Broken Again

On the way to Rincón, pilgrims move along the road in the dark. Often you cannot see them, but the sounds they make are unforgettable, if hard to describe. People drag themselves across the asphalt, scraping their clothes and their flesh against the hard pavement as they lurch forward. The huge effort of dragging their own dead weight makes them pant or gasp when they rest. Bleeding from open wounds on their hands and legs, they sometimes moan as they push on. The groaning in the darkness makes your skin crawl.

The mute and private quality of this pain is hard to escape. The body suffers mutely or at least without words, as author Elaine Scary has pointed out in her book, Bodies in Pain. Because pain is an internal experience, it is impossible to make reference to shared or objective features. Words for this pain or the suffering of illness are hard to find, but not impossible. People do talk about what is happening to them, if only in short sentences: “It hurts.” “My knees are bleeding.” “I suffer from a bad heart.” “I cannot go on.” Later these sentences become part of longer narratives that unite people who travelled together and pull others into some kind of relationship with the raw sensation.

There are many secrets in Lucumí religion in general, and because Babalú-Ayé is particularly hermetic, mysteries abound in his worship. There are ritual acts that point to the centrality of brokenness to Babalú, but as a priest, these are facts that I am not at liberty to share.

Still, a return to the surface of the tradition might be helpful: the image of Saint Lazarus depicts him walking on crutches. Broken to the point that he cannot walk unaided, Lazarus supports himself as best he can and painfully pushes on, perhaps on sore or broken limbs. The pain does not “unmake” him, as author Elaine Scary suggests. Rather the pain mixed with other qualities makes him who he is. Enduring the pain, he carries his broken self toward some distant destination. You can almost hear his feet drag as he stumbles on.