Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nicho de Santos

Above is a picture of our Nicho de Santos in what we call "The Jesus Room" in New Mexico.

I was up before dawn coloring eggs, and then at dawn I lit candles in front of the nicho as a sign of respect for the sacrifice Jesus and the Resurrection.

Being of the Highly Lapsed Persuasion, I should be embarrassed to say any such thing. I can hear the cat-calls of "Hypocrite!" loud and clear.

Yeah, well. Faith is not really about following the dictates and strictures of the Holy Catholic Church -- or any church for that matter. I have posted before on my belief that the practice of Organized Religion -- no matter the denomination -- is a matter of predators and prey. Predatory behavior is built in to the power structure of Organized Religion. There is no way to separate it out. And those of us who don't want to -- or perhaps can't -- play that way would be hypocrites to stay within the Bosom of the Church, whatever Church one might choose.

That doesn't mean I necessarily disrespect people of faith, priests and holy men and women, or the laity in faith. In fact, I have a very high regard for most of them and have said so. I consider myself a Person of Strong and Abiding Faith, despite my inability -- or is it refusal -- to bend to the will of the Church.

The Nicho de Santos is a feature of many private houses in New Mexico, often in the case of adherents to the Santa Fe Style (which we've been discussing tangentially for some time now) as a matter of "style" rather than Grace. The "style" is to have Santos in your home, bultos or retablos or preferably both, hand carved by the Most Famous Santeros and to display them proudly with your Crucifixes decorated with the most intricate patterns in straw, and so on and so forth. Whether you're Catholic or not, whether you're lapsed or not.

Newer Santa Fe Style houses have one or more plaster nichos where anything at all may be displayed -- or nothing at all, as the case may be. Authentic "old" New Mexico houses typically have deep nichos built into the adobe (as the one in our house is) with carved wooden doors to close them when not in use. In fact, the nicho in our house was once a window -- the window itself is still there -- but it was covered over about fifty years ago when the siding was put on over the crumbling stucco on the exterior. Given that it is on the north side of the house and the room where it is I suspect was once the kitchen, I have little doubt that this nicho was intended to be and was used as a refrigerator back in the day.

Why not?

Later, what had been a fairly substantial kitchen was subdivided into two bedrooms and various closets and storage areas. In addition to the nicho, what we now call "The Jesus Room" also has a built in wooden cabinet with a drawer that was probably once used for storing kitchen supplies. It is clearly home-made and charmingly primitive.

Whether this nicho was ever used previously for the storage and display of santos I have no idea. I wouldn't be surprised though.

The santos that we have collected over the years are varied, to say the least. In fact, none of them are "New Mexican." No works by Famous Santeros. Not a one. In fact, I've resisted acquiring any -- though I love the look of them -- because they are essentially "style" notes. Any sort of santo will do to remind one of faith. It doesn't have to be stylish.

Perhaps the chief santo in our house and our lives is that of St. Francis of Assisi that graces the front porch. We do love our animals! I'd like to get one of St. Clare, but so far, have not had any luck. We do have a ceramic light-up version of Mission Santa Clara in California. Not the same, I know.

In The Jesus Room, though, there are lots of curious santos, including paintings, bas reliefs, plates, prints, and small statues. There's a deep-relief pressed tin image of Our Lady of Lourdes in her Grotto that is quite spectacular. A paint by numbers picture of Jesus in the Garden. There's a photo of the very statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that stands in her Grotto, crowned, that was taken when the statue went on an American tour some years back. Many images of the Virgin and Child. Some of St. Joseph, some of Mary. There is a delightful tin multi-picture -- it's cleverly formed so that when looked at straight on, it is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, while from one side it is the Annunciation, and if seen from the other side it is the Resurrection. There's a huge Last Supper in an elaborate gold frame, and there is a much smaller one in a plain wooden frame. There are numerous Jesuses, most of them not "Catholic." There are crucifixes, but only one shows Christ on the Cross, and it's for a reason that I won't get into here. There are way too many Catechisms.

And anyone could see this display and scream "Hypocrite!!!!". And yet every bit of it is there as a reminder of faith. A Catholic friend who came to visit said, "Where's your kneeler?" Well, it's in storage. There isn't room for it in this tiny space!

This is a day of joy. And our santos are meant to help us express that joy.

And our Christmas tree is up and lit all year long, too.


  1. Oh Che, thank you for sharing this about yourself. I enjoyed the post but was prompted to comment by the fact that you keep your Christmas tree up all year long. I love it as we did the same thing for several years. My parents-in-law gave us an extremely nice artificial Christmas tree and my desire to keep the tree up was because it was so pretty once decorated. But then I did some research on the origins of Christmas trees and the desire to keep the tree up became more than just ornamental. Due to cross country move and then birth of child the tree became impractical but I've often thought of putting it back up once the little man is older.

    Several years ago my husband built a small cabinet for me in which to keep meditation related items.

    I did not grow up in a religious family although for a few years in my early teens my mother hauled me and my sister off to a Lutheran church every Sunday (my little brother got to stay home with dad). I didn't like going to church at all (I'm quite sure that has something to do with not liking "authority" and really not liking organized things, i.e., hierarchy, people needing to have "in" and "out" people. You know, that sort of crap that goes on everywhere.). Anyway, what I did like is ritual and the desire to feel part of something larger. When my son was born, six years ago, I wished so strongly for some sort of ceremony to welcome him, such as a christening. We live across the country from any family so some sort of gathering was out.

    I really don't understand your concern about being charged with hypocrisy. I can't remember you ever making any sort of claims (either here or comments at UT) that would cause someone to consider you a hypocrite. Although I admit my eyes glaze over when self-proclaimed leftist or progressives or whatever start declaring there is no use for religion, bashing people who have found some meaning in their particular beliefs, etc. It's tiresome not to mention cliched.

    Have you ever read Marcus Borg? His writings on Jesus appeal to me because they show Jesus to be human (and for lack of a better way to say it) but with what appears to have been an incredible awakening. When I've read about Jesus actions I'm flabbergasted. He truly was, what? An anarchist? rebel?

    Anyway, I could go on (and actually did but deleted more!) but I won't except to say that I'm so glad you posted this and thank you for letting me share a little Easter with you.

    Happy Easter!

  2. Gwen,

    What a wonderful comment! Thank you.

    I was pretty well occupied with other duties yesterday so I missed coming by here.

    The All-Year Christmas Tree is a custom we got into several years ago, and for something like the reason you cite: the tree is so nice looking and cheery, why take it down? It helps of course if the "tree" is artificial. ;-)

    We adopted the custom in New Mexico for several reasons: Our motto here is Siempre Navidad, in fact, if we ever name our place here, that's probably what it will be called; Betty's ashes are here, and she dearly loved the Holidays. Christmas was her favorite, closely followed by Easter. We do it partly in honor of Betty's -- and our -- favorite cat, Mao, who died a few months before she did. He loved the Holidays just as much as she did, and they would both eagerly anticipate and prepare. His pictures are with her ashes. We like to think they are together forever and that he prepared the way for her.

    I agree that the Culture of Church can be, shall we say, problematical. I sometimes listen to Catholic Radio because I really like hearing the Rosary and Mass, even as automatic as they are. They are very soothing in some sense. But then there are the call-in programs in which callers dispute and denounce the behavior of someone else, looking for justification from the Fathers. Of course the Fathers like to lord it over everyone, and the hierarchy of the Church is constantly cited as justification for priests and bishops, and it goes on and on. For rebels like me, this just doesn't work!

    Still, no one does Ritual better than Catholics. They've been at this for a very long time.

    Ritual seems to be enough for some people, too.

    I've been reading "Goddess of the Americas, writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe" edited by Ana Castillo, and I cannot recommend it too highly. It is a series of essays and contemplations on la Virgen and her meaning and import to the world that are beautiful and startling and profound in turn. Most all the writers are Hispanic, and their stories dig deep into the Latin American perspective. But they go far, far beyond what you might expect. Faith in action indeed.

    I am only lightly familiar with Borg, but I'll check him out again.



  3. Che,

    Thanks for the book recommendation. It sounds terrific from the review. I've made a note of it and will certainly be reading it.

    Take care.