A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Mental prayer [oración mental] is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."

Santa Teresa de Jesús (St Teresa of Ávila)

Several events today made me suddenly turn into thinking about religion. At least in the sense that I want to write about it without in any way wishing to rant, nor is it my intention to proselytize.

I talked to my godmother (and first cousin) Inesita on Skype today. She is 86 and lives in Buenos Aires. She was visiting her son Georgito with whom I have been close since we independently served in the army (he) and the navy (me) in 1965. We talked and looked at each other for close to two hours. We talked about old age pensions (he is 64, I am about to be 66). In the end our conversation had to terminate because he was going to Sunday Mass. He made the comment (wrong one) that my last time at church was probably after my first communion. He was wrong, after all I went to a Catholic boarding school (high school) for four years.

It was at St Edward's High School that Brother Edwin Reggio C.S.C. taught me that perhaps the most important sacrament is that of confirmation. Confirmation, Brother Edwin had told us, made us soldiers of Christ. It made us defenders of our faith. It made us defenders (not in any agressive way) in being able to explain doctrine and our beliefs with clarity to those who might want to know.

I remember returning from my military service in Buenos Aires to Mexico and somehow ending up at Sunday Mass in a church not far from my Tia Fermina's. The service was odd to me in many ways. I had grown up with the classical Latin Mass. In this Mexican church the priest was facing us and speaking to us in Spanish. I understood somehow that Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council were responsible for this strange turn of events at Mass. At one point during the service, the people by my side (I did not know them from Adam) suddenly embraced me. I was confused but they explained to me that this was the people's Mass and that's how things were done. My further but infrequent journeys into Catholic Mass services became mandatory funerals and the odd wedding. Sunday Mass was as dead to me as that April 8, 1966 Time Magazine cover, Is God Dead?

But it has been very difficult to let go. Consider that when I was 8, 9 and 10 my grandmother came to visit us to our Coghlan house in Buenos Aires on Good Friday. I was brought in from playing with my Jewish friend (Mario Hertzberg) out in the street and told to kneel in the living room. The time was somewhere around 3 in the afternoon when my grandmother asserted our Lord had died. She often would say that my friend Mario's ancestors, the Jews, had cruelly crucified our Lord. She would then lead us to recite the last words of Christ. The day was ever more depressing as I was told that we could not listen to any music.

It was about this time (1952, 1953) that Father Filippo informed us that if we did not become followers of Perón we would roast in hell.

In the mid 50s my mother was stricken by a terrible disease (it can be controlled now but it is still incurable) called Meniere's. This disease attacked the inner ear. It began with a buzz that got louder and louder. It was constant and it came with terrible attacks of nausea. My mother would just fall and would spend hours in bed holding on for dear life. Eventually the buzz and the disease destroyed her sense of balance and made her deaf even though the buzz never went away. By 1972 she was telling me that she wanted to die. One very terrible day she confessed to me that she had lost her belief in the power of prayer. "I do believe in God, " she told me, "but I don't believe in a God who cares about us. He is up there somewhere and is detached from human existence. We must really think we are important that He would want to listen to each one of us." And she died and Rosemary and I listened as she breathed in and never did exhale.

All the above went through my head today. Hilary lent us her copy of Milos Forman's Goya's Ghost. I know my Spanish history and I did note a few innacuracies of time compression, but the film was horrific in its display of the power of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church as the 18th century waned.

Having studied theology in school I understood the events of the film. The situation with the so called "trials" of the Inquisition have the also horrific parallel with those of the contemporary detention camps for terrorists in our Western world. We have simply not changed even if we do embrace at Mass.

Rebecca has seen this film and I wonder how at age 11 (today, happy birthday Rebecca) she can possibly understand all the complexities and intricacies of this disturbing film. Would she smile (no)? Or gasp in horror (no)? when my grandmother would point at some man with a large nose and say in her Castilian Spanish, "That man has the map of Jerusalem on his face."

I have mentioned here of my admiration for Graham Greene and of his novels of flawed protagonists who would lose their faith. In some small way this man (me) a product of the Latin Mass who was shockingly modernized with an embrace (not quite on the Concorde) has lost his way.

I look longingly at this photograph of my mother's first communion in New York City in 1920. Here, too is her rosary (of pressed rose petals) and dedicated to St Teresa of Ávila. Will I ever know which of them was right?


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