Wednesday, October 6, 2010

the priest at the Pyramid of the Sun

In October 2001,my girlfriend Mona and I crewed on a sailboat down to Mexico. This was The Bad Relationship, and the boat's owner was a selfish, passive-aggressive loon who eventually tried to kick everyone off the boat in the middle of nowhere, so the trip was a mixed bag. I did enjoy Mexico, though, and I came back with a raft of stories, including the time the four of us--me, Mona, the skipper, and his girlfriend--rented an old-school VW Beetle and did a road trip from Puerto Vallarta out to Teotihuacán and back.

Teotihuacán is hard to describe. It's an ancient Mesoamerican worship site, obviously, but it's...enormous. Huge. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest structure, is 246 feet (75 meters) tall, which is at least 16 stories high. It has a lot of steps and takes a while to climb, and it's made of these tiny stones, 8-20 inches. And there are other buildings comparably sized, and then you realize that it's 2000 years old and we don't actually know who built it, and the mind reels.

Then you have to fend off the obnoxious guys pushing little stone statues to the tourists. Luckily they're either too lazy or not allowed to sell on the pyramids themselves, so if you gain some altitude you escape them.

We arrived there on December 11th, the day before the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's protector. Being godless heathens living on a sailboat, we hadn't noticed, and it took us a bit to figure out why there were all these Catholic pilgrimage tourist groups. This was their last stop before the gigantic festival in Mexico City the next day.

The first thing I noticed was a group of American Catholics standing in a circle, chanting some ritual I'd never heard before. There was the obligatory endless response of "Lord, hear our prayer," but the (non-priest) leader's lines were unfamiliar, and...unusually esoteric, somehow. It felt like it came out of the same dusty book as exorcism, and lived there, largely unused, for similar reasons.

The next thing we encountered was a Mexican guy who was pretty angry that a bunch of Americans had the temerity to come to a foreign culture's ancient religious sites and do some random ritual there. Mexican Catholicism has a strong streak of the original pagan in it, more than in many Latin American countries: this guy was there to do a solemn greeting to the four directions, and the next day he was going to dress up and perform in a giant traditional Indian dance in a plaza in Mexico City. So he was pretty miffed about pilgrims feeling they had the right to do some random thing on top of the pyramid.

There were a couple of priests with the group, and on the way down I caught up with one of them, a doughy heartland American in his mid-30s, from Wisconsin. We had a nice chat: it turns out there was a particularly zealous guy in the tour group, who asked the priests if they could do an obscure Catholic rite for purifying a space. Basically, they were asking God to forgive humanity for all the evil things (which I guess meant human sacrifices) that had happened on that spot. The priest thought it was a little odd, but wouldn't harm anything to humor the guy. Inasfar as you think Religion A coming and purifying Religion B's "defiled" ritual spaces might be a little arrogant, the Mexican guy's anger was right on target.

I saved several gems into my journal from the conversation with the priest, and someday I'll type them up, but it included one of my favorite lines ever, said without a hint of irony:
"Are you Catholic?"
"I was raised Episcopalian."
"Well, that's almost as good."

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