When I think of religion, this is what I remember:
Vaulted ceilings loomed over my head and their angles bent the whispers of the people around me, so that it sounded like they were all talking into my ear. Ash and rose filled my nose, a scent like burning and growth. Un-burning, un-growing.
Stained glass windows broke sunlight into elegant images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross, three of the apostles. My grandmother sat next to me, her hair a mass of brown curls with silver roots. Her face was almost lineless as she plucked the hymn book from the back of the pew in front of her. She turned to a page, licked her thumb, turned to another, licked her thumb, turned to another. The organ behind me and above played a metallic chorus and sometimes, when my thoughts are unguarded, I still think of it as angel music.
A man in long white robes with golden edges walked down the aisle and the boy next to him rang a bell. My grandmother and the people around me chanted, not quite singing, along with the people by the organ–the actual chorus to accompany the metal pipes. Another man in a white robe with gold embroidery walked down the aisle, following the first man and the boy. This man was old, corpulent, his wrinkles undulating with every step. He reached the front, raised his arms, and said, “God be with you.”
And we said, “And also with you.”
Then we kneeled and the people around me bowed their heads and I bowed my head, copying them. I prayed like they did. At least, I thought I prayed like they did. Like my grandmother did–like she still does.
The problem is that, in the moment when most people feel the holy spirit come over them–that moment of prayer–I never felt anything. I prayed, but I thought of it like pretending. And I thought everyone else pretended too. As it turns out, that is definitely not the case.
Being Mexican American comes with certain stereotypes built into it. Big families, loud parties, spicy food, an irrational fear of flip-flops, and Catholicism. I once knew a guy who had tattooed a rosary on his chest. A fucking rosary. But I suppose it’s better than this:
Once you’re done worshipping the Mother of God, you can go for a joy ride. I don’t mean to be flippant. I have an incredible reverence for la Virgen–but I can’t really explain it. Since I was a kid, I was raised to respect women. I should probably mention that, due to a series of odd events, I had very little in the way of male caregivers. My mom, grandmother, great aunt, and cousin (female) raised me. I have an unfathomable love for these women and, somehow, this love is also projected onto the Virgin. I bet the guy in the first picture also loves the Virgin, but he probably doesn’t give her a second thought when he’s whistling at girls on the street.
Catholics are weird. Mexican American Catholics are weirder. You see, Mexican Americans in the United States are a mishmash of cultures: Spanish, native, Mexican, American. It’s the native/indio part that’s particularly interesting. See, Christianity has become a world religion because it finds ways to ingrain itself into people’s cultures. Christ’s birthday coincidentally coincides with Dionysus’, the Greek god of wine, which falls near the time of the winter solstice. Odin, King of the Norse gods, hung himself from a tree with a spear in his side.
Similarly, the native people of Mexico–and their intermixed children, the mestizos–blended Catholicism to their own religion, finding a way to incorporate both. My grandmother is the most devout Catholic I know. She goes to church every day at six o’clock in the morning. She crosses herself before every meal and thanks Jesus.
But she still believes in mal de ojo, the mystical power of the “evil eye,” that can make you sick if someone looks at you with jealousy or hate in their heart. Interestingly, she also believes that babies can get ojo (oho, is the pronunciation here) if someone who wants to touch them doesn’t actually touch them, so she goes out of her way to caress babies’ heads. You know, so they won’t get sick. But if a baby gets ojo anyway, an egg will cure it. You see, you rub the egg over the whole baby’s body, then crack the egg in a bowl, which has been previously placed underneath the baby’s crib or couch, or wherever the baby happens to be laying. The egg absorbs the evil power and cures the baby. The cure also works for adults. I’ve never had it performed on me, but my paternal grandmother does it fairly often. She says the Lord’s Prayer, one of two prayers I know by heart, while she runs the egg over the person’s body. If the egg looks like it’s been cooked, the person should start feeling better soon. If the egg still looks raw, they should probably go see a doctor.
I’m a pretty terrible Catholic. I still consider myself Catholic because it’s the only church I’ve been baptized in. I’m not even confirmed. For non-Catholics, I guess I should say that being Catholic is a production. First you’re baptized, usually when you’re a newborn. Then you go to CCD, which stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine–which is how you learn what being Catholic means as a kid and why everyone else is wrong. Then you’re confirmed, which involves “deepening your understanding of the Holy Spirit.” Whatever that means–I never got that far. It’s at this point, I should tell you I am not qualified at all to tell you anything about this. There’s something about sacraments–all I know is that I can’t eat the bread or drink the wine because I’m not confirmed and I would go to hell. (On a side note, I almost had communion when I was in Rome, despite not being confirmed. But I didn’t want to test fate too much.)
You may be wondering why I never went through with the rest of the Catholicizing process. My grandmother enrolled me in CCD classes, but then one day I decided that I didn’t want to go anymore. At seven years old, I thought they were really boring and, honestly, kind of silly. My teacher totally lost me when she tried to explain transubstantiation and make it not sound awful. If you don’t know, transubstantiation is the process by which the bread and wine Catholics eat for communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You know, for as much magic and mysticism is involved in Catholicism, you’d think I’d really enjoy it.
My great-aunt used to guilt me into going to church, but then I figured out that I should actually want to go and not treat God like He’s the leftover broccoli on my plate. The guilt thing also didn’t work for too long because every time I went to mass, I came out mad. I never liked how the priests interpreted the Bible verses and I just couldn’t stomach their messages.
All I know is that it had something to do with the scent of ash and roses, with the singing of metal pipes, the solemn chanting of the faithful, and sunlight seen through stained glass.
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