Several months ago I was sitting in a San Antonio airport, waiting to board a flight back home after an enjoyable week with my family in South Texas. I looked up at a girl walking past the gate and started laughing. She was wearing a black t-shirt that said “I’m okay, my grandma rubbed an egg on me.”
When I was around six years old, my grandma rubbed an egg on me too. It was at my great-grandma Wita (Juanita)’s house and I was laying under a white sheet and listening to a strange lady chant incantations to drive the susto (fright) out of me.
Weeks before, my dad, a racecar driver, had been in the middle of a race when his car spun out of control and went flying, an image I still have in my head. When the light tree hit green, the cars peeled away and sped off down the track. As they got farther away from us, my dad’s red and blue car darted off the track, hit the median barrier, and bounced all over the place like a pinball. People jumped up from their seats but the only sound I heard was my mom screaming as she dashed down the bleachers. I remember walking down to the crash site long after the ambulance had come and gone and being surprised at the mangled mess of that beautiful car.
Miraculously, my dad walked away with no injuries, but the terror of the crash was seared into my mom’s memory. She had nightmares for a while after that, and I think we did too. That was when we went to my great-grandma’s house to see a curandera, a Mexican folk healer. The woman laid us down one by one under a sheet and chanted around us, waving branches and an egg which she rubbed on our bodies to draw out the susto.
Of course, to “enlightened” minds the ritual seems exotic and silly. An egg, a sheet, tree branches, and a wrinkled old woman commanding the body to heal. But even many years later as an adult and a church member, I look back at this ritual with respect and even reverence. “True” prayer and the priesthood (not to mention common sense) tell me that there is no room in my new faith for the village witch doctor. And yet I want to make room.
“Magical” or “folk” healing is certainly not absent from our church’s history. Joseph Smith sent his handkerchief to be rubbed on the faces of the sick to heal them. Heber C. Kimball believed that canes fashioned from the boxes that carried Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies had healing properties. And Jesus healed with mud, spittle, and “magic” words. The bottom line is that as silly as these things sound to modern ears, they are part of our history — and what’s more, they worked. They worked, we are told, because of people’s faith in the healer. Similarly the folk magic of a curandera sounds silly but it is a part of my history and I have faith in the village culture that sustained my ancestors. Today I may not have faith in the healing powers of curandismo, but I do retain reverence for its ritual.
Magic can be dangerous because it is ultimately manipulative. Better is the prayer of the worshipper who pours out their soul to God and asks for His will to be done. The magician commands while the supplicant asks and offers. But prayer and religion should always keep a sense of magic, because we should believe that our prayers actually have effect and that there is still wonder in the world.