Acts of Faith
The day breaks on August 2 here in San Jose, Costa Rica with brass bands blaring and fireworks booming. The pilgrims who have filled the roads for the last few weeks have mostly arrived by now in Cartago, a city about 15 miles east of San Jose.
Cartago has three times been destroyed by the volcano that looms above it and three times rebuilt, most recently with one of the finest churches in the land. Pilgrims have come by the thousands from all over the country, walking, riding horses, or motor scooters and even running marathon style.
They come to honor the country's patron saint, La Negrita, the little black one, the Virgen de los Angles.
The holiday stems from a legend of a miracle that began on August 2, 1635. A woman collecting firewood found a small dark stone standing atop a larger stone in the woods. Looking closer, she saw that the small stone was carved with an image of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus in her arms. The woman took the image home and put it in a basket.
The next day she returned to the same place and found a carved image of a snake on the same stone in the same place. She brought that one home too. She went to put it in the same basket as the first image, but the first one was gone. She locked the remaining image up so that no one could take it.
She returned a third time to the place in the woods and found the image of the Virgin Mary on the same stone again. She took it back home only to find that now the snake was gone.
At this point, the town priest was brought in for a consultation. He took charge of the image but nothing changed. The image continued to disappear and reappear where it had been found. After the stone was placed in a locked box in the church and once again returned to its perch in the woods, there was nothing to be done but to build a basilica to house the miraculous image where it was so determined to be. The legend doesn't say what happened to the stone snake.
A Basilica was built on the site where La Negrita was found. Inside the Basilica is a shrine to La Negrita, where the stone is displayed on its own altar. The chamber is festooned with trinkets and small gifts, many small gold or metallic images of body parts cured through the intervention of La Negrita.
The Costa Rican government declared La Negrita the Patron Saint of Costa Rica on September 23, 1824.
Many pilgrims climb the church steps on their knees, giving thanks for favors granted or praying for favors to come. Visitors also pray by the stone on which La Negrita was originally found and collect water from the stream near the shrine, which is said to have curative powers.
In 2003 the official count of pilgrims to Cartago was over 1.5 million. That's over 40% of the population of the entire country, and well over half the adults. Such a celebration and display of faith has no North American equivalent.
Costa Ricans are tolerant of other religions but according to the 1949 Constitution, Catholicism is the official state religion. The Catholic religion is taught in the public schools and over three quarters of the population considers itself Catholic. Although only 40% admit to active practice, more than that show up every year in Cartago to make sure La Negrita hasn't disappeared again.
This writer received Catholic training when young, but comes from a much more casual Catholic tradition where religion is not unlike dandruff — every one has a little, spends some time and money on it, but otherwise doesn't think very much about it. The depth of faith and devotion that brings barefoot pilgrims hundreds of miles on foot and drives them to their knees to ascend the steps of the church is a marvel to me not unlike the mysteries of La Negrita's miraculous disappearances.
The Bible tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. If that is so, there is a great deal of both substance and evidence in Cartago on August 2. As an act of faith, I'll be driving over to the Basilica today to see for myself if the La Negrita is still there. I'll have a little sip from the river, too, or at least rub some onto my arthritic joints, and look for evidence of things I can't see and the substance of things I hope for.