Gratitude is an action. Giving thanks. When someone arrives with a bottle of wine, we look at its color in the candlelight, savor its perfume, pour its ruby flow into our best glasses, give one to each of our guests before we fill our glass. When someone gives us a gift, we do not just put it on a shelf and sit down to talk about whatever. We receive the gift, it takes time, we take it with both hands, take it in with our eyes, turn it about, contemplate its features. And we show it, share it with others.
Thought is about data, about some things or events that are given; thought comprehends, takes in, what is given, ponders it, feels its weight; thought produces words that are understandable and open to others, that exist for others. Thought is gratitude.
Bristle-thighed Curlews fly 10,000 kilometers from Alaska to Polynesia, flying 3200 kilometers nonstop over the Pacific. Bar-tailed Godwits that were equipped with transmitters flew 11,026 kilometers non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea in China. Arctic Terns fly the whole extent of the globe, a round trip of 25-34,000 kilometers, seasonally moving from the Artic to the Antarctic, enjoying more sunlight that any other biological species.
Green turtles Chelonia mydas feed of the coast of Brazil and nest on Ascension Island, a speck of land five miles in diameter more than 2200 kilometers away.
Small bands of humans entered the American hemisphere archaeologists think some 17,000 years ago. In Los Toldos cave in the far south of Patagonia, stone tools have been found that date back 12,500 years. Small bands of humans, passing beaches, mountain valleys, prairies, temperate and tropical forests, deserts, walked on foot or sailed in small boats southward more than 20,000 miles until they could go no further.
The word “trip” designates traversing distance between two points but the emphasis is on the destination. A trip to the post office, to Cleveland, one traverses the distance in the fastest or cheapest way.
In the words “trek,” “voyage,” and “travel” the emphasis tends to be on the movement itself and the sights, events, discoveries, mishaps that appear while one is moving. Any destination, any stopping place is constricting, is seeing the same scenery and people and doing the same work every day. Travel engenders wonder and passion.
Argentina, 2007. Traveling in space is traveling in time, ahead to the future, back to the remote past. I was driving in a rented car from Bariloche, the lake country in southwest Argentina northward below the Andes. Driving through the spectacular mineral colors of the utterly arid foothills—rain from the prevailing winds falls on the Chilean side of the Andes. I went to Plaza Huincul and saw the largest dinosaur yet discovered, some 130 feet long and weighing 50-90 tons, living some 98 million years ago. At Villa El Chocón I saw, where it was uncovered, the largest carnivorous dinosaur. At Lago Barreales I watched paleontologists chip away for dinosaur fossils. As I drove on I pictured what this desert looked like back then, I covered these rocky hills with vegetation high and dense enough to feed animals weighing 50-90 tons. I passed Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside the Himalayas, and thought that 98 million years ago the Andes were only hills and the rains fell over a tropical jungle here.
A pilgrimage has a destination, a place where one will be transformed. A sacred place, separated from the world of reason and work. But there is also emphasis on the movement. One will maintain dignity, humility, one will meditate or chant. One will walk the 750 kilometers of the Camino de Compostelo. One will advance with full body prostrations to the Jokhang in Llasa. The movement is also transformative.
The destination and the movement of a pilgrimage generate stories. Narration is a movement, where the destination, the conclusion, and the steps of the movement are both essential.
Java, 1988. I set out around midnight. I walked to the square outside of Jogjakarta where buses, small vans, and trucks were parked. I climbed into a rusty bus, jackknifed my too-long legs up against the seat in front as three other people pushed into the seat alongside of me. The bus made many stops, it was stuffed with people. An hour later I got off. It was raining. A half hour later I got into an open pickup truck. I got off, gave the driver eighty rupiahs. A half hour later I climbed into another pickup truck. Then I got off and headed down a forest path. It had stopped raining now. Looming in the mists before me was Borobudur stupa, enormous, twelve hundred years old, the greatest monument in the Southern hemisphere. I turn left and begin to walk around it clockwise. The path begins to ascend the stupa. On the walls I observe the figures carved into them, thousands of scenes of the life of the Buddha, mothers giving birth, children running and waving, women washing and braiding their hair, caring for buffalos and cattle, men plowing fields, harvesting, winnowing rice, cutting boards, building houses, priests performing rituals, headmen imparting counsel. The mists through which I see them are becoming luminous. Carvings depicting people of a thousand years ago whom I recognize from the people I have seen in the villages and fields of Java. I am with them everywhere across Java and five hundred and a thousand years ago. I am absorbed in all these activities, energized; fatigue is gone. As I ascend the path spiraling upward, the carvings are becoming more abstract. My mind is no longer retained on the figures on the walls and extends open. The black sky is now cobalt blue; on the bottom to the east gold is spreading up into it. I reach the summit, here there is a circle of 72 figures of the Buddha enclosed in stone networks of bell-shaped stupas, in the center a bell-shaped stupa that inside is empty. The sun rises blazing; below the primal jungle extends to the horizon in all directions in surging waves of green sparkling with gold mist; to the south a great black wall of volcanoes simmers sulfurous fumes and flashes of fire.
Joy is the body affirming itself, saying Yes to itself, overflowing; joy is greeting, acknowledging, affirming the unforeseeable, incalculable excesses of reality. Joy is the state that opens widest to what happens, what is, what was, what will be. Joy is the most truthful state.
Argentina, 2007. I was driving in a rented car below the Andes in western Argentina. I was wandering. In hills and gullies where only occasional thorny clumps of sticks and bunches of wiry grass endured. I was a moving target of the calm fury of the sun. I sometimes had to drive a couple of hours before coming upon a village with small shop and water. But every five or ten kilometers I saw on the side of the road a small shrine with piles of plastic water bottles in front and sometimes old tires or car parts. I stopped to look and saw the shrines were dedicated to “Difunta Correa”—the Deceased Correa.
In the evening I came upon a town with a simple hotel, and after a plate of rice and beans for dinner I asked the owner who is Difunta Correa. He said that there was in San Juan a young woman named María Antonia Deolinda Correa. The police chief in San Juan had been courting her and began to pressure her and her family to give in to him. Instead Deolinda married Baudilio Bustos and the couple had a son. But around 1854 Deolinda’s husband and father were forcibly recruited into the troops of Juan Facundo Quiroga. Left behind, Deolinda was again vulnerable to unwanted attentions. She learned that Bustos was ill with pneumonia; she then left San Juan with her infant son, traveling toward La Rioja by an indirect route to elude the policemen pursuing her. She lost her way and died of thirst and exposure in the desert. A few days later some mule drivers came upon her and found her infant alive, nursing at her breast. They buried her body at the site, in Vallecito, and took her baby to be cared for.
I resolved to go visit the place of her death. I crossed harsh, forbidding hills of dust and empty gorges. I came upon a cluster of 17 small chapels, simple sheds. Their outer walls are covered with plaques attesting to favors received through the Deceased Correa’s intercession.
Inside, around naïve statues and paintings of the dead Deolinda Correa with her infant at her breast, there are letters praying for a favor and letters and objects given in thanks for favors received. People ask for release from prison, admission to the university, safe passage across the border, success in business, cancellation of debts, return of a wayward husband, normal pregnancy, medical cures, and simply the strength to go on.
Ex-votos, thanking for favors received are massed in the chapels. I see models of airplanes and buses testifying safe journeys, models of trucks and cars either successfully acquired or from which drivers emerged safely in accidents, vehicle license plates, the uniforms of soldiers who completed their terms of duty alive and unharmed, caps of policemen who survived perilous situations, wedding gowns of women who found husbands, small metal images representing arms and legs healed. A grotto with a life-size statue of Deolinda Correa is on top of a hill, accessed by two covered stairways on which thousands of truck and automobile license plates are attached. Such favors, I could see, could logically be asked from Deolinda Correa, who undertook a perilous journey to rejoin her sick husband. As could models of homes acquired; the hillside beneath the grotto is covered with thousands of them.
But the most diverse favors granted are testified: school texts and notebooks, diplomas, acceptance letters from USA universities, certificates of successful passage of law boards. The chapels are an encyclopedia in words and objects of all the events, needs, and accouterments of life in Argentina, all touched or received with thanks. Real automobiles, motorcycles, kitchen appliances, record players, and jewelry had been put here. There are also photographs of luxury automobiles acquired. There is a chapel devoted to sports-team trophies, boxing gloves. Photographs of prize-winning purebred cattle and dogs and racehorses.
I spoke with a few visitors and with two caretakers of the shrine. The shrine is in the desert and has no well. The bottles of water left at the shrine are poured into a cistern to provide drinking water for visitors. In addition more than 500 gallons of water are trucked in daily.
A caretaker tells me that the wedding gowns that have been given to the shrine are loaned for weddings of poor brides. Money is also left at the shrine; from it donations are given in turn to schools, community centers, sports organizations, and hospitals. Cash loans are given to the needy.
I purchased three booklets. I learned that the mule drivers who had found Deolinda Correa dead had buried her and placed a cross on the site. Passing cattle drivers would pause at her grave and utter a prayer. In 1898, a prosperous cattleman named Pedro Flavio Zebollos, was caught in a sudden violent storm and his herd of 500 cattle stampeded and dispersed in all directions. He found himself at the place where Deolinda Correa had been buried and implored her help. The next morning found all his herd congregated together and intact. In gratitude he built a small shrine over her burial place. Livestock drivers began to stop at the shrine, pray for her protection, and leave a small coin.
Truck drivers took up the practice of making such shrines and leaving bottles of water, and also tires and truck parts that had been replaced. I was told that now the whole length of Argentina there are small roadside shrines to la Difunta Correa with piles of water bottles for her.
Visitors told me that many pilgrims make Deolinda’s walk, the 62 kilometers from San Juan to her grave at the shrine overnight on foot and even barefoot. Others join the pilgrimage at Caucete, 33 kilometers to the shrine. Some enter the shrine crawling prone on their backs; I did see people approach the chapels on their knees. Tens of thousands of pilgrims come to the shrine of la Difunta Correa for Holy Week.
To the side of the shrine area, there is a small Catholic church. An inscription gives 1966 as the date of its construction. Inside it is barren save for a small statue of the Virgin of Carmen, patroness of the dead. An extreme contrast with the masses of figurines, ex-votos and photos that fill the chapels of Difunta Correa. I saw that most people visiting the shrine do not also visit the church. Later I read that in 1976 the bishops of Argentina had declared that devotion to Deolinda Correa was “illegitimate and reprehensible.”
The Catholic authorities, I later learned, have also denounced San La Muerte, depicted as a small skeletal figure, as a residue of pagan Guarani cult of ancestors. They also disapprove of Gauchito Gil, army deserter, outlaw, cattle rustler, revered in shrines throughout Argentina, as well as folk saints Gaucho Lega, Gaucho Cubillas, Bazán Frías, Bairoletto, and Isidoro Velásquez—outlaws, deserters, murderers, killed in shootouts with police. And of folk saints Almita Visitación Sivila who was raped, murdered, mutilated, and partially eaten by a man; María Soledad who at seventeen was raped, murdered, and disfigured by two young men; and Juana Figueroa, murdered by her husband who suspected her of being unfaithful. The Catholic bishops also disapprove of devotion to Enrique Gomez, hit by a car or a train and killed when 14 years old; Pedrito Sangüeso, raped and murdered at the age of six; Miguel Ángel Gaitán who died of meningitis just before his first birthday; and Pedrito Hallado, a newborn infant abandoned in a cemetery who died of exposure. And prayers to Eva Perón and Che Guevara.
In San Juan in the library I hunted down what I could find written about La Difunta Correa. There were several accounts of her journey into the desert. Some say she learned that her husband was sick, with pneumonia. Others that he had been captured by enemy troops and was imprisoned. Still others say that she fled into the desert to flee the lustful designs of a police chief. In a text from 1946, she had become pregnant with a police chief and was forced to leave home. A boy was born during her wandering. She tried to dig for water, but failed—although in fact water was a few feet further down. But in many versions there is no child. Reports in 1921 sometimes mention a child at the breast or protected by the breasts. In at least one version mother and child die together. Between 1920 and 1940, about a century after her death, the story tells of her child being found alive, feeding at her breast.
Scholarly investigation of myths began in the 19th century with Herder, Schlegel, Schelling, and Bachofen. A myth, they said, is not the creation of an individual author but of the community, and, articulating visions, relationships, interactions that are shared and that govern cooperation and enterprises, engenders community. The myth that is told from generation to generation is the essential factor in the endurance and continuity of communities. The myths depict communication, communion, of humans with one another, but also communication, communion, with the dead, with ancestors and with gods, with other species of animals, communication, communion with nature and with the cosmos.
Early ethnographers who worked to record the myth of a culture interrogated the elders, the cultural experts of a community. The myth then appeared fixed, immemorial, assigned to no individual author, shared generation after generation by the community. What we may call the myth of La Difunta Correa is recent enough for us to see how it took form. A historical event is enriched with a supernatural element. The story invokes the situation of women and of travelers, and alludes to values and morality. The story retains force and vitality as it is elaborated and adapted. As first cattle drivers, then truckers, then victims of the economic depression of 1998-2002 addressed La Difunta Correa with concerns and needs. The myth is not a fixed narrative but generative of variants and meanings in new contexts. Sometimes people see people praying for a dead one and this gradually turns into praying to him. Thus outlaws and women who died cruel deaths or children who suffered and died become saints.
India, 1974. It had started to rain lightly in the Deer Park in Sarnath, where the Buddha had given his first sermon. I took shelter under the huge spreading Bodhi tree that was grown from a cutting taken from a tree grown from a cutting taken from the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. I found someone else had taken shelter there, a man of around 40, dressed in white kurta and dhoti with cream-colored scarf. He said he was an astrologist. His presence was very beautiful, composed and gracious, his voice resonant, and he was physically beautiful too. I said I would like to hear about his work.
There is, he said, necessity, choice, and chance. We have today a rigorous discourse on determinism—the natural sciences, including anatomy, physiology, neurology. He said there is today a rational discourse on decision—ethics and politics. But in the West there is no longer a reputable discourse on chance; it only survives in the marginalized talk of gamblers and fortunetellers.
Each day, he said, we attend to the causalities that determine the physical well being of our bodies and its safety, the causalities that determine the layout of possibilities and obstacles in our environment. We make decisions about the goals we want to pursue and undertake responsibility for the welfare of our children and our community. But all the major events in our lives are due to chance—our birth, a teacher who captivated us and engaged us in mathematics or nursing, in music or football; the person we happened to meet and fell in love with, the job opportunity that abruptly opened; our child who was born or who was autistic or who died; the car crash that crippled us; the tumor that grew silently in our inner organs.
Argentina, 2013. In Mendoza I took a bus to the shrine of Difunta Correa. There seemed to be more roadside shrines with piles of water bottles and tires and car parts than I had remembered. At the shrine I saw that model trucks and houses, wedding gowns and policemen’s’ caps had continued to accumulate.
The tens of thousands of ex-votos give thanks for milagros—miracles. But perhaps “miracles” is not the right term in English. They are not miracles like Jesus resurrecting Lazarus who was four days dead, or instantly curing a leper or giving sight to a blind man with a word and a touch. Philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as a violation of natural or scientific laws, and the Catholic Church, in determining if a saint in the process of canonization has indeed performed the two requisite miracles, understands a miracle as an exception to scientific laws. When a cure is alleged to be miraculous, a panel of five Catholic doctors examine the medical records; at least three of the five must agree that there is no scientific explanation for the cure. The milagro attested in thousands of ex-votos in the Difunta Correa shrine give thanks of long trips safely completed, car and truck accidents from which they emerged unharmed or little harmed, broken arms and legs healed, a woman who has found a good husband, acceptance into law school, success on examinations. Shall we call them in English “favors” rather than “miracles”?
I was taken aback to see given to Difunta Correa the blue ribbons won by purebred bulls, race horses, and pedigree dogs, but they perhaps give an essential insight. They reveal a conception of life where along with determinism and choice there is chance.
The story of la Difunta Correa is not that of a heroic or exemplary person. There is virtually nothing in her biography—only that she was married to a man she cared for and had a child; she got lost in the desert and perished. But the story tells this wonder: her infant survived, nursing at the breast of a dead mother. The odds were infinitesimal. It is what turns those who hear the story to the realm of chance.
A trucker making a long haul to Ushuaia in Patagonia inspects his vehicle to ensure all is in working order, drives prudently on dangerous roads, and when he arrives without mishap he thinks he has had good look. A woman had the good luck to get pregnant and to give birth to a child without defects. A man had the good luck that his fall from the ladder did not break his back. A woman had the good luck to fund a good husband. Life in a world where there is only the determinism of scientific laws would only give rise to a certain satisfaction at being able to understand them and foresee what will happen. Life in a world where there is also choice would give rise to self-congratulation when events show one has made the right choice and self-criticisms when they do not. But life in a world where there is also chance gives rise not only to jubilation but also to gratitude over good luck.
Gratitude is an action. Thought is gratitude.
Alvarez, Félix Ramualdo. Una neuva version sobre la Difunta Correa. San Juan,
Argentina: Editions Sanjuanina, 1967.
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Instituto Nactional de Antropología 6 (1966) 95-178.
Giménez, Miguel E. Difunta y el niño. San Juan, Argentina, N.p.,1996.
Graziano, Frank. Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America. Oxford:
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Alphonso Lingis is professor of philosophy emeritus at the Pennsylvania State University. He has published Excesses: Eros and Culture (1984), Libido: The French Existential Theories (1985). Phenomenological Explanations (1986), Deathbound Subjectivity (1989), The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (1994), Abuses (1994), Foreign Bodies (1994), Sensation: Intelligibility in Sensibility (1995), The Imperative (1998), Dangerous Emotions (1999), Trust (2003), Body Modifications: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (2005), The First Person Singular (2007), Contact (2010), and Violence and Splendor (2011).