Although I consider myself a triple-plated Roman Catholic, one who attended Catholic elementary and high schools, plus college, and was even attracted—albeit very briefly—by the idea of joining a Benedictine monastery, I’ve never fully understood the RCs’ obsessive fascination with suffering.
Not suffering as a concept, as in Buddhism which posits that suffering is an inescapable reality of human existence, but full-bloodied suffering as a cornerstone of the entire religious edifice.
Roman Catholicism in Mexico, as in other Third World countries, is particularly vivid in its emphasis on suffering and misery as not just a reality but ultimately a salvific exercise, something that earns you bonus points. Suffering, particularly when self-inflicted, like when prostrate pilgrims trudge to some shrine until their knees are raw and bloodied, greases their way to heaven and eternal salvation, or at least helps them attain some more immediate earthly favor.
According to this vision one could imagine the Pearly Gates looking like the lobby of an inner-city emergency room on a Saturday night, where an angelic triage nurse approvingly moves all the seriously maimed and wounded to the head of the line.
In most First World countries the visuals of Catholic suffering seem to have been sanitized a bit. There are weeping madonnas and crucified Jesuses alright, but nothing like the horror shows you find in some Mexican Catholic churches.
A church in downtown San Miguel, next to the public library, has a tortured and bloody Jesus wearing a purple robe and hunched over in agony right by the door. It's gory enough to cause startled visitors to take pause or perhaps turn around and flee back outside to the perpetually cheery sunshine of our city.
This church is not unique or particularly grisly. Oaxaca has some of the most gloriously baroque--and disconcertingly gloomy--churches in Mexico. Catholic temples elsewhere often have glass sarcophagi with a maimed and wounded Jesus inside, body parts of saints that are venerated as miraculous relics, plus lots and lots of statues of martyrs and saints in various states of grief.
Occasionally you find a placid St. Francis of Assisi holding a lamb or a Virgin Mary looking heavenward with a hopeful expression on her face. These are a welcome respite from all the blood and tears so common in Catholic churches but alas only exceptions.
During our first visit to Oaxaca, Stew--a devotedly non-observant Protestant from Iowa--turned to me during a tour of one of the churches and innocently observed: "Catholicism is not a very cheerful religion, is it?" You don't know the half of it, I replied.
|Good Friday in San Miguel, 2007|
Holy Week in San Miguel is probably the biggest public spectacle in the local calendar. Much of it is awesome: Blocks-long processions of women dressed in black, holding lanterns that look particularly dramatic against the setting sun. Men huffing and puffing as they carry enormous tableaux of saints or crucifixion scenes on their shoulders, up one of San Miguel's steepest hills. This is a massive show of deeply felt religious faith.
Then the celebrations turn creepy, when the bottles of ketchup and other fake blood come out during the gory reenactments of the crucifixion. This is religion verité to the max, though not quite as much so as in the Philippines where I understand one or two guys are literally crucified during Holy Week celebrations every year.
Mexican crucifixion pageants leave me intrigued, repulsed or bemused. I can't figure out which.
Even in photographs: Jim Quinn, a photographer friend from Chicago took a series of beautiful photos of a crucifixion reenactment at a San Miguel barrio but my reaction was much the same, even when the events were one step removed from reality by the lens of his camera.
Why do such grisly rituals attract big crowds? This weekend San Miguel will be jammed with tourists from all over Mexico and abroad.
Some spectators no doubt will be spiritually moved. The crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus are central to the narrative of Christianity.
Just last night I was reading a commentary on the Last Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross, and it was indeed stirring meditation material even if you are not a very devout Christian. Try this: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
But bad actors pouring on the fake blood and suffering, for the benefit of tourists and other gawkers? Somehow that leaves me cold, not inspired.
This morning I saw a photo in a Queretaro newspaper of the guy who will be playing the crucified Jesus there for the fifth time. The caption didn't explain whether his return engagements were because of his faith, looks, acting ability or stamina, lugging what seemed like a huge wooden cross.
To me he looked like a Brad Pitt with a horrible dye job and blotches of red paint on his robes.
Instead I find the Jesus at St. Paul's Anglican Church in San Miguel far more compelling. This relatively new and small church's interior is a small gem of colonial minimalism. It's churchy, with an altar, pews and a choir loft, but austere, without any superfluous trappings of religiosity.
Hanging high over the altar is a large crucifix with Jesus on it, with his arms extended and his robes flowing. It's a resurrected Jesus with what I like to believe is a hint of a smile.
It's a comforting Jesus, not a depressing or scary one. I really like Him.