I was recently spending time with my friend Mallorie Vaudoise and chatting about the saints and she had the wonderful idea of interviewing each other about our devotional and magical relationships with these figures in the form of a conversation. For those unfamiliar, Mallorie is an Italian-American spiritualist and writer who runs the blog Italian Folk Magic. It was an excellent chat that we both really enjoyed, and we hope that those with a budding interest in the saints or an established practice will find it illuminating.
M: How did you become interested in saints, and how do they fit into your practice today?
V: I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school until high school so learning about the saints was part of my childhood education. I also grew up reading fantasy novels (and still very much love the genre) and so the idea of “real life” heroes doing miraculous things was always really exciting to me as a kid. In high school and college I shied away from anything resembling religion since I had to unpack a lot of the more problematic aspects of Catholicism that had a really negative impact on me both as a woman and a sexual being. As I came back to spiritual practice and the practice of magic, I started exploring the folk aspects of Catholicism as a way to make peace with the religion of my birth and ancestry, especially since my initial foray into witchcraft had been somewhat reactionary, which I find to be ultimately disempowering. I found myself drawn back to the saints for the same reason I was drawn to them as a child, as folk heroes. As for my practice, I have a group of "core saints" that I make regular offerings to and petition in magical workings. For example, I make weekly offerings to Saint Dymphna, who is a patron of those suffering from mental illness and pray to her for healing for myself and the people I know who are struggling in that capacity. And then additionally I will often make offerings or petitions to saints "as needed" or on their feast days. Essentially my practice with saints is both devotional and operative, which is also true of my magical practice as a whole.
M: I went to an after school CCD program [Catholic religious education] and made my First Communion and First Penance. But my mother eventually lost interest in church-going. I ended up going to a Baptist Church with my Nana for a while. It was a whole Sunday routine: church, over to Nana and Papa's house for some epic grandkid-spoiling, then a big dinner with the whole family. I remember missing the saints though, and I think I even brought them up a few times to our pastor, who was a lovely woman and sort of smiled-and-nodded her way through those questions. I became interested in the saints again when I moved to New York after college. I was surrounded by visual reminders of my Italian-American heritage. So many yard shrines and churches full of saint statues! Eventually, I decided to pursue my Confirmation, which I view as the most saint-centric of the sacraments: you pick an official patron, take on their name, and confirm your place in the Communion of Saints. It's a very magical ritual. But my practice isn't actually that church-y. Like you, I make regular offerings, both in churches and at my home altar. What does your offering practice look like?
V: My offering practice is fairly simple. Water, candles, incense, and prayer mostly. I will sometimes use color correspondences for the candles and if there is something a saint is known to be fond of I will sometimes include that as well. This is usually weekly on the day associated with the particular saint, or on feast days where the offerings are more elaborate. I’ve also on occasion made donations in a saint’s name to organizations or charities related to their patronage. What about you?
M: Very similar: water, candles, incense, prayer. I think in a way, the element of prayer is the most complex for me. Language is so powerful. There are several languages spoken in Italy. For example, my maternal and paternal grandfathers grew up speaking different languages. Folk magic and folk devotion are transmitted through oral culture. I've been collecting prayers in Neapolitan and Sicilian over the years, and it means so much to me, to be able to pray in these languages. Neapolitan being the language of my maternal ancestors. Sicilian being a manifestation of the Library of Alexandria, combining several languages from the Mediterranean and beyond. In the folk prayers, there's an element of the surreal. There are these bizarre images and symbols, and you get the sense that in Italy and Sicily as in other parts of the world, the saints were often masks for other deities or forces. Are there any saints that stand in for other deities, or who have taken on a non-standard mythology in your practice?
V: I really love what you said about the language of prayer! Language and the spoken word have so much power and potential for beauty. My Catholic ancestry is Polish and I often regret not studying the language more deeply. As for your question, for the most part I tend to keep deities and saints separate, or at least I don’t use them interchangeably, but I think that relationships with saints can be a way to connect with deities that saints are syncretized with or that wear the imagery of a saint as a mask, since saints tend to be more approachable and forgiving in my experience. I’ve also experienced synchronicities where I will feel drawn to a Saint or find myself reading about a saint and it turns out that they are syncretized with a deity that I have an interest in or an established relationship with, or they have similar associations or functions. For example, when I first familiarized myself with Saint Cyprian, I recognized several parallels between him and Hekate, in that they both are associated with black dogs, necromancy, and function as psychopomps. That’s not to say that they are the same or related lest I anger anyone, I just mean that I will often find similarities between saints and other spirits and the discoveries always feel like i’m being winked at. Do you have this experience as well?
M: Oh, totally! Hekate in particular seems to spark a lot of synchronicity. And there are several pagan sacred sites that are now associated with Catholic saints and madonnas. I'm thinking in particular of Montevergine, which is now dedicated to the Madonna of Montevergine but was once dedicated to Cybele, and Monte Pellegrino, which is now dedicated to Santa Rosalia but was once a temple of Tanit. Are these figures equivalences, evolutions, or completely unrelated? I don't know. In my drumming lineage, we recognize San Paolo as Dionysos. But Ernesto De Martino writes in The Land of Remorse that some folks recognized San Pietro as the lord of the tarantate instead of San Paolo. So it's hard to argue that there is a one-to-one correlation between a saint and a deity, or a saint and himself, really. I think that trips people up sometimes, especially with this recent surge of interest in saints from occulture. Have you noticed any common mistakes being made as a new wave of practitioners becomes interested in saints?
V: Agreed! People love to neatly categorize things and the spirit world is just way messier and weirder than that. You learn to get comfortable with cognitive dissonance. I think the main issue I see when people start incorporating saints in their practice is one that is also prevalent in wider magical practice as well which is the “who is good for [issue]” approach. Essentially someone thinks of something they need, and then looks for a spirit that deals with that and then starts making demands. And while there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with that, and for the most part as I mentioned before the saints are fairly approachable, in my experience the most beneficial and valuable relationships with spirits are the ones built over time with give and take, and a level of trust having been established. Do you agree? Also while we are on the topic of practitioners new to saints, would you like to share any advice or guidelines for people getting started?
M: I absolutely agree. And I think that also, as you develop a relationship with a saint or other spirit, there's a unique dynamic that develops. Maybe that saint is primarily associated with employment. But over time, as you develop a relationship, he becomes your patron and blesses you with other things: love, health, good food, opportunity to travel, what have you. So I think my advice to people getting started is just this: approach the saints in their fully glory. Perceive them with all of your senses. Soak up their images and tell their stories, yes! But also, cook their sacred foods, smell their sacred flowers, dance their sacred dances. You learn so much more when you throw your whole body into it.