Growing up as child in my Mexican village, some of my favorite memories are tied to hearing stories about all kinds of ghosts and spirits. Gathered in our family room or kitchen table, my family members would recount stories of how our village in the past had been inhabited by “brujas” (witches) who often use black magic to transform themselves into “lechuzas” (flying birds) that would hover around at night. Often, these village brujas were held responsible for casting all kinds of negative spells upon the villagers. As children, however, we also knew the way in which we could protect ourselves from this kind of malevolent sprits; in their presence we were to repeat the following phrase “Ave Maria Purisima” (Hail Mary Full of Grace). Given my own childhood imagination, I believed that this phrase alone was powerful enough to resist any kind of evil that would ever come my way.
Moving into the United States did little to alleviate this cultural and familial custom of sharing stories. To this day, we still gather around as a family to share our experiences of life beyond this world. While our stories of brujas and spirits are still part of our repertoire, we have added stories of angels, benevolent spirits, souls of the departed and saints in our midst. In interacting with others from different cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups, I have discovered that my own childhood imagination is not that different from theirs. I am often fascinated by people I meet who share with me their own stories of how angels and saints have accompanied them along the way. Sometimes these stories involved specific healings or miracles; other times these stories narrate how they felt the presence of a deceased loved one, or simply tell how they felt a sudden sensation of peace take hold of them. I have heard others tell me how blessed they feel to be in the good company of a particular saint or divine image they happen to like.
As I reflect on my own childhood and cultural experiences, I, too, feel blessed to be in the good company of the departed souls and saints who have gone before me. In many ways, I feel lucky to have grown up in a Catholic culture that encourages all of us to look beyond this world. I love the way in which our Catholic heritage and imagination allows us to see ourselves in relationship with one another, even beyond the grave. I love the way we can have our favorite saints, our devotions to our guardian angels, and our religious day of remembrance of All Souls Day.
Now as a grown-up man, and as a believer, I often wonder how others can live without this sense of faith and belief in their lives. For me, it is hard to imagine growing up without this greater sense of communion with God and others. In fact, I see this rich Catholic faith and traditions as a manifestation of my own childhood village where the words of Ave Maria Purisima, or Hail Mary Full of Grace, still have the power to make me and others feel connected, safe and loved by God.
F. Javier Orozco
First published October 29, 2010 in the St. Louis Review