Of the many aspects of aging, perhaps the most thrilling one is the way in which, like wine, you finally settle into being yourself. The sloughing action of time efficiently removes scaly layers of need, most particularly: the cringing need to hide, or at least try to explain, one’s idiosyncrasies.
That said, I’m now attempting the latter and addressing a subject that prompts debate with friends and non-friends alike. Perhaps this is my attempt to reconcile awkward angles by laying them out flat on paper.
I’ve been a born again, evangelical Christian for almost thirty years. The Bible is my ultimate authority. I make confession directly to God and do not offer prayer to, or ask for help from, anyone but Himself. I do not make novenas. I do not pray the rosary. All this and more, yet … I experience my deepest and most intense communication with God, in the cool, shadowy silence of ancient Catholic churches.
Previously, when this incongruence has been attacked, my defense has tended towards the evasive. Mostly, I’ve feigned an interest in architecture, in history, in resting my feet … and while all these excuses have elements of truth, truthfully, they avoid the heart of the matter. I love Catholic churches. I love their mysterious, candle flicked interiors. I love their smell and the calm weightiness of their atmosphere. I love the shimmering memories of love and pain immortalized in their stained glass windows. I could go on and on, but the short story is: I love them.
While at home I attend service, in a spartan, brightly lit, squeaky clean, blond wood and brass, Worship Center. Recently they stuck up a computer generated design to cover the bare wall behind the altar. I think it’s supposed to be “art”. Personally, it gives me an unwelcome feeling of déjà vu, as if I’ve time-traveled back to my high school science fair. A conscious effort is required to block it out so I can focus on the man in the pulpit.
The sermon of a great evangelical preacher can break your heart and blow your socks off. I remember the first time I ever heard well-thought-out, clearly expressed, theologically sound Biblical exegesis. Nerve endings in my brain that I was unaware existed, were jolted into tingling life. The preaching in my home church is for the most part exceptional. I do not fidget, physically or mentally. Immobile in the pew, I thirstily drink Scripture straight up, the “hit” energizing, powerful, reviving to both body and soul.
My problem is that outside of actual service times, in an evangelical sanctuary it’s difficult to just walk in and sit and commune with the Almighty. In the clean, honest and economical way of the North American protestant, nothing but God is sacred. A room is a room and should be used for the overall benefit of His people. There are group assemblies, lectures, piano lessons, choir rehearsals, Bible studies, mission reports, fund-raisings, children playing in the aisles … and if none of these are ongoing … the custodian is earnestly vacuuming and running the dehumidifier. It’s all very practical and let me assure you, no vain extravagance is tolerated, no careless grandeur, no money spent on worldly frou-frou. Every penny is fully accounted for: the hungry are fed, the needy lifted up, the Gospel preached. I wholeheartedly subscribe to this faithful and conscientious stewardship.
That said, when traveling, I rarely visit an evangelical church. Drawn to ancient Catholic churches the way some people are drawn to outlet malls, my free time is given to them. Byzantine, Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque … it doesn’t matter; I am overcome with desire to lose myself in incense-scented embrace.
Yes, I understand the complaints: the flagrant use of money for adornment, the inherent self-glorification, the chicanery of an existence often more political than religious in nature, etc. etc. etc. I don’t care. Why they were built, who built them, what their ulterior motives were…. I don’t care. Ancient churches bear witness to me of the majesty and mystery that is God among men.
I spend long hours exploring, my heart absorbed by their beauty, my head full of their whispers. I read the stories in the frescoed ceilings; revel in the intimacy of tiny, hidden alcoves; decode the mystery messages in Latin symbols and inscriptions. I relish kneeling on centuries old floors, their hand-hewed stones worn to silky smoothness by the endless procession of the ages. Who came? Who comes? Why? What pain and petition did/do they bear before the Throne? Hopes, dreams, birth, life, death, lost children crying to be found…. I am deeply affected by the images of feet both royal and common, no matter their winding path, all ending up in the same place, desperately wanting to know and be known, by the One who loves them.
I have visited castles and palaces in every corner of the world, and not one of them has provided me the same absorbing contemplation. Roaming the aisles of great churches, I read the inscriptions of those buried beneath their floors: Crusaders, Merchants, Princes, Mighty Men of Antiquity.
Millions of dirty boots now walk over the crumbled dust of vanity and ambition, however, lifting my eyes to the walls, on pedestals gilded and haloed, are represented the despised and rejected of the earth. These men and women rejoiced in humility and surrendering themselves to martyrdom, were pierced to the heart, their flesh torn, mutilated … crucified.
I gaze at their faces: calm and serenely defiant. These were souls once so aware, souls so keenly attuned to the voice of a higher power that they stood fearlessly among men. I will not pray to them, but I see no reason not to talk to them. About what? About Him.
Difficult to recognize from church to church, age to age, these saints and martyrs thoughtfully display the symbols of their impact on mankind.
Of course there are familiar ones: St. Peter with his rooster, St. John the Baptist with his lamb, St. Patrick with his shamrock … but it is the more esoteric that fascinate me: St. Catherine on her wheel; St. Edmund full of arrows; St. Margaret with her chained dragon. What lives were these! And of course, the inimitable St. Agatha, offering up her pretty breasts on a platter.
Trembling votives nestling within red glass, glow like rubies. Dropping in my coins, I pick up a long wick and make contribution to the splendor. Can one small tongue of flame set heaven afire with news of my need? Why not? Warming my hands over the melting wax, I run fingertips lightly across the tiny sparks, trying to touch-read other people’s secrets. All their prayers readily condense into two: Help me. Thank you.
All love affairs have a beginning and I know rather precisely when this one was born: during the years I walked dutifully alongside my Lola carrying her handbag and umbrella. Holding her elbow against a stumble, we went to Quiapo Church on Sunday, San Agustin or Santa Ana church mid-week, Antipolo Church in May, and during a variety of Holy Festivals that included the months long Filipino Christmas season, we made the rounds of an assortment of others. She cajoled me with promises of shopping and merienda afterwards, which she interpreted as the bait. They were not. The churches and their stories were.
You’d think anyone my age would have resisted, however, there was no internet yet, I did not care for television, and we only went to the movies once a month. All I had were books, and these churches, the multitudes, mysteries and miracles within their stone walls, were the live drama of my childhood.
Antipolo Church, has the statue of Our Lady of Peace and Safe Voyage. A world traveler of the first order! In 1626 she sailed from Mexico City to the Philippines, stopping in at Intramuros. After a spell there, she was invited to Antipolo. Offended by the chosen place of enshrinement, she left in a huff, choosing rather to squat in the top of a nearby tree. Abashed, the natives agreed to make her home on that spot instead. Decades later, escaping a violent Chinese uprising, she rushed over to Cavite, where shortly she became homesick and pined for the place of her birth. Unable to decide between here and there, she made that same trip to Mexico and back to the Philippines, six more times over the next century. Eventually, feeling her age, she bethought herself of Antipolo, where after all, they’d built her a mansion. Enshrined once again, she’d barely put her feet up, when war broke out (again), and she was forced to migrate from place to place like a commoner: Angono, Santolan, Pasig, Quiapo. When the dust finally settled, coming out of those years in better shape than most, she returned gratefully to her final (?) resting place … Antipolo.
We were there for most of May, so I came to know her well. With Lola hard at her novena most afternoons, I would slip away to climb the steps behind Nuestra Senora, and peer into her glass case. She was surprisingly black. Sunburned from so much traveling, I supposed. For a few coins the watchman would open the door and allow me to stick my arm inside. With one finger, I’d gently stroke her dress and hair, awed by all she’d seen and done in her almost 400 years.
The first time I visited San Agustin Church, lulled by the velvet murmuring of the Rosary Circle, I fell asleep on the pew. In my dream I’d been touching the trompe l’oeil murals on the ceiling above me. Then Lola jabbed me with her fan and I awoke suddenly, embarrassed, flushed and sweaty. Annoyed, she signaled me to go outside. Groggily making my way to the entrance, I was standing in the doorway somewhat confused and half awake. That was when I noticed them.
Beneath the feet of Saint Peter, four ancient stone Foo Dogs stood guard. They were large animals with fiercely bulging eyes and open mouths showing sharpish teeth. The females guarded their babies, and the males rested massive paws on their globes. Terrifyingly cute.
I laughed and said, “But, you’re Chinese!!!”
Curly heads turned sharply and round eyes glared with Imperial severity.
“Your tone has a note of disrespect!”
“Oh … I apologize … it’s just that … well, you know … I mean….”
“STOP! Our people have offered Border Sacrifice to Shangdi for over 4,000 years. The rest of you are mere infants to the knowledge of Him who Is.”
I blushed, lowered my eyes and mumbled, “Beg pardon.”
“Understanding that all people, and not just the Chinese, are loved by the great Shangdi, we extend patience to our ignorant little sister.”
As they returned to their focus of child rearing and world domination, I slowly backed away, and whenever I passed them again, I bowed my head.
In Santa Ana Church, after prayer, Lola would sit with her friends at the back and “exchange the news”. Before the “exchange” commenced, she’d order me to go behind the retablo of Our Lady of the Abandoned, and visit the Camarin (dressing room), so I could tell her later if anything new had been added. I suspected I was sent there to keep me from hearing the gossip, but that was fine. They only talked about old people anyway.
The Camarin had azulejos, paintings, inlaid capiz windows and an assortment of museum quality antiquities. But I would pass these quickly and go directly to the main attraction. The glass wardrobes.
Our Lady of the Abandoned, was the sartorial equivalent of the Manneken-Pis in Brussels. She had dozens of fine outfits for every possible occasion. Amazing!!! Dresses, ball gowns, blouses, chemise, shawls, veils, petticoats, undergarments, stockings and even tiny shoes, (although she had no feet that I could see.) She even had her own jewelry.
Nothing was too good for her. Satin and velvet studded with jewels. Skirts hand-embroidered with gold and silver thread. Bobbin lace shawls. Pure silk for anything worn next to her wooden body…. I imagine these fine things were supposed to lift my musings up to an appreciation of Holy Majesty, but I’m afraid nothing of the sort was achieved and my thoughts hovered pretty low—Would I ever have clothes as nice as hers?
I have now spent the greater part of my life going back and forth between two contending belief systems. If we are defined by what we believe, what am I? A Catholic, or an Evangelical? Does a little of both necessarily mean a lot of neither? Maybe the boxes are too cramped. Maybe I can blame it, as I like to blame all my quirks, on the mixed blood in my veins. I consider myself a tradition-respecting Filipina … as well as a boundary-breaking American. I know that I am an emotional, soul-bound, mystically inclined Catholic … as well as a fundamental, incisive, theologically driven, Evangelical Christian.
My desires for these two related, but separated at birth ideals, were initially opposing armies that jostled within, resentfully battling for space in the small room of my heart. Then one day, exhausted from the battle, they dropped arms and collapsed on the field next to each other. My heart relaxed, enlarged, and suddenly … it was big enough for both.
Bitter disagreement still flares up once in a while and spit fights ensue. They pounce on each other’s weaknesses; mock each other’s blind spots; overemphasize each other’s faults. Mostly though, they have reached that blessed reward of old age: an acceptance that the only perfection in the universe is God, and all the distastefully imperfect rest of it, must be seasoned with His love.