My Religious Journey

By Francisco Castro

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. Photo: Clarous Maximus
Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. Photo: Clarous Maximus

I can’t remember exactly when I had my first encounter with religion. I can say with certainty however that the first religion I had contact with was the Catholic faith, through visits to the church in the town of Manati, Las Tunas, during one of my summer vacations.

When I returned to the city of Santiago I wanted to continue visiting the Catholic churches and to receive Catechism instruction. My mother was opposed to the idea, asking me if I really believed that Eve had been created from one of Adam’s ribs.

Seeing my astonished expression, my mother inculcated respect for religion in me with one of the most important and best learned lessons of my life: attending mass without really believing is a supreme act of hypocrisy as well as representing an enormous lack of respect for those who attend with all the faith in the world.

A little while later, I accompanied my grandmother to the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. My grandmother was there to fulfill a vow. I was very impressed watching the way in which other people kept the promises they had made to the Virgin. Some were climbing the enormous staircase on their knees, others dragged themselves along the concrete walk, others, like my grandmother, deposited bouquets of flowers in the place set aside for offerings.

Following that visit, a dream began to recur during my nights: the appearance of the Virgin of Charity in an enormous cloud of smoke in the starry sky. I never mentioned the dream in my house, perhaps because it didn’t make a great impression on me. I never dreamt it again after that time.

Shortly before taking the University entrance exams, I had my next encounter with religion, this time with one of African origin. My grandmother, in her zeal to have everything go well for me, visited a neighbor who practiced the Santeria religion to have her do a cleaning ceremony for me. The Santeria priestess asked for a piece of yellow paper, then split it into three equal parts, and recited a series of litanies while passing it over my entire body. Afterwards she threw the pieces to the ground and burned them.

My scores on the tests couldn’t have been better.

Once in the city of Havana, one of the projects required for my major was to make a documentary film. For reasons that even I don’t totally understand, I chose the theme of profit in the Yoruba religion as the focus of my documentary.

That was my latest encounter with religion. I emerged with a very personal conclusion, in no way supported by any authoritative opinion: I am a son of the spirit guide Babalú Ayé, the equivalent of San Lazaro in the Catholic religion.

And I met my guardian angel through another Santeria priestess that my grandmother consulted at the time of my University entrance examinations. With that tone of mystery that they use, she told my grandmother that a protective figure surrounded me and took care of me, a very strong and wise spirit.

At that time, I had won a prize in the “Reading Marti.” national contest and had just returned to the city of Havana following a week of travel in which, among other activities, they awarded the prizes to all the winning children of the country.

You will already have imagined that the guardian angel who takes care of me, that spirit with so much power, is the spirit of Jose Marti.

4 thoughts on “<em>My Religious Journey</em>

  • I hate to be a stinker here, but I find such a lack of “faith” in socialism — and thus atheism — to be a sad commentary on how a proud revolution has been almost forced to its knees; and those who should be supporting its best, most objective aspects, are to be seen instead wandering away — to be diverted by all sorts of dead-end cultural baggage from out of the past, regardless of whether this stuff is interesting from a sociological or anthropological point of view or not in its own (democratic) right. The point is that these people do not make those distinctions — or at least least not clearly enough.

    It seems to me that along with valid criticism of the Revolution comes some rather invalid criticism as well, all mixed up with it. Still, it is your right to be wrong — just don’t anyone see this as a reason to aid the imperialists in their various projects of advancing particular obscurantisms and general fear and ignorance. Which they do all too well.

  • Robert, I was touched by your story. I hope your wish is fulfilled, and that you will see Cuba someday soon. I first fell in love with her music, her culture, and most of all, her people, some fifty years ago, the summer of 1959, when I was 16. Although I try to get back every few years now, I no sooner leave than I am longing to return. Although Cuba is far from utopia–far, far from it–nevertheless, its people are warm, welcoming, and generous. It has been said that, “although they have nothing, they are glad to share it with you!” What this really means is that they are willing to share of themselves with you.

  • Francisco, I liked your article. I used to live in Ft. lauderdale, Fl. Over time I became so highly addicted to Alcohol and Rx drugs I wanted treatment for my addictions. I ended up in a treatment center in Milwaukee, Wisconsen not knowing how I got there. A short time after I got there I went blind. I slowly recovered my sight, but when I tried to talk nobody could understand what I said. It was probably gibberish. Then I knew I was in trouble. One night I got down on my knees, and said, “If you are so good, why don’t you come down and save me? In time i got the help I asked for. Eventually the words “I believe you will help me, I know you will show me the way” became my prayer. These two prayers have helped me get through a divorce and a lot of other difficult times in my life. Now I am 80 and am looking forward to visiting Cuba when I can.

  • Thanks for describing some of your encounters with religion, Francisco!
    I think you are thinking in absolutes, however, when you feel you are being hypocritical for attending mass without believing everything that the more literal believers believe. There are many levels of religion. Some folks believe literally in the miracles; others take them as symbols. During the Spanish Inquisition, not to mention the wars during the Reformation, many folks perished over just how they interpreted holy scripture and the Church’s practices. You can still have respect, and even participate in these ceremonies, be they Catholic, Protestant, the Afro-Cuban religions, etc. without literally believing; you can do this out of respect for traditions, and even in order to carry forward these traditions.
    Reading a remarkable book on your music (“Cuba and Its Music: From First Drums to the Mambo, Vol.I”) by Ned Sublette, I became interested in the Afro-Cuban religions, which are, of course, intimately connected with Cuban music. As a consequence, my wife roped me into speaking on this subject at her church (Unitarian-Universalist=an offshoot of Protestanatism which has evolved into a sort of Pantheism; generally, they believe in a benevolent, rational god, sort of a supernatural social worker; I, on the other hand, have a darker image of god, no doubt a residue from my Puritan ancestors). In the limited time alloted, I gave a brief description of the two major Afro-Cuban religions, played some ceremonial religious music obtained from an Afro-Cuban religious web site, and ended with an excerpt from the 1959 Brazilian film, “Black Orpheus,” which depicts (the Brazilian equivalent of) a Santeria ceremony. My hope was that this would provoke (at least some of) those attending to probe more deeply into this subject.
    Although I will probably remain a religious skeptic ’til the end, nevertheless, I have respect for (at least) some believers, especially those who are compassionate, less judgemental, and lead lives of service to their fellow human beings.

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