the Good News
On my second week in San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica, my host grandmother woke me up to tell me the good news that she would like me to walk her to mass that evening. She would feel a lot safer if accompanied by me, she said, and because I am Catholic I might enjoy the service as well. Accommodating but annoyed that she had awaken me so early, I breathed a soft yes and rolled back under my sheets.
Normally, my abuelita would be just fine getting to mass on her own, walking at a brisk pace to attend her home parish only three blocks north of us. But her usual church – the big white one in the city square with the six car parking lot – had recently been structurally damaged by a powerful earthquake. When the disaster hit several months ago, brick and roof and steel and tile all imploded inwards, flinging apart on impact. (This was an act of God.)
The building is still closed for renovation; a city ordinance saw to it that iron gates and yellow tape obscure the front entrance of the church until the locals can raise up the funds necessary to fix the entire building. White dust still stains the width of the street in front of the church and it kicks up into the air and makes you cough and sticks to your shoes as you walk over it.
Because of this (un)natural disaster, my abuelita was forced to attend a church several blocks father away. There are at least four Catholic churches in our little town, so it wasn’t that much farther of a walk but here I was, still being asked to safely escort her to and from this new place because the streets are indeed sometimes dangerous at night. I mull all of this over and before I drift off to sleep for a few more minutes, I think that if anyone tried to assault us I would probably run.
Christianity first landed in this region with the insidious arrival of a European sailor named Hernán Cortés. Cortés brought with him to these native shores legions of barbarians in metal armor, men on a wretched quest for God and glory who quickly set about plundering this “New World” of all its natural riches and splendor. This holy army – little more than glorified rapists – carried with them from across the Atlantic the cruel trinity of advanced weaponry, debilitating disease, and the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Each of these cost many lives.
Though the conquistadores stole far more than they ever gave, one of the lasting impacts of their legacy was the passing on of their religion and language to Central and Southern America. Roman Catholicism and its accompanying master tongue – then Spanish, la lengua del cielo (the language of heaven), quickly became the dominant identifying markers of the new empire. Even today, though pockets of indigenous groups were able to avoid major European influence, the region is still largely Spanish-speaking, still largely Catholic.
“¿Usted es muy religioso?” my abuelita asks me as we make the trek over to the new church. I don’t really like it when people ask me if I’m very religious because I’ve never been able to find an answer to that question I can sit comfortably with. Very religious? I don’t know. That’s so subjective and I always feel uneasy with people who are more religious than me while also tending to judge those I deem less pious than myself.
“I’m relig-ish,” I responded. “Relig-ish. It’s a joke. I don’t know if there’s a Spanish word for that.”
My host grandmother nodded, giving me the I-have-no-idea-what-you-just-said-but-I’m-sure-it-was-nice look.
“I’m así así religioso,” I explain.
Before I knew it, the white streets narrowed into thin viridescent lines and we arrived at the church.
Like my host family, I cling to the traditions I have inherited from those who came before me. And despite the abuse of the Christian religion by so, so many cruel men over the years, I still find something quite beautiful and attractive about a group of people gathering quietly together in the practice of ancient ceremony.
I made the sign of the cross and took a seat.
In Christian theology, the liturgy is one of the most intimate celebrations a group of believers can partake in together. Catholics believe that the liturgy – the meditative call and response celebration of a deep, sacred rhythm – is a form of spiritual breathing. Many Catholics would say that this ceremony (also called the mass) connects them with the thousands of faithful believers who have lived in years past and with the many saints to come in the future. I’ve heard it described as the practice of existing in between time, or standing in the middle of a stream, receiving a precious gift carefully handed down over the years and passing it on to future generations.
Sitting, standing, kneeling. Singing, praying, breathing, again and again, until the mind centers and disengages and ceases to put on a performance. Chanting, listening, repeating. Voices raised in unison, crescendoing now until the individual ceases to be the focal point of existence and membership to a group, to the human family, begins to feel real. Though repeating the same rote phrases and physical actions can indeed seem very trite and exhausting to the uninitiated, the liturgy is an essential practice for those who desire it.
The wooden pews of the church and the hard white floor are familiar to me, but the language they are speaking is not. I hear different, confusing words instead of the usual “peace be with you” and “and with your spirit.” Nuestra mujer de fiel. Padre nuestro. Jesús Cristo (okay, that one I knew).
Although the spoken language here is superficially different, the tenor behind it is all familiar to me. The priest, dressed in his usual garb, performs the same physical movements as he does back in Chicago. Though his skin is a different color now and his tongue makes different movements, speaking a different language than the one he does back home, it is the exact same ceremony. Sitting there, trying to pray, enjoying the silence, it is surreal knowing that although my abuelita and I had very little in common…for one moment, we shared everything.
I turned to my abuelita and watched her small frame as she kissed her crucifix and kneeled, stood, sat down, and kneeled again. I understand a bit of the Catholic world, but not all of it. I admit that much of the imagery and ritual still confuses me in a way that I know my host grandmother cannot relate to.
But that’s just because of how I was raised.
I somehow grew up both Catholic and Protestant by two deeply spiritual parents who didn’t want anything to do with one another’s religion. My parents couldn’t agree on whether I should inherit my fathers’ newfound evangelicalism, my grandparents’ institutionalized agnosticism, or my mother’s familial tradition of Roman Catholicism, so they answered that question with a yes. The confusing compromise they came to was that every first and third weekend of the month I would accompany my dad to his large, plush evangelical megachurch. There, we sang songs loudly and and took communion in the aisles and drank the blood of Christ from little grape sippy-cups. Every second and fourth weekend, however, I would attend a quieter, more intimate Catholic mass with my mom, a service a lot like this one. More solemn, less smiling, a lot more sit-stand-kneel body aerobics.
The collection of linguistic and ecclesiastical symbols and metaphors we know as religious ritual have the power to unite totally disparate social identities in a way that few other human inventions can. Whether it’s Nigerian Muslims gathering with Pakistani believers, or Egyptian Copts sharing a prayer with American Evangelicals, shared vernacular and religious ritual means something. It can unite entirely different people groups in singular worship of a communal God.
Of course, religion also has been cursed with the sinister potential to disrupt families, to tear apart social circles, to divide and otherwise irreconcilably destroy human relationships. Those same Nigerian Muslims and Egyptian Copts and American Evangelicals have at times all either chosen or experienced severe violence against them because of disagreements regarding religious practice. To be sure, healing has occurred but so much blood has also been shed over these differences.
Unity and division, reconciliation and violence – both of these, true to the legacy of religion.
My own faith tradition, Christianity, has itself caused people both untold joy and unimaginable pain. My faith has been used as a reason to defend innocent life and as the justification for plundering it, a tool to enlighten and lift up masses of people and as an instrument of their oppression. It is both a frightening and an exciting responsibility to stand in the intersection of how my faith has been so evilly used in the past and how it can be potentially used for such great good in the future. Standing in the middle of this stream means shouldering a heavy unanswered question, and it’s a mystery of group responsibility, one an individual cannot possibly solve alone.
Before I knew it, it was time for communion. I walked up to the front of the church and the priest put a piece of bread in my hand.
He said an incantation over me and I chewed my portion slowly.
I stepped to the side and slowly drank the blood of Christ, shed for us, feeling the burn as it went all the way down my chest.
As I crossed myself and turned around to take my seat, my eyes couldn’t help but sweep over the contrite souls seated in the pews around me. In that sea of repentance, brown faces and brown eyes turned towards me and I saw generations.