A Saint for Sinners
By Don MacLeod
For lost keys, Catholics have St. Anthony. St. Christopher watches over travelers, and St. Jude is there for the darkest hours. The Catholic Church keeps a deep bench to handle supplications for divine intervention. It encourages prayers for relief when the imprecation is for the biopsy to turn out negative or to help Uncle Dougie's bedraggled soul gets paroled early from purgatory. For action on standard issue requests like that, the Catholic Church is happy to have prayers addressed to the heavenly do-gooders.
But if you're in the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala, and you want to pray for some earthy goal that might give St. Catherine the vapors, you can call on Maximón. He's the one to see when the spiritual need is more along the lines of asking for a new motorcycle, say, or the need to see your business rival have a bad day. He's a saint, yes. But saintly? No.
Maximón is a local deity in Guatemala. He's a mash-up of an old Mayan spirit named Mam and bits of the Catholic St. Simon, represented by a wooden effigy who looks like Rhett Butler squinting in the noonday sun. Man got his start working for the local farmers. Because they spent sunrise to sunset laboring in the fields, the farmers needed a guardian to watch over the womenfolk. They chose Maximón for the job, which turned out to be the Mayan version of putting a fox in charge of the henhouse. While the farmers were hoeing the corn stalks in the milpas, Max was busy plowing a few fields of his own. So out of spite, the men cut the arms off the effigy to stop the old satyr in his wooden tracks and to remind Maximón who he was working for.
Maximón (pronounced "Mash-ee-MOHN") is a traveling saint, cared for by a lay religious brotherhood known as a cofradía, who take care of his material needs.
The cofradía sets up the saint in a house for a time and move him around to a new house each year. By moving the effigy from place to place, each group of caretakers gets a piece of the offerings: that means free booze and cash, because Maximón is not a saint who works for a lit candle alone. The members of the cofradía are not only stewards of the saint's well-being, they also serve as toll collectors on the highway to Maximón's rakish heaven. The towns surrounding Lake Atitlan are tiny. Even though he moves around, worshippers know where to find him.
Maximón himself can't do much personally on behalf of a supplicant. Nevetheless, he's got juice because he is friends with all the other saints. He's regarded like a heavenly lobbyist. To his believers, Maximón is someone you want on your side. He may be a dysfunctional daddy, but he enjoys influence, and he needs to be kept happy.
In April 2016, Maximón of Santiago Atitlán is holding audience inside a cinder block hut about a fifteen minute tuk-tuk ride up the hill from the dock. (The driver knew where to find him.) Inside the room, set back from the road about 25 steps, down a path through scattering chickens, a Mayan woman is mid-ceremony one overcast morning, kneeling before the saint, her head and face covered with a bright green scarf flowing like a curtain from the brim of Maximón's borrowed cowboy hat. A shaman, or curadero, speaks an incantation in Kaqchickel, a local Mayan dialect, while swinging an incense burner that conjures a cloud of white smoke. She is there to ask Maximón to ward off any trouble with her new business.
The floor of the simple hut is covered in freshly cut grasses and flowers. Botanica candles burn brightly in front of the effigy. Mexican-style cutouts h Tellingly, on one wall a small Catholic altar is also available. A Lenin-like glass coffin holds a small statue of Jesus. That way, with the altar and a representation of Jesus to chaperone the ceremony, the diocese can turn a blind eye to what is technically considered idolatry.
The curadero starts to bring it. With a flourish of the incense burner, he dramatically raises the scarf from the woman's head. Then, taking a swig from a glass of rum, he spits it at the woman, moving around her in a circle. At each cardinal point on the compass, he lets fly another spit-take of rum on her. Whatever the shaman it doing, it clearly makes an impact. The woman asking for help looks genuinely relieved to be in his good graces.
All through the ceremony, Maximón's attendants sit motionless, eyes half shut. While it would be tempting to ascribe the attendants' otherworldly calm to mystical rapture, a liquid almuerzo would better explain the Zen-like calm.
To appease the saint, supplicants bring rum and cigars and money to whatever house he happens to be staying. His attendants gladly accept these offerings on the saint's behalf. Maximón's sensual face is built to hold a small stogey, but, very conveniently, he needs some human help managing the rum and money parts. No problem there. The curadero and the attendants are happy to pitch in. For all their self-possession, they look less like ascetic spirit guides and more like those half-crocked brothers-in-law who lurk by the beer cooler in every bodega.
The man of honor accepts his flattery impassively, quietly smoking his cigar. He is wearing two cowboy hats and enough scarves to accessorize Keith Richards twelve times over. It's extraordinary that Maximón has persisted for so long into the modern era. But 500 years after the Mayans managed to retain some shreds of their old beliefs in the face of unrelenting Spanish repression, Maximón and his dedicated band of believers may be hard pressed to repulse the latest wave of conquistadores.
When a major earthquake ravaged Guatemala in 1976, evangelical Christians from the United States poured into the country to rescue bodies and save souls. They stayed and are converting large numbers of Guatemalans. Now, sterile evangelic slogans like My God is Real and Only Jesus Can Change Your Life hector from buildings and vehicles alike. The abstemious Jehovah's Witnesses and Southern Baptists who came to help with the earthquake don't cotton to saints at all. It's hard to imagine converts to the no-drink, no-smoke Holy Roller sects reconciling their faith, the way the Catholics have, to the veneration of a wooden idol with the appetites of a rock star and a business plan that caters to unholy urges. Even if he's facing down an existential threat from the fundamentalists, Maximón is still a saint to reckon with. He's lasted this long. He must know somebody.
Published May 21st, 2016
Don MacLeod is the author of How to Find Out Anything and doesn't travel half as much as he would like. He lives in New York City.