Remembering Catholic Cuba with Pope Benedict—and Thomas Merton

Pope Benedict XVI praying at the Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre in Cuba.

Amid the reporting on Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba, there was sporadic mention of the religious persecution by the Castro government against the Church, which began with Fidel’s takeover in January 1959. In Cuba, like everywhere else, communists launched their standard war on religious faith. No ideology has so consistently and viciously attacked Christianity like communism—starting with the Bolsheviks in 1917 and resounding throughout the century ahead. As Mikhail Gorbachev put it, communists launched a systematic “war on religion.”

Much could and should be said about the attack on the faith in Cuba in particular. But we should also not neglect the wonderful historical roots of the Catholic faith in Cuba—Pope Benedict certainly didn’t. This island was once a pilgrimage center. It began with the apparitions of Our Lady of Cobre 400 years ago—thus Pope Benedict’s visit this 2012.

The historical richness of the faith in Cuba could be shown in a number of ways, but I’d like to briefly offer just one unique example here:

In October 1948, Thomas Merton wrote his brilliant memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. I strongly recommend it to every Catholic. The book is a fascinating account of the life of a young man who, at that point, was in his early 30s. He eventually became a monk and a wonderful writer.

The first time I read Merton’s memoirs, I was struck by his remarks on Cuba, which came as totally new news to me—as a Protestant, and as someone who for years had studied and even did lectures on communist Cuba. I knew none of this. As Merton contemplated entering religious life, he is also yearned for a pilgrimage to Cuba—yes, Cuba. It would be his final “vacation” before hunkering down for the contemplative life. Here’s an excerpt:

I told myself that the reason why I had come to Cuba was to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Cobre…. [God] certainly beset me with graces all the way around Cuba…. Every step I took opened up a new world of joys, spiritual joys, and joys of the mind and imagination and sense in the natural order, but on the plane of innocence, and under the direction of grace….

But here, at every turn, I found my way into great, cool, dark churches, some of them with splendid altars shining with craven retables or rich with mahogany and silver: and wonderful red gardens of flame flowered before the saints or the Blessed Sacrament.

Here in niches were those lovely, dressed up images, those littler carved Virgins full of miracle and pathos and clad in silks and black velvet, throned above the high altars. Here, in side chapels, were those pietas fraught with fierce, Spanish drama, with thorns and nails whose very sight pierced the mind and heart, and all around the church were many altars to white and black saints: and everywhere were Cubans in prayer….

But I was living like a prince in that island, like a spiritual millionaire. Every morning, getting up about seven or half-past, and walking out into the warm sunny street, I could find my way quickly to any one of a dozen churches or as old as the seventeenth century. Almost as soon as I went in the door I could receive Communion, if I wished, for the priest came out with a ciborium loaded with Hosts before Mass and during it and after it—and every fifteen or twenty minutes a new Mass was starting at a different altar. These were the churches of the religious Orders—Carmelites, Franciscans, the American Augustinians at El Santo Cristo, or the Fathers of Mercy—everywhere I turned, there was someone ready to feed me with the infinite strength of the Christ Who loved me, and Who was beginning to show me with an immense and subtle and generous lavishness how much He loved me.

And there were a thousand things to do, a thousand ways of easily making a thanksgiving: everything lent itself to Communion: I could hear another Mass, I could say the Rosary, do the Stations of the Cross, or if I just knelt where I was, everywhere I turned my eyes I saw saints in wood or plaster or those who seemed to be saints in flesh and blood—and even those who were probably not saints, were new enough and picturesque enough to stimulate my mind with many meaning and heart with prayers….

Often I left one church and went to hear another Mass in another church, especially if the day happened to be Sunday, and I would listen to the harmonious sermons of the Spanish priests, the very grammar of which was full of dignity and mysticism and courtesy….

And so I made my way to Matanzas and Camagüey and Santiago—riding in a wild bus through the olive-grey Cuban countryside, full of sugar-cane fields. All the way I said rosaries and looked out into the great solitary ceiba trees, half expecting that the Mother of God would appear to me in one of them. There seemed to be no reason why she should not, for all things in heaven were just a little out of reach. So I kept looking, looking, and half expecting. But I did not see Our Lady appear, beautiful, in any of the ceiba trees….

In Camagüey, I found a Church to La Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude, a little dressed-up image up in a shadowy niche: you could hardly see her. La Soledad! One of my big devotions, and you never find her, never hear anything about her in this country, except that one of the old California missions was dedicated to her.

Finally my bus went roaring across the dry plain towards the blue wall of mountains: Oriente, the end of my pilgrimage.

When we had crossed over the divide and were going down through the green valleys towards the Caribbean Sea, I saw the yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre, standing on a rising above the tin roofs of the mining village in the depths of a deep bowl of green, backed by cliffs and sheer slopes robed in jungle….

Ah, can you believe this? The first time I read it, I was amazed. Again, I knew none of this. I learned none of it in graduate school, even as I specialized in U.S.-Latin American relations, where, frankly, secular academics could give a damn about these profound matters of faith.

This is the glorious Cuba that has been hidden from us for a half century, courtesy of the Castro dictatorship. What a tragedy. The Cuba closed to Americans is not merely one of beaches and weather and entertainment, but one rich in the Catholic faith—what’s left of it.

This is just a sample of what Merton stated. He went on for several more pages, describing what he referred to as “Heaven … right here in front of me.”

Merton said much more still. If you’d like to read more, get yourself a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain. You’ll learn about far more than Cuba.

Kudos to Thomas Merton, and Pope Benedict, for resurrecting this sacred place as Holy Week approaches.

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One thought on “Remembering Catholic Cuba with Pope Benedict—and Thomas Merton

  1. Debbie says:

    Thank you! I have this book on my ‘to read’ list. Made me want to start it right now but I have a bad habit of starting too many books and not getting all the way through before starting another… so many books, so little time!

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