Tuesday, December 6, 2011

La Navidad y como Dios me Hablo en Mexico

My handy-dandy tree trimming skills on display

Last night I finished putting up our Christmas decorations. Trimming the tree was, as it always is, a stroll down memory lane. As I hang each ornament I remember the period of our lives it represented, some good, some bad.

As I was hanging ornaments last night I was also remembering my journey navigating the at times rocky road of religion.

When my son reached the customary age to enroll in CCD, I went down to the church office to fill out the paperwork. When I asked for the form the Sister in charge of the program at the time, Sister Guadalupe, said to me "Do you teach?" When I said I didn't, she replied "You do now. Be here at 6:00 on Monday." (If you were raised Catholic you know you never question Nuns). I did what I was told, like the good Catholic girl I was, and ended up teaching CCD for the next eight years.

In the beginning I really enjoyed it, and, it seemed, I was pretty good at it, too. But as the years went on I became more and more frustrated. It seemed we taught the kids 1,001 rules about how to be Catholic, with only a little bit about the principals of Christianity sprinkled around the edges. As the kids got bigger their questions got harder, but the list of things we weren't supposed to say or discuss with them was a long one. At times I felt like a huge hypocrite, standing up there telling the kids one thing, when privately I believed another.

I went to Mexico to visit a friend and his family in December of my son's final year of catechism. At the time I was still teaching, preparing the kids for their confirmation in the spring, but in my heart I just wasn't feeling it anymore.

Mexico is a Catholic country, but the family I was visiting were Protestants. I'd heard the horrifying stories of how the family had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, so when I asked my friend to take me to the Catholic church to light a candle for the feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe, I knew I was asking a lot of him. I told him if he wanted to just point the way and not go with me, I would understand. Ever the gentleman, however, he said he would escort me, and he did.

The church in the village was very old and very beautiful in a simple, rustic sort of a way. Inside it was cool and quiet. The hand-painted tiles of the floor were well worn by generations of feet shuffling up the aisle, the pews worn smooth after untold decades of use by the faithful attending daily mass. My friend and I went to the front, where I lit my candle next to the alter. My friend took off his hat and bowed his head in prayer where he stood while I knelt to pray at the rail after lighting my candle. Afterwards, we sat in the front pew for a bit, just being quiet with our own thoughts and breathing in the scents of candle wax and incense.

My friend had attended the church as a small child, before his family's conversion, but he didn't really remember much about it. There were many statues of saints (including a body in a glass box) and various depictions of Christ around the walls. After a while he pointed to one and asked me "Who is that?"

"That is Christ." I said.

"Oh. So then who is that, over there?" He pointed to another figure.

"That's Christ, too."

"What? Another one?" My friend looked puzzled as he pointed to yet another figure. "How about that one?"

"Um, that's Christ again."

All-in-all, we counted no fewer than five statues of Christ.

"Why do you need so many?" My friend wanted to know. "And what do they do with that guy in the box?"

I was just as perplexed as he was about the body in the box, but as we came out into the mid-day sunshine again and walked up the hill towards home, I tried to explain the symbolism of the various Christ statues, as well as the significance of the proliferation of plaster saints. By the end of the conversation my friend looked dazed, and more than a little relieved that he didn't have to try to keep track of all this stuff like we Catholics did. He changed the subject with a laugh, saying that if anyone saw him going into the church the whole town would know about it by the time we got home. He meant it as a joke, but as it turns out, his mother had already heard about it and she was waiting for him at the door when we returned, none too pleased.

That night after dinner my friend's father sat with us and talked about his feelings on the subject of praying to plaster idols (with a few meaningful glances thrown in his son's direction) and about what had prompted him to convert, despite the heavy backlash from others in the community.

"I felt a voice, inside of me, telling me that this wasn't for me. I knew I had to look for another way, and I wouldn't feel right until I found it."

For him, the Pentecostal church was what was right for him and his family. Although it was a rough road, even landing him in jail at one point, the family came through it and my friend's father is, today, one of the most respected men in the village.

Don Fidencio's words stuck with me for a long time after that. His religious leanings weren't mine; I had been to several Pentecostal churches and already knew they weren't for me. But, I realized, maybe there was another denomination out there that was for me. When I returned from Mexico I started looking. By February I had identified the United Church of Christ as being the denomination that felt the most like home to me. The weekend after my son's Catholic confirmation we both officially joined our local UCC church.

As much as I enjoy all the secular traditions of Christmas - the decorating, cookie baking and empanada making - I remind myself that Advent is a time of preparation in spiritual ways, too. Just as we make room on the mantle for the holly boughs and candles, we need to also make room in our hearts for the coming of Christ.

God is that little voice in the back of my head, guiding me through life. I have always heard that voice in my head, but I heard it the loudest of all in Mexico. God was very much with me there, in many different ways. It was there that I finally learned that faith is a gift from God that has no limits, knows no boundaries and needs no labels. It is with me, regardless of the religion I practice, no matter what church I do or don't attend.

As I climbed up on a stool last night to top the tree with its tinsel star, I felt the familiar little voice in the back of my head. That little voice hasn't had much to say for itself for awhile, but I was glad to know it was still there and still willing to speak to me.

As we continue through Advent, journeying towards Christmas, I'll be listening.

For more information about The United Church of Christ click here.

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