Like no other sacred place

Here’s the final part of the Chiapas story…

In nearby San Juan Chamula, we came upon the town’s church. I sensed an otherworld presence and had to stop. I gazed at the building, and an elder told us we could go inside. The heavy wooden door inched open and, as my eyes adjusted to the glowing interior, I wondered if the locals were observing my reaction to the scene arrayed before us. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out.

This was like no sacred place I’d ever seen. No pews. No conventional main altar. Fragrant pine needles were spread on the floor and hundreds of multi-colored candles burned. Vases of flowers were everywhere. All around the smoky perimeter, family groups knelt before a plethora of elaborately adorned statues.

But I heard no sedate murmuring and saw no reverent crossing of chests.   Instead, these worshippers were shouting, stomping their feet, and shaking fists at the effigies. Men chanted and women keened. Little ones watched the elders, learning their ways.

They prayed in several Mayan languages I couldn’t understand, but obviously they were begging for the saints’              intervention. They set out food and posh – the traditional liquor – and it struck me that this was like the Offertory of a Catholic mass.

I heard a rooster loudly protest as he was pulled from a sack. His neck was quickly wrung, and the twitching bird was laid down with the other gifts – the Consecration?  They took bites of food and even the children were sipping the posh. There it was – Communion!  I felt emotionally overwhelmed.

Jorge led me outside into the daylight. How long had we been in there? I wanted to ask him about what I’d witnessed but the words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t describe my confusion.

He read my thoughts and explained, “This is an example of the syncretistic faith that is so fundamental to the contemporary Mayan way of life.”

Done in, we headed back to San Cristobal. My belly needed to be filled with another sensuous, voluptuous meal – Italian fare tonight, followed by après diner with our French friends and a couple we met from California. The chance encounter turned into “one of those evenings” with much wine, many stories, some international diplomacy, and a lot of mournful mountain music that settled deep into my soul.

Our bus would leave at noon the next day, and at eleven, I still felt the effects of the “Red.”  I gratefully took Dramamine and snoozed all the way back down the long hill to Mérida – seventeen hours in reverse motion.



Filed under Vida Latina, Writing

6 responses to “Like no other sacred place

  1. One of my favorite early morning sounds–the distant rooster. I’m not a vegetarian, so I guess I do accept killing chickens; but still….

    Maybe the chicken is an evil one? To the Mayans? (I just bought a book about Mayan Mythology.)

    It takes experiences like this to confront our own preconceptions head on, doesn’t it? Thanks so much for a thought-provoking series.

  2. Deanna Lagroix

    What wonderful memories you have given me with your story of Chiapas and especially San Juan Chamula!! I hope to go back there one day to drink in the spirit of the place and to learn more of the culture of its people. How I wish i was with you on this trip!!
    Enjoy and give us more as you share your experience, once again, with the new learners on the journey!!

  3. Your travels to Chiapas are inspiring. I think we’ll save up and go when it is hotter in Yucatan (not too much longer) and enjoy the cold mountain air for contrast. Treasures come in all forms: a physical object, a fine day, warm feelings… Wonderful!

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