Experimental Religion, Pt. 1

27 September 2005

–Jeff Sharlet

In 1746, the New England pastor Jonathan Edwards published a defense of the “Great Awakening” of religious fervor he had helped provoke in the colonies. “As that is called experimental philosophy,” he wrote, “which brings opinions and notions to the test of fact, so is that properly called experimental religion which brings religious affections and intentions, to the like test.”

Edwards hoped to make of religious life a kind of science of sainthood. The Revealer takes his declaration as a concise manifesto for the attempt to make of journalism and “religion,” broadly defined, a kind of literature that might also pass the “test of fact.” Appropriately enough, this experiment begins in a classroom, at New York University. The scientists are graduate students in the Department of Journalism and at the Center for Religion and Media. I’m their teacher and editor.

Our hypothesis is this: Reporting belief — not just the footprint it leaves on politics or pop culture, but belief itself — requires experiments in journalism. Our methods may involve variations of voice and tone; chronology as argument; kairos in lieu of who, what, where, when, why; economics as theology; scripture as source; experts as satirical fodder; religious experience as police report; atheism as Holy Ghost power; superstition as clues; mythology as evidence of things not seen.

Such reporting must be accurate, well-informed, and verifiable. But that’s where our formal responsibilities end. Our project is narrative, our goal a collection of stories. Not ethnographic; not sociological; not “instructive”; not necessarily respectful. Some may be written by unashamed believers; others by proud unbelievers; and some, I hope, by writers who come to see that reporting religion doesn’t have to involve writing about God or gods or godlessness. Rather, it can be a study of the intangible within the material, the beliefs sheltered within flesh and boneRather, it can be a study of the intangible within the material, the beliefs sheltered within flesh and bone, and also the material made meaningful, the rituals, known and hidden, by which we live.

The first entry follows.

TORO! TORO! TORITO

A visionary artist embroiders her religions.

By Joseph Tuzzo

In the records department beneath the New York Criminal Courthouse, Carmen Julia Porfido had a vision of forgiveness. There in the women’s restroom, in the exposed grout beneath a cracked floor tile, the Spanish interpreter saw something, a chance image that triggered inspiration. Visions can come in the veins of dried leaves, the stains left by sneaker treads on subway floors, or the grain of marble pillars. Here, on the bathroom floor, was the pregnant Virgin Mother in an act of confession.

Epiphanic moments like these are rare even for a visionary. Between cases Porfido embroidered the image into the central panel of a motley triptych that she named “Annunciation, Confession, and Stigmata.” In the left panel, the Angel Gabriel whispers the belated word; Mary holds the center; and to her right an obese, robed priest hears the Virgin’s confession while receiving the stigmata, the blessed wounds of Christ. Blasphemous and grotesque, the work is a striking expression of personal mythology and personal history. Porfido calls it a conversation starter.

“I have no talent; I copy what I see,” she says, unfolding the baroque panels from her purse. Embroidered in a complex stitch called extended French knot, it looks plush but feels rough, as knotty as the unique theology it expounds. “I saw this in a toilet,” she says, at once humble and charismatic. When she takes you to the broken tiles in the bathroom stall, when she shows you the mottled stain, you accept her talent. The translation seems literal. You share in her vision, you feel it, and you convert to a belief in her art, which may be the one true faith Porfido has left.

It has been four months since her last vision. She looks pale and thin on a frozen Saturday morning, she smells of Echinacea tea and tobacco, and she sounds exhausted. Her slender arms and shoulders feel frail and fragile inside a ribbed green turtleneck. She sits in a warm and close railroad apartment on W. 21st Street in Chelsea, watching library tapes of a Hindu spiritualist. She seems about ready to break. Lately she has neither had visions nor seen epiphanic stains, and she has become discouraged with her work. Public recognition is elusive. Hers is an uncommon loneliness, combining an artist’s loss of confidence with a mystic’s loss of faith, a feeling close to despair.

Think of all the things a person accumulates in 64 years: tea pots; cracked coffee mugs; stains on rugs; two sets of divorce papers; four cats; a homemade Christmas tree made of chicken wire; a clump of solder the repairmen left in the court prisoners’ elevator, which she framed and hung beside embroideries of the harlequins, marionettes, bullfighters and transsexuals who fill her mind. A curio cabinet filled with neatly arranged glass statues of Buddha and Ganesha offers a respite from disorder. “There’s too many pictures in this house, too much shit,” Porfido says.

Twenty-eight years of clutter in this apartment. “I’m worried when you’re gone — the people that are left behind have to clean it all up.” She has begun the project herself, sorting through the three photo albums that hold pictures of her work, arranging them chronologically, evaluating along the way. Some pieces found buyers through the Brooklyn Working Artist Coalition, some in the annual New York City Employees Art Show at the criminal court building. They sold for $200 to $2,000, depending on size, complexity of stitch and amount of hours spent stitching, stretching, re-stitching and mounting. The unsold now hang stacked in rows along the peach-colored walls of her apartment, reaching to the ceiling.

She learned to embroider in Puerto Rico — “the island” she calls it — where she was born to a single mother. In 1947, the 7-year-old Carmen Julia moved to New York with two half-sisters and a mother suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Within a year her mother would be institutionalized. Carmen Julia went back to the island to live with her grandmother; her half-sisters to live with their father. She returned to New York as a teenager and would have to commit her mother many times over the years, a regular pilgrim to the metal wards. The day before she was committed for the last time, her mother tried to cut Carmen Julia’s face with a knife.

A few years ago, Carmen sold a huge embroidery in extended French knot, a time-consuming stitch she seems to reserve for the most wrenchingly personal works. It was called “Mother and Child.” In the foreground, a young woman in red cradles her mother’s head to her breast; a white building gleams at the end of a highway behind. “In here the child becomes the mother and the mother becomes the child,” Carmen says. “My mother was mentally sick and I had to take her to a nursing home and I had to be strong and to make decisions. And she was very scared.” She points to a photograph of the embroidery. “This is the mental hospital; and what I like about this is the little cars on the road.”

Her first child was a boy she named Manuel Raphael Porfido. A beautiful name. Carmen Julia articulates it with pride, extending her rolled R’s and twirling her wrists and turning her hips like a matador sidestepping the horn. “Toro! Toro! Torito,” she calls, the name of a bullfighting scene embroidered when her son changed his given name and had the surgery to file down and feminize his jaw.

“My son took ‘Julia.’ She loves me very much, and I love her,” Carmen says. She sits back down in the cramped living room that doubles as a studio and triples as a bedroom. She sleeps wrapped in blankets on the checkerboard linoleum floor, a high-heeled bullfighter with painted fingernails dancing above her. Mother and child: matador and bull. It was hard for Carmen to accept the transformation, to close her eyes to the stigma of having a transsexual child, to put aside her beliefs and support the surgeries. But Carmen understood: He who draws the knife gets Isaac.

In the front bedroom, uncluttered and immaculate, Carmen preserves a bed for her visiting daughters: Renee, the beauty with the long, corkscrew black hair; Julia, the drug addict, the prostitute with borderline personality disorder, her Isaac. Sometimes Julia, when she’s strung out or exhausted or scared, spends all day sleeping in the sunny bedroom, a troublesome bull going like a little lamb to her corral.

Carmen was born a Catholic but she wanted more of God. She wanted to feel the presence within, wanted to feel that love that surpasses all understanding. When her first marriage failed, she became a Pentecostal. She felt that ecstasy for seven years, but never forswore her art as idolatry, a requirement of her adopted faith. When she started to doubt, she put herself in “discipline,” a test of devotion in which the penitent forgoes taking part in religious services. “When you are going to get a spiritual gift, before you get it you have to be put through fire. The purpose of this is for you to see the light. And I didn’t see no light.”

She left the church, sought Pentecostal deprogrammers, and started seeing a guru. Her religion is now an amalgam of these influences, forged in suffering and filtered through art.

“I wish that I felt like I used to feel when I first became a Pentecostal, that love. And when I first betrayed God with my guru. That feeling of total love and of total surrender – it’s an amazing feeling. An amazing feeling. But now because my life has been so run over by illness, I cannot feel it anymore, not in the same intensity as then. But one day.”

Beside the fireplace mantel, mounted and framed, hangs her last embroidery, a product of the last vision she received. Most striking is the bloody priest. Robed, gluttonous and divine, he came to her as a gift, a stray lamb, in whom God has not lost faith. To her, the priest’s wounds are redemptive. The blood of stigmata is bright red, the same color as the young woman’s dress and the bullfighter’s fingernails.

“I have trouble with the Virgin birth,” Carmen says. “God committed a sin. If he impregnated her knowing she was going to be married that’s wrong. I mean that’s definitely wrong. I don’t think he did it that way. But that doesn’t take away from her and it doesn’t take away from Jesus; it doesn’t take away from either one of them, of the greatness.” Nor does sin lower any of us in the eyes of Carmen’s God, or in the art that is her life’s work. “Just because you are fat and you are a priest does not mean you are not still close to God.” She points now to the embroidery. “The red symbolizes the blood of Christ. He will go up to heaven, to be forgiven, not to be punished in hell like they say.”

Joseph Tuzzo is a writer in New York. “Toro! Toro! Torito” is the premiere article in a series of narrative experiments in religion journalism.