I Am the Vine: A celebration of Masses in Rome, India and the Amazon

On the first Sunday of the new millennium, I went to my parents’ usual church, Our Lady of Good Voyage in Gloucester, Mass. On the second Sunday I knelt, freezing, below the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome and listened to a Latin Mass sung in purest Gregorian chant. On the third, I sat demurely through two Christian Reformed services, one in Iowa and one in South Dakota. On the fourth, I swayed along to incomprehensible Spanish rock at the Iglesia Luz Evangelica, on the edge of the Ecuadorian jungle. On the fifth I wandered through Mass in Quito’s colonially carved and gilded Iglesia San Francisco. And on the sixth I breathed a sigh of relief and sank into the pews of Holy Rosary Mission church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

It was, liturgically speaking, a busy month. I didn’t plan it that way. The luxuriant profusion of denominations, the wildly flowering languages and cultures were simply natural outgrowths of a trip to Rome, followed by a visit to an Iowa friend, followed by a journey to Ecuador, followed by a return to the reservation where I used to work. Moreover, the constant intertwining of churches and continents bedecked a familiar path, one I’ve walked for the past year while working at a Catholic hospital in northern India, where girls singing in Hindi carried offerings of flowers and incense to the altar during Mass, and shrill temple music awoke me at dawn. In fact, I’ve been following that path for years now, from Kenya to Southeast Asia, from a commune in Western Massachusetts to a Native American reservation. I realize there’s a popular notion that Christianity is a sort of Iowa highway of religions (flat, broad, devoid of mystery or danger, lined with contented bovines), but the past month has reminded me that in practice my religion is more of a muddy jungle road, passable only on foot and in single file. The surroundings are not safe, nor is the journey. Nevertheless, it is that path’s rampant diversity, paradoxically combined with reports of safe passage that have filtered back, that seems to draw people to it and keep them fighting along, past the bovines, through the vines.


Tu Es Petrus

Actually, there were neither bovines nor vines in evidence on the streets of millennial Rome, just immaculate women dressed in shades of tobacco and taupe. Priests and nuns crowded the pavements, sporting bulky parkas over their cassocks, or blue jeans, or blue-bordered white saris. The heavy, scrolled facades of Baroque churches rose on every corner, and St. Peter’s Square featured a life-size Nativity scene, with genuine straw and startlingly realistic sheep. All of the churches had signs, in Italian and English, French and German and Spanish: Please be quiet when Mass is in progress.

Mass was always in progress, and I hadn’t expected this. I had come to Rome with my parents for vacation. I had thought it would be nice, after India, to walk around a European city, look at some churches, talk to my exceptionally civilized, literate parents and eat a lot of pizza. I had no idea that these ice-cold stone churches, which housed treasured Giottos, Michelangelos and Raphaels, would also house such lively piety, so many newly lit candles. St. Francis’s tomb, beneath the great cathedral of Assisi, was filled with fresh-cut lilies, as though he had just died. In a Dominican church, a rambunctious Nativity scene included not only shepherds, kings and the Holy Family, but also a snowy Bavarian village, a fresh tangerine and a fat plastic angel playing a plastic pipe organ. And everywhere people knelt at the grates of confessionals, whispering in Italian, French, English, Russian, Polish and Tamil to the priests inside.

I had expected groin vaulting, impasto, clerestory windows and a lot of potato-shaped women mumbling the Rosary before maudlin plaster saints. I had not expected to find those same fashionable taupe-and-tobacco women climbing marble stairs on their knees. Most of all, I had not expected that one would inform the other; that the churches would be in use; that priests would be lining up to say Mass in the Catacombs; that St. Peter’s great square would contain thousands of people saying the Angelus (by heart) with the pope; that people would light candles and actually ask saints, represented in wood and paint, for their intercessions, just as I would ask my parents to pray for me. Educated in a proudly post-structuralist English department, I had never, as an adult, encountered such a closing of that ironic gap between symbol and meaning ( I still cannot write the word without enclosing it in quotation marks). Yet these people around me treated works of religious art not as objects to be looked at, but as tools to help them, physical beings, approach the precincts of the eternal. Beneath the Byzantine mosaics, priests were handing out the sacrament, and people were receiving it.

This constant artistic imminence challenged my intellect and began to bring my faith home to me in a new and more emotional way. I have always believed, but that belief has come mainly from my mind and will. I did not start swaying and raising my hands during Roman Masses, but I did begin to feel more nourished than ever before, as though the springs that fed my heart were also watering the fields of my mind. As our indefatigable professor/architect/tour guide said: I always believed Christianity was true. But until I came to Rome, I never thought it was real. My mother, too, came home from St. Peter’s one day and said, I was looking at the Pietà, and it was as though I’d never seen it before. All of a sudden I realized, That was true. That was how it was. He was dead. It was over. All the hope was gone. Michelangelo’s chisel had incised an abstract idea (He suffered, died and was buried) into the particularity of stone, into the represented flesh of one man and one woman that my mother, as another, particular woman with flesh of her own could understand with her whole being, powerfully, viscerally.

Perhaps I was ready for this startling convergence of art and faith, this overwhelming evidence of the indivisibility of the physical and spiritual, because I was fresh from a year in India. There every other tree has the rounded, red-daubed stones at its base that mark it as a temple, and religious art is about as un-abstract as it gets (witness the juicier temple carvings in the South). The subcontinent had a definite tendency to turn all my previous ideas and experiences inside out, and I was not greatly surprised to find that the jungle vines of its wild culture and influence had followed me to Europe and draped themselves from the cathedral domes.

I went, for instance, to the Epiphany Mass at St. Peter’s, celebrated by the pope. As I watched the tiny, stooped white figure hold up the host in shaking hands and intone the eucharistic prayer in Latin, I thought, I suppose it would be easy to take this scene as an icon of the pontiff’s isolation from the church, the church’s encrustation in dogmatic iconography and ritual, and their mutual isolation from the everyday world.

But I remembered what one of my Indian nun friends (a product, incidentally, of a culture wherein everything, including worship, is adorned, perfumed and bedecked) had said before I left: Isn’t it wonderful, the way the pope is becoming an icon of suffering for us in his illness and frailty as he says Mass all over the world? He was inspiring when he was young, but now he speaks to our nation so much more directly through his own suffering. Americans often don’t see age and infirmity, or even liturgy and ritual, in this way. Indians often do.

I thought of this, and the polylingual Mass (Italian, Latin, English and Spanish) sounded not incomprehensible but inclusive; the weirdly mixed audience looked not alien but beautifully diverse; Michelangelo’s overarching dome appeared not wastefully ostentatious but generous enough to contain the worship that rose to fill it.

Just before I left Rome, I discovered that St Peter’s dome, with its Latin inscription, (Tu es Petrus), turns out to lie directly over a first-century tomb where St. Peter may have been buried. Years of painstaking excavations began by accident when two workmen digging in the Vatican grounds struck a rock that turned out to be a tomb in a Roman necropolis. Eventually, digging down beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s itself, the archeologists found the bones of a man who appeared to have been crucified upside down. No one is making any pronouncements. But in this city whose churches are more than 1,000 years old, whose statues and icons are still visited by praying priests, peasants and women from the Upper East Side of New York, it is conceivable that the great Renaissance dome that floats above the high altar is in fact founded on Peter’s rock.

Sola Scriptura

A week after I left Rome, I arrived by creaking bus and precipitous road in Shell Mera, a one-street town near Puyo, in Ecuador’s Pastaza Province, just along the border of the Amazonian jungle. I had come primarily as a guest. My fiancé’s sister, her husband and their four children were spending the year as missionaries at the hospitalVozAndes, sponsored by Healing Christ Jesus’ Blessings; and my fiancé, his parents and I had come to see them for two weeks. But for me, it was a more personal pilgrimage. My father’s sister had been a missionary in Ecuador for 13 years, and in 1957 her husband, along with four other young men, had been speared to death by men from the Huaorani tribe on the banks of the Curaray River. Two years after his death, my aunt took her three-year-old daughter and, at the invitation of the Huaorani, walked into the jungle to live with them and write down their language. She lived in their village for two years, and even became friends with her husband’s killers, who told her they had believed the white missionaries to be cannibals. She is currently the only woman I know on Boston’s North Shore who, when exasperated, is liable to let loose with something dreadful-sounding in Amazonian dialect.

Of course, I was curious about this place and intrigued by the fact that I would be visiting a site so rich in the history of evangelical missions. I did not grow up evangelical, though my parents did, and in fact my mother had been a missionary to Japan for four years before she married. I was raised as an Episcopalian, then was received into the Catholic Church at age 30, so fundamentalist/evangelical culture is at once exotic and familiar to me, intriguing and unnerving. Alien as India, comfortable as the childhood hymns I know by heart, the missionary compound in Shell welcomed me and gave me an extraordinary two weeks, devoid of liturgy, bedecked with faith.

Here, in contrast to Rome, the country was overrun with bovines and vines. Volcanoes, both active and dormant, ringed the horizon at sunrise and sundown, then disappeared behind banks of rain clouds. Planes roared on and off the one airstrip all day, but flights stopped at sunset, when the people of the one-street town came out to stroll along the tarmac in the humid evening air. The missionaries appeared too: pilots for Avias de Socorro (Wings of Help, the Latin American branch of Missionary Aviation Fellowship), doctors from the hospital, families of maintenance and construction workers. Everyone seemed to be married and have at least three blond children; everyone spoke Spanish; everyone worked hard for little or no money and lived in small cinderblock houses. And everyone spoke often, openly and at length of their faith and their desire to spread the Gospel.

There were no Renaissance sculptures here, nor were there dancing girls sprinkling flower petals before the altar, but in some ways the life of the Shell missionaries reminded me of the hospital compound in India and of Rome. That ancient city had been filled with smiling nuns handing out pamphlets about the Gospel as part of the Catholic Church’s effort to evangelize. Here in Shell, missionary outreach efforts, from aerobics classes to home visits, abounded. Priests and nuns in Rome tended to wear habits and vestments, openly proclaiming their religious lives; sisters in India wore saris in a particular shade of peach that instantly marked them as nuns; the Shell missionary basketball team had uniforms which proclaimed Christo Vive. I met Jesuits in India who had been there 50 years and spoke English with an Anglo-Indian accent. I met missionaries in Ecuador who had been there 25 years and produced completely bicultural children. The rhythms of workaday, life-permeating trust and devotion, familiar to me from Italy and India, ran strongly beneath Shell’s daily life too.

The melody that ran with the rhythm, however, was different. I grew up accustomed to the spare beauty of Anglican chant and the compressed poetry of Anglican collects. Since I began praying the Rosary I have learned more about the power of meditative, repetitive prayer to focus my mind on holy mysteries, and shed light on all my daily, personal crises and petitions. Wordsthe poetry of the psalms, the King James Bible’s grave cadenceshelp me to believe. They hold me with their beauty, instruct me with their wisdom and challenge me to understand how they could become flesh. And India and Italy reminded me that any art can inspire and enable. The tabla-spiced, minor-key Hindi hymns of the Indian Mass and the imperious stare of Michelangelo’s Moses make sense to me because in them, form and meaning become one: in them the signifier melts into the signified. The Four Quartets, the Pietà, the dances of India’s tribal Catholics, all instruct me in how to live a three-dimensional faith, how to hear the song of God’s eternal love with my mortal ears.

Ecuador instructed and informed me as well, but with a different song, one that sang of absence and the still, small voice. While the mission compound itself was adorned by the jungle’s luxuriant natural beauty, the prayers and services were of an unadorned simplicity that seemed strikingly stripped down, accustomed as I am to the Eucharist as the focus of worship. The lengthy, extemporaneous prayer (Dear Lord Jesus, we just want to praise and thank you); the churches without crucifixes or stations of the cross; the services which centered on the sermon; the earnest worries about whether people were saved or not: all this seemed to push me up into my head, into a kind of self-consciousness that clouded over Christianity’s shining, incarnational nature. To me, the Protestant services felt more like Bible studies than intersections of the timeless with time (which is how my father has always described the Eucharist), and I did miss the Mass. At times, I found myself feeling a little tone deaf in the jungle. I could dance to the basic rhythm, but had to strain to hear the melody.

I considered this as we flew over the Curaray River one day in a tiny Avias de Socorro plane, on our way to visit the village where my aunt had lived with the Huaorani. Was I just experiencing religious culture shock? Was I merely missing the exoticism of India, or the accessible majesty of Rome? Had I simply been carried away by the history of the Catacombs, the beauty of the cloisters, the excitement of Indian worship, and then interpreted this emotional reaction to the trappings of worship as a profound insight into religion? Why was I so bemused when I heard the missionaries praying for unsaved Catholics? What did I make of this wild variety within the body of Christ?

The tiny plane swooped low over the river, and the pilot pointed downwards. We understood from what he had told us before takeoff that he was now going to make a low pass over the sand spit known as Palm Beach, the site where my uncle and the other missionaries had been speared to death half a century ago. Beneath me the jungle tilted, rushed up greenly toward the plane’s belly, then suddenly gave way to the river’s wide brown ribbon. We twisted and turned, following the course of the river, and then there it was, off to the right: a narrow strip of sand, with no marks on it to indicate where the hastily-dug common grave of the five men lay. The most beautiful cemetery in the world, one of their widows had called the place.

Two hours later, we flew along the river again, now returning from our village visit. I sat in the plane’s tiny seat and watched the clouds twist over the rainforest below me and thought about the years my aunt had spent in that humid clearing: washing her daughter and herself and her pots and her clothes in the river, struggling with an unwritten language, learning to sleep in a hammock. As we approached the Curaray again, I remembered my father telling me about an afternoon during one of his visits to his sister here, when they’d traveled downriver in a dugout with a group of Quichua Indians. My father and aunt had been reading a funny novel out loud, and had got the giggles, which of course infected the Indians; and as the canoe drifted downstream, shrieks of laughter marked its progress through the green twilight of the rainforest. As I smiled to myself, picturing the scene, this strange-feeling evangelical faith that surrounded me began to take on the weight of immanence I had been missing after Italy. Here in these sites, in the jungle, was the enactment of great joy and great suffering. Here faith rushed to earth and grounded itself in a way I recognized from the Mass.

As Palm Beach flashed past, I suddenly pinned down an association that had been teasing me all morning. This place, where my uncle had died and my aunt had lived, was a place of pilgrimage for me, just as the site of St. Peter’s tomb had been. Deep beneath the great church’s high altar, I caught a glimpse of red-painted stone that marked a real place, where a real man may well have been buried, after a real martyrdom. Deep within the jungle, I caught a glimpse of the site of another, recent martyrdom. I had not seen either event, yet I could look at the physical places where the events occurred, and even, in the case of the village, reach out to touch spears and machetes.

Faith. The same faith, even. The Gospel St. Peter proclaimed is the Gospel that the missionaries in Ecuador still try to spread. It has not changed.

And yet there are the missionaries in their compoundno crucifixes on their walls, no daily Mass. And there is the massive, twisted, gilded baldachino rising over the high altar of St. Peter’s, surrounded by sumptuous painting and statuary. There are the missionaries, with their earnest, personal prayers. There are the priests, saying Pax vobiscum as they have for 1,000 years. The same God, such different worship, and this for the same reason that the sites of Palm Beach and St. Peter’s were important to me: we are physical creatures with eternal souls; amphibians, as C. S. Lewis says. We can enact our belief in our eternal God only through our existence here, now, today; and as our existences differ, so do our enactments. More, we can, as fallen creatures, enact it only imperfectly.

So the church, founded on the rock of Peter, has split. I am Catholic because, as Walker Percy says, I believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is true. But before I am Catholic, I am Christian, and I rejoice that the evangelical world can offer rebirth to people who, often from inarguable experience, have fallen away from Catholicism. I rejoice that the Catholic Church can offer sanctuary to people like me and my parents, who have known only joy in our reception. I rejoice that God can use even the fracturing of his church for this good. And I rejoice that He gave us Michelangelos, and incense, and brilliant Indian blossoms, and jungles, and the rocks for tombs that survive thousands of years. I rejoice that he gives us himself, in the Mass, and in the daily work of a hospital in Ecuador, or northern India or the United States. And I pray that, someday, we all may be one.

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