Study Guide

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Religion

By Gabriel García Márquez

Religion

And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake. (2)

This is down home religion—someone who knows what's what about life and death. Who needs a priest when you've got a wise old woman living next door?

"He's an angel," she told them. "He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down." (3)

Religion isn't all campfires and kumbaya. (Not even mostly.) It's also angels of death and the fear of hell—not necessarily very comforting.

Against the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death. (4)

In a lot of South and Central American countries, Catholicism mixed with local or other imported beliefs to form syncretic religions like Santeria—half saints and Jesus; half evil spirits and herb medicine. And the neighbor woman seems to lean a little more toward the evil spirits side.

But Father Gonzaga, before becoming a priest, had been a robust woodcutter. Standing by the wire, he reviewed his catechism in an instant and asked them to open the door so that he could take a close look at that pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens. (5)

Father Gonzaga's past as a woodcutter lets us in on his background—he's not just a fancypants priest; he's a manly man. It also shows us that religion isn't separate from everyday life. If a woodcutter can become a priest, anyone can.

Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an impostor when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet his ministers. (5)

For some reason, the priest gets the idea that Latin—the official language of the Catholic Church—is also the official language of God. Excuse us while we roll our eyes.

Then he came out of the chicken coop and in a brief sermon warned the curious against the risks of being ingenuous. He reminded them that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary. (5)

Of course he does. If the priest is worrying about losing customers/ congregants, he has a reason to warn them against being too naïve. (But a little naïve is okay. Believe in angels, sure—just not angels that land in your backyard.)

Nevertheless, he promised to write a letter to his bishop so that the latter would write to his primate so that the latter would write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to get the final verdict from the highest courts. (5)

And if you don't forward it to ten people, you'll drop dead by the end of the year. This chain letter about the angel's true identity shows just how slow and bulky the Catholic Church's lines of communication and decision-making can be. It's the total opposite of the neighbor lady's live, one-on-one experience.

Father Gonzaga held back the crowd's frivolity with formulas of maidservant inspiration while awaiting the arrival of a final judgment on the nature of the captive. But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn't just a Norwegian with wings. (9)

These tests seem absurd because… they are. García Márquez seems to think that it's pretty silly to study something scientifically if it's supposed to be supernatural.

Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel's reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely. That was how Father Gonzaga was cured forever of his insomnia [. . .]. (10)

And, in the end, Father Gonzaga has absolutely zero effect on the situation. The problem solves itself when something cooler comes along, making religion not even important enough to have a negative effect. Sorry, Father.