Thursday, 7 January 2016

SECRET CUBA

Cuba's Pilgrim Shrines ...

 El Rincon: view from outside Main altar & nave of El Rincon Pilgrims outside in the garden dry themselves
after bathing in the spring.

    This is a country which for decades has been officially a secular "atheist" state. For most of the time since the revolution, the churches were left locked up (Many of them still are; but recently, some have been re-opened and are now in use for services.) So it comes as a surprise to many that Cuba has two important religious shrines, both centres for piligrimage: Cobre and El Rincon.

    Of these two Catholic establishments, Cobre is far better known and attracts large numbers of tourist visitors, as well as thousands of Cubans. Its full name is the Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (In Spanish: "Nuestra Senora de la Caredad del Cobre"). It's just outside the village of Cobre, in the low hills to the north-west of Santiago de Cuba in the east of the island. (Cobre - "Copper" in Spanish - is named because of an important copper mine, once run by a British company; the copper has long since been worked out).
   By tradition, Our Lady of Charity is the patron saint of Cuba and the centrepiece of worship in this church is a 16th-century carved wooden statue of Our Lady which is said to have been washed up on the beach 
The tradition for pilgrims at Cobre is, when they pray for a special favour to be granted, to promise a particular "offering" at that time; then if their request is subsequently answered, they return to the church and leave the promised item on a special table. This may be any item whatsoever - the value being totally irrelevant. Sometimes the item is something - such as clothes, or a lock of hair - associated with the person who the prayer was about. So my wife ( a Cuban), after our first child was born with no problems, left as she had promised to do, our little girl's first baby-grow. There are baseballs, medals, photos, but probably most moving of all are the little home-made wooden models of houses, churches or boats.

   El Rincon on the other hand is little-known outside Cuba - (surprising -  it's actually very close to Havana's airport at  Jose Marti, where many of the island's tourists fly in from Europe and Canada.)  This consists of a (much smaller) church, dedicated to Saint Lazarus. Set in the garden alongside the church, inside a cave,  is a spring of fresh water, in which the devout bathe, and from which they fill bottles to drink.
   There is a tradition of making pilgrimages to El Rincon on the 16th of December. Saint Lazarus's day is the 17th, so the pilgrims arrive the night before and stay there all night. Some of the more devout even come moving on their knees, or carrying heavy boulders as a penance (reminiscent of the custom at Spain's Santiago de Compostela)

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