- Historic Sites
The Brotherhood Of The Mountains
Maligned and misunderstood throughout much of their history, the Penitentes of the American Southwest have nevertheless given their people a sense of community and spiritual security. But for how much longer?
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
No one knows precisely when the Brotherhood got its start, or with any certainty how it developed its rituals. What is known is that it was in apparently nourishing existence in the mountains by the 1830's, and that whatever form the Brotherhood gave them, the rituals were an expression of a tradition that was an important part of the cultural baggage of those who had crossed the sea to establish New Spain in the sixteenth century. To suffer pain, that tradition held, was to share, however briefly and imperfectly, in the glory that was God’s when His Son was scourged and crucified —as well as to express penance for all the sins men are heir to. Francis of Assisi summed up the idea neatly in the thirteenth century when he answered a friend’s question as to what was “the perfect joy“:”When we arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, drenched with rain, congealed with cold, smeared with mud and faint with hunger, and knock at the door and the porter comes out and says, ‘Who are you?’ and we say, ‘We are two of your friars,’ and he says, ‘You are nothing of the sort. You are two rogues who go about deceiving the world and robbing the poor of their alms. Get out of here,’ and he makes us stand outside famished in the snow until night … and if then, constrained by hunger and cold and the night, we plead with him, for the love of God, to let us in, but instead he comes with a cudgel, grabs us by the cowls, knocks us down in the snow, beats every bone and we endure with patience and joy, thinking of the pangs of the Christ, which we also should bear for love of him … here and in this is the perfect joy.”
To achieve that “perfect joy” through self-flagellation, to whip one’s own back until bloody, was a common part of Spanish religious life by the sixteenth century, accepted by the Church, provided that it be done in private, under the guidance of a priest, and, as the Church put it, “in moderation.” Cortes is said to have practiced self-flagellation; certainly, Don Juan de Oñate did on his way to colonize New Mexico. On March 20,1598, Holy Thursday, he camped on a small stream, and, according to the chronicler of the expedition, “went to a secluded spot where he cruelly scourged himself, mingling bitter tears with the blood which flowed from his many wounds.” So did many others of the expedition, the chronicler says, including the Franciscan friars who thus emulated the joy of their founder, Francis.
The people of the mountains, left almost completely to themselves in both secular and religious matters, borrowed from this tradition, refined it, and, carried it to sometimes remarkable extremes—to the level, in fact, of a grim folk art. Flagellant processions and ceremonies might take place on any given feast day—always on the Feast of Saint Francisbut it was during Easter week that the rituals reached their climax in dramas played out in most of the villages of the mountains. Each village tended to create its own variationsit was folk art, after all—but the scenario that follows can be taken as fairly typical.
All week, the men of the Brotherhood would lock themselves in the church to fast and pray and beat themselves, coming out only for minor processions—rehearsals, as it were. Then late on Good Friday, long after the traditional afternoon service to mark the death of Christ, as darkness grew close, all the people of the village gathered in the church for Tinieblas , another traditional ceremony commemorating the earthquake that was said to have torn the earth when Christ died. Doors and windows were closed and locked, the church interior lit by candles. Then, one by one, the candles were put out, and when the last was snuffed, signaling the moment of His death, the congregation would burst out in a chorus of screams and sobs, symbolizing souls in torment, and metracas (rattles) would stutter and chains would clank to symbolize the earthquake; and in the darkness would be heard the hiss and slap of yucca whips wet with the blood of the flagellants.