Today in my American religious history class, we were discussing Protestant-Catholic tensions during the “new immigration” of 1880-1924. One of our readings was a snippet of Bob Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street, in which he describes the festa to Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrated by the Italian immigrant community in East Harlem. The discussion question for the students was: “What aspects of the religious festival described by Robert Orsi would likely strike many Americans as foreign, strange, or superstitious?” Orsi’s text includes the following description:
Occasionally the following scene would be enacted. A woman . . . would begin crawling on her hands and knees from the back of the church toward the main altar, dragging her tongue along the pavement as she went. If she got tired or was unable to bend over far enough to lick the floor, members of her family would come and carry her along. The clergy discouraged this practice, and it seems to have disappeared for the most part by the 1920s.
I hadn’t planned to do this, but as we started to discuss this passage in class, I thought, “Let’s illustrate to drive the point home.” So, yes, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled a few feet, holding my tongue to the floor as I went. It was harder than I’d imagined–harder than a regular crawl, because you have to keep your head down; so you feel–or I felt–more like a frog than a cat, if that makes sense.
The floor tasted salty.
Students were satisfyingly scandalized.