or their University Professors realise? If it be so, what are the consequences for us?
Let us say, for the sake of argument that the pagan ancestors from whom elements of their folk beliefs descend were not stupid or delusional, but witnesses of objective phenomena that they (or we, were we there) witnessed. I am not speaking here of attributing rain to the rain god, but of such things as possessions, poltergeist activity, and the like — to say nothing of mishaps to man, animal, and crops attributable to what can only be called witchcraft. Bear in mind that these were people who — given a lack of drought — were quite adept at understanding and manipulating their surroundings sufficiently to make a living out of it. Countless annals tell of the first missionaries arriving in such places, and successfully dealing with such things. This therapeutic activity, alongside such signs and wonders as Our Lady of Guadalupe, have accounted for many mass conversions of peoples around the globe.
Indeed, despite the best efforts of Modernist clergy and professional debunkers to obscure or disprove them, such signs and wonders not only followed the Church wherever she went, they continue to do so. At a bare minimum, the beatifications and canonisations of Saints require miracles, and these continue to occur. The Church is very stringent in her judgement of these things, as she should be — even going so far as to prefer to use non-Catholic doctors to investigate these events. We moderns prefer not to think of these things, and are much unsettled when forced to read about the details. But a Breton or a Gorale peasant would look at us piteously and say what is obvious to him — “X is a Saint in Heaven; God saw fit to heal the individual miraculously through X’s intercession, and so manifest his sanctity publicly. What could be more natural?”
His matter of fact attitude extends to darker matters. It is a commonplace of Exorcisms that the demons possessing the afflicted happily call out the unconfessed mortal sins of the witnesses in attendance in order to demoralise and embarrass them. This action led one priest of my acquaintance to considerably revise his views of the Church’s teaching after going to several for the purpose of debunking the practise. Again, for we sophisticates, this is strange stuff, indeed; but our peasant-companion would shrug and tell us afterwards that he had taken the precaution of going to Confession first. “Anyone knows that,” he would tell us.
The heart, as it were, of Folk Catholicism is simply taking the doctrines and practices of the Church seriously and literally. Seen in this light, one might have a great deal of contempt for the local priest as a man — a man who might well not be living his vows in a scandalous and public manner. But that contempt goes only as far as the cleric’s own personality, for good or bad, he still holds the keys to the mysteries. He brings God down on the altar; he blesses and sanctifies. If need be (at which point our imaginary friend crosses himself) he may have to fight the devil — and woe betide him then, if his life has been less than it should be!
The Eucharist is of course God Himself, really present — and our Folk Catholic treats Him as such. He reveres his own Guardian Angel, and has a great love of local shrines containing relics or images, many of which have extraordinary origins and miraculous powers — as evidenced by the piles of crutches or whatever left behind. The feasts of the Church and the Saints’ days, most especially the town or village’s own patron, and our friend’s own name Saint — are celebrated with social observances and dishes at home, and often public displays, processions and the like, in which he is happy to share. Indeed, his year revolves around them, and he may organise his annual cycle of farming, hunting, fishing, or whatever he may do around them.
Of course, his people have a huge fund of tales, which he may or may not believe — but even if the latter, he would not cross the morals they contain. Many, of course, are of Angels and Saints, appearing locally for one reason or another — and depending on where he is, the Church may actually have approved one or two, often leading to the sort of shrine we have mentioned. But he also believes that ghosts can return from Purgatory to right a wrong or pass on information; or else they are the damned, or demons masquerading as the dead to mislead the unwary.
Often enough, he and his neighbours share their countryside with beings we can only call elves or fairies, whatever he and his people call them. Some of these are simply evil, and the dividing line between them and the demons small. Others appear to be benevolent and helpful at times, but always strange and unpredictable, save for a few unbreakable rules. In some places, a subset of them actually act as guards for the local church, or punish those who do such things as dancing during Lent. But save for their existence and the handed-down rules of behaviour toward them, he has no more concept of what they are than did St. Joan of Arc or St. Anthony the Abbot when they encountered them. Depending upon where he lives, our friend might fear either or both shape-shifting humans, or — for want of a better term — vampires. These last, however, are not the glamorous creatures of our fiction, but rather disgusting demon-possessed corpses.
He need not look to the undead for the bizarre, however, for there are usually a few odd characters in his area firmly planted among the living. Some of these, usually older men or women, are fairly benevolent people, with a knack for healing ringworm with their saliva or treating various ailments of man and beast with prayer and herbs — often enough, these are among the most assiduous church-goers in the community, frequently to be seen entering the confessional or heading up to the altar rail. Others, however, have rather less savoury reputations, receiving chickens or cheese in return for love or death spells, or even conjuring the dead for questioning. These folk are said to have sold themselves to the devil for their powers, and if one fears to have been bewitched by them, he’ll repair to one of the first named or to the priest (or both) for protection.
Whether or not he has a name for all of the strange mixture of good and evil amongst which he lives, we do. It is magic, if we use that much bandied word in the sense in which our Medieval ancestors did: “the accomplishment of ends out of proportion to the means employed.” If a lost object is recovered through answered prayer to a Saint, or by resorting to the fairies, or by evoking an evil spirit, or through the second sight of a village wise-woman, it is all magic in one sense, given the one goal. But oh, how different the various means employed, for all that none of them involve a physical search! In this sense, the priest is the greatest magician of all; he can call God down from Heaven into bread and wine, and drive the devil off with water — all through the medium of mere words!
So much for our friend and his fellow villagers in enclaves scattered across this world of ours even now. Even in our own country, in Northern New Mexico and Maine; southern Louisiana; the Pennsylvania Dutch country (where early 19th century writer and publisher John George Hohman produced both Catholic catechisms for the Church and The Long Lost Friend — a still-in-print manual of magical cures); and all urban areas where Botanicas can be found; this mindset survives to a greater or lesser degree. But what of us? More particularly, what of me?
On a very basic level, I am too enamoured of modern medicine and — as Julia Child would say — plentiful food, ever to want to entrust my physical well-being to wise-women and subsistence farming. The Church forbids us to try to contact ghosts, and it would be probably best to follow the same embargo in regard to all the rest of the uncanny crew we have been discussing — as we know, she is stringent even with regard to miracles and apparitions, and we should imitate her example in all things.
But what we should take away from our brief sojourn among the “superstitious” peasantry is a lively and real belief in the Church’s doctrines and practises — frequent reception of the Sacraments, and use of the Sacramentals (Holy Water, Scapulars, the Rosary, St. Benedict medals, etc.) to strengthen our Faith, bring us ever closer to God and His Mother, and to ward off the Dark. For make no mistake; the Evil our friend and his cohorts fear in their remote village is very much present among us. Most often it is simply through the temptations we all face, and through sickness, poverty, infanticide, perversion, and — especially religious — illiteracy. But sometimes some of the things he fears lurk among our skyscrapers. I have never met a vampire outside of tax season; but when one reads the accounts of such things in the bored bureaucratic German of 18th century Austrian officialdom (speaking of staking screaming corpses in the same dull tones in which it requisitions office supplies) one cannot help but wonder. In the same manner, I have never met an elf; but I do wonder what or who it was Ss. Joan of Arc, Anthony, and Collen encountered, and cannot help but notice the similarities between supposed UFO abductions and the tales of fairy kidnappings — if these things happen, perhaps the “aliens” are not from Outer Space. But I do know there are poltergeists, and ghosts walk; a few odd things have come my way. So for those few at least, I must echo the words of the late Provost of Eton and master ghost story writer, M.R. James: “these things happen, depend upon it — but we do not know the rules!” What we do know is that the means the Church gives us to save our souls and protect us from spiritual evil work, and so I will end with the words of that great scientist, Louis Pasteur: “Now I have the Faith of a Breton peasant; before I die I hope to have the Faith of a Breton peasant’s wife!”