In Leslie Marmon Silko’s short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds”, the death of family patriarch Teofilo stirs an apparent conflict between traditional Laguna Native American customs represented by his family and the Catholic Church represented by a priest known as Father Paul.
The Laguna ritual for giving a deceased member of the tribe a decent send-off involves the tying of a feather in the hair, the smearing of symbolic colours on the face, the wrapping of the corpse in a red blanket and the sprinkling of corn meal and water at various places including the gravesite.
The feathers symbolize the ascension and flight of the soul among many Native American cultures. Their placement on corpses shows that they are being empowered to travel into the spiritual world (Venefica 25). The colours painted on Teofilo’s face were meant to facilitate his recognition once he arrived in the spirit world, with each colour having a specific meaning attached to it.
The other two rituals were safeguards against evil. The ritual of sprinkling corn meal mixed with pollen at the place of death, at the house of the deceased and at the grave is meant to invoke a blessing for protection while the red blanket in which the corpse is wrapped guarded him against malignant forces as he travelled into the spiritual world (Raitt 152).
In the Catholic Church, there are similar practices but it requires members to follow these instead of the traditional norms. The catholic last rites are ideally performed before death but can be conducted a few hours after death if a priest is available.
They involve the administration of the sacraments if a person is still alive or the administration of intercessory prayers and blessings over the corpse if a person is recently deceased.
This ceremony has several rituals. They include the anointing of the body organs representative of the five senses, and in the case of men, the loins. The ministering priest uses olive oil, blessed by the bishop, and says relevant prayers.
The funeral mass involves prayers and blessing as well, a graveside ritual in which, the coffin or body (if a coffin is lacking), is sprinkled with ‘holy water’, specially prepared by the officiating priest for the occasion. The conflict develops between the two creeds due to this existence of elaborate processes in both, that makes many catholic thinkers assert that traditional and religious practices are mutually exclusive.
This is not the case. The Catholic Church recognizes people who may not have heard the full message of the gospel, but in their own way have a desire to live within the confines of socially acceptable values. Such people, even though they may not be Catholics, have a place in the salvation of souls?. This divergence may exist even though the symbolism is strikingly similar in some instances and may even mean the same thing.
This apparent void in beliefs is further illustrated in the way of life of the two communities. While the Catholics live in strict separation with the nuns cloistered in their chambers, “The priest turned away from Leon and looked out the window at the patio full of shadows and the dining-room windows of the nuns’ cloister across the patio” (Silko 5).
“The curtains were heavy, and the light from within faintly penetrated; it was impossible to see the nuns inside eating supper”, the Laguna lived side by side; men amongst women in all that they did (Silko 5). The differences were based on belief and translated into precepts, bringing about an artificial conflict that would soon be resolved by the humane treatment both groups embraced as a way of life.
The conflict is resolved by Leon, a grandson of Teofilo, when he requests Fr Paul to sprinkle holy water on the deceased’s body at the grave. According to the Laguna, this will ensure the old man does not travel into the next life while thirsty and will also enable him to send the Laguna some rain since the dry season has lasted too long.
At the same time, the sprinkling of holy water by the priest symbolizes cleansing in the Catholic Church. This practice started in early Christian times probably because of the Jewish heritage that Christianity has.
The Jews always considered water as an agent of ritual purification. It finds a lot of reference in the Mosaic rituals. This gives Fr Paul a chance to redeem Teofilo as he leaves the world and sets off for the after-life and dovetails with the modern teaching of the Catholic Church about those who die without being a part of it.
For such people, access to salvation comes through the grace of Christ that reveals to them this salvation without them formally becoming part of the church. The Catholic Church views the expression of this grace as an act of the Holy spirit, who is Gods agent in the current dispensation.
By bending over backwards and indulging the Laguna, the Catholic Church seeks to converge traditional beliefs and Christian practices, a common cause of conflict in areas where animism is predominant.
Raitt, Thomas M. JSTOR: Religious Studies, Vol. 23 No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 523 – 530. 21 May 2011
Silko, Leslie Marmon. The Man to Send Rain Clouds. 21 May 2011
Venefica, Avia. Symbol Meaning of Feathers. November 2007. 21 May 2011