Pilgrim’s Progress

Let’s talk about faith. Faith and Mexico. Faith in Mexico. A conversation that implies discussing mine as much as theirs. They’re Catholic here. Yes, there are Mormons living out a Romneyesque exile and Evangelicals and a Baptist mission just moved into the town down the road. But they’re Catholic here. So am I, and that makes things for me easy. Easier, at least, than for the handful of Jews and Protestants and the profusion of atheists in our group. I mentioned in a much earlier post the strange lack of overlap between granola crunchers and rosary fondlers and that holds true still.

Being Catholic, I know the dance if not the song, and with a scrip in hand I’m well enough at home. I can enlighten my fellow Volunteers as to why a statue of a saint is not a sacrilege and why fetishizing Mary is more or less kosher, even the reasoning behind the pantheons of virgins that hold sway over the countryside and Guadalupe who rules the whole.

Uncontested Comandante en Jefe

Uncontested Comandante en Jefe

I can reassure Lupe time and again that I’m baptized and confirmed if not recently shriven and that I’ve taken the body and blood. My Catholicism comforted and comforts both of my host mothers. I know that the one in Querétaro, no matter how the Peace Corps has accustomed her to the Orientals and Hebrews that she previously prejudged, took pride in that I went to Mass when she invited.

But I am, like I think many of my generation are, in a continual battle for my own faith, playing both pro- and antagonist on different days. Georgetown offered up the perfect environment for someone like me—liberal priests and liberally questioning faithful peacefully dissecting the merits of religion and the religious with zealots and atheists in equal measure. I said more than once then with varying seriousness that I wanted to be a cultural Catholic the way Michigan is full of cultural Jews.

People who belong to reformed synagogues, don’t stay kosher and otherwise aren’t terribly observant, but who keep the feasts and mitzvahs. It was a thought that came to me the first time during the 7:30pm musical Mass, which before the liturgical changes was in contention for the most beautiful service in the States, no question. What was strange and entrancing about it was that on any given Saturday I could have picked out dozens of kids whose faith was no stronger or less troubled than my own, and more than a few who would have said straight out that they did not believe, even if they might have wanted to.


Where else

It was beautiful because we could share in the tradition and even in our demi-faith and do it as an understood thing. A Church full of the uncertain, the sinful, the deviant, the curious, full of gays and on occasion Muslims and Jews and my unaffiliated friends was to me a thing to behold and to cherish. Too, because as my once unshakeable and intensely personal belief waned, my faith not in the extant but the possible church grew. Where my friend and erstwhile coattail-provider, the soon-to-be-more-famous Vail Kohnert-Yount, saw an edifice that made if not most then far too much of its business evil. I, for whatever reason, tended to see the wrong perpetrated as aberration rather than essential character. I saw an organization, mired as it was and is in a morass of scandal, poor leadership, and wrongheaded LGBT stances that has always and always slowly labored toward the good and the true.

Let me clarify by saying that Vail’s view is more than fair. The trespasses, missteps, and outright atrocities of the Church are well-documented. And while she is happy to acknowledge the good the Church has done, she can’t count that good as indulgence for the bad. She saw the Inquisition as it was in Spain—I saw it everywhere creating the rule of law and the concept of fair trial. She saw it stamping out of paganism and I saw it guarding the light of reason and philosophy through the unlettered if not unenlightened years after the fall of the Empire. She looked towards the decades of abuse in the lighter-skinned nations and I towards the heroes and martyrs of Liberation Theology who died further south. She saw the Princes of the Church and I the Nuns on the Bus—although, of course, she was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice along with Sister Simone of said nuns. This was the faith I came to Mexico with; not sure that there was any reasonable choice but agnosticism and clinging to the structure that I am convinced may not have much merit now but will always have the capacity for it and the reach to bring it to effect.

Mexico would have and indeed did seem like a good place for me. It is the capital of ritual Catholicism, a place where indigenous insurgency in mission churches became full-fledged syncretism, where every petty deity of the countryside has become a venerated virgin or a child saint, and where small observances transform into grand pageants.

Carry that weight

Day of the Virgin, for instance

The problem I find though is that our views on ritual diverge. At home, ritual was the only way I could find into my faith; here the faith is in the ritual. At home, when on Good Friday we yell together Crucify Him! I can enter into the thing, and if I cannot believe afterwards, I have had the moment inside of it.

The action, along with our learned lecturelike sermons, talks with priest-friends and among the semi-faithless were part of what defined our relationship to god and God and belief. What I tried to bring across in my post about the Easter Vigil was both how beautiful it was at times and how little I got out of it. We weren’t doing anything as a conscious part of a grand tradition but because they were things to be done, like going to school or work. Old women scratched the alpha and omega into their candles as the priest described without any thought or even a thought to have a thought of what the meant or why they were in Greek instead of Aramaic or anything else. They fought and elbowed and warred amongst themselves to be first in line because it was the place to be rather than taking joy from the passing of the Paschal flame or in the convivencia of a midnight processional.

Ritual in the States brought us together across differing faiths. Here it is just the trappings on a faith that’s understood to exist. To me a faith unquestioned and unquestioning has always been less valuable or even valueless than one that’s survived the test of inquiry, which mine may well not do. While I feel myself becoming more of a Deist or even an Agnostic, the idolatrous kissing of wooden feet and veneration of Spanish colonially-invented Marian apparitions pushes me further away from what I thought might have been the easiest point of contact between myself and my hosts.


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