BESIDES MANTILLAS: A FEW WORDS ON THE MASS
I am not sure if I am catholic or not anymore.
I am not really a Catholic. That said, I practice Catholicism more than any other religion. For sometime now, I have attended mass usually about three times a week, and whenever I go I feel 'better' afterwards, even if I experienced reluctance or conflict in going in the first place.
Last night, I arrive with half an hour before mass will start. This is ideal. At this time, women (and a few men) are chanting the Hail Mary together, rhythmically, so that I enter a kind of trance only broken by the ringing of the bell to announce the priest's arrival to begin the mass. I always sit in a pew on the left, and I don't really know why. I only realise this behavior as I write about it. Now I know why I do it! It's because on the left of the cathedral is the votive candle stand, and somehow sitting closer to it strengthens my faith.
Next to me sits a woman who covers her head with a little piece of cream lace. Her hands are wrinkly are golden and she has the kind of wedding ring you know she has never taken off. That makes me cry. She kneels next to me at the pew, and all I see is her hands, and the way she organizes the lace to place over her head as her act of reverence.
At the sight of the lace, I *see* full pews worth of women weighed down by their ancient oh so Spanish mantillas. I even feel the slight pain of the comb in the back of my own bun of hair, but this sensation does not last. Such are the comings and goings of old prayers in the cathedral, some from colonial times, and others from the era of the republic and beyond.
When the priest emerges, he has an energy that wakes me from the prayers of the devout villagers of earlier. He throws his arms into the air so that his robes become the formation of an angel, and a different kinds of trance begins.
After the rituals, we all kneel and wait for the miracle to come. This is why people come here each day, I think to myself. To see the transformation happen, and to feel it. We exchange the sign of peace, and in shaking the hands of these persons who smile at me or share their tears in equal measure, a bond is created which lingers long after we each of us leave the cathedral and the virgin who is both a counsellor and a guardian quite terrifying. When once I left her a candle recently, she responded instantly, so that I nearly vomited with shame. Even when I returned from this particular mass, my postcard of her had materialized on my desk despite my having put it away for safe keeping. It is so strange how this postcard has become my most prized possession above all else. The 'thing' I would save in a fire.
The throne of the cathedral is like a lion as furniture. It looks like it might pounce on you at any moment, and as the candles of peoples' hopes and fears flicker, a ghost of a familiar person takes his seat in it and stares down on me with eyes that I cannot read anymore. And still the woman next to me knees and prays by momentarily replacing the lace and reenacting her ancestors without much knowledge about Seville or all of that. I want her to smell Andalucia. To touch Madrid.
Perhaps I am a catholic. When I had my first communion in Guatapé a few years ago, it had been an accident. All of the real things in my life have been accidents. I had converted to another religion years ago and that had been so planned - perhaps this is why it never worked. But the communion in Guatapé had been the simple act of striding into the church one day to receive the eucharist. Now I would never dare. You have to be properly confessed for all of that and I believe too much to take chances with these kinds of magic.
At the convent school I attended, I was one of only three 'non-catholics'. We were excluded from mass apart from to attend it at the back and with our arms folded to mark out that we were not like everyone else. The words of the mass has given me an access to mass in Spain and Colombia, since although the mass is no longer held in latin, the mass always follows a particular format. Despite our 'non-catholic' status, I went to the chapel most days and sat to watch the grey-brown head louse crawl down the wiry plait of the remaining nun who had not died. Sister Gabriel would talk to me afterwards. She would say:
"Girl! What to you know about Saint Luke?"
I would tell her what I had learned, and she would be pleased with me but tell me to study more and pray more. "I never pray. I just sit here. I don't even believe," I would reply. "I want to. I want to so much. I want it all to be true. But perhaps I just like the painting of the virgin above the altar. And the tipping of my finger into the water as I enter to pretend I believe in blessings."
"And do you believe in sin?"
"I do. I wish I didn't."
"Just keep praying," she would always answer. "Pray when you want to. Pray when you don't want to. Pray when you need to. And pray when you don't think you need to. Then you will be saved. We all will."
And so that's what I do.