A year or two ago, on this same trip from our church, our group had the chance to visit the home of a Mayan priest who we have known over the years of coming to Guatemala to work for the Mision San Lucas Toliman. In his home, up a very narrow and steep stairway, there is a shrine to San Simon, known locally as Maximon. Probably the same saint as the ancient Mayan deity Mam, he is a bit of a tough guy, depicted in statues with a cigarette in his mouth and bottles of liquor on the altar as offerings. (Photo: Tribal Art Wiki)
We visited again a couple of days ago, all fifteen of us, squeezed into the top floor of the house outside the little booth in which the shrine is found. Our friend welcomed us and sent his granddaughters for fifteen eggs, on which we wrote our names, each in a different color. Then he began building a very small and elaborate pyre on a big iron disk with eight colors of sugar, eight colors of candles, five balls of copal (incense), and some cigars. He invited us to pray or make wishes, so that the Holy Spirit and/or local spirits might know what was on our minds. And then, after he got a good little fire going, we put our eggs in the fire. (Thanks to Cheryl Stevens for this photo)
Apparently, there are many ways for eggs to behave, from exploding to cracking and leaking to just plain roasting without the shell being disturbed, and our friend the priest did his best to explain the meanings associated with the fate of each of our eggs. His explanations were pretty simple, general, and all quite positive, so as a fortune-telling exercise, I don’t think I learned much, but when he took us inside the shrine, face to face with Maximon’s statue, it felt very intense and serious. He sprinkled and dabbed some blue and some clear liquids that I imagine were alcohol-based, and prayed to God for me, my family, my work, and my studies. It was a bit like going into the confessional booth.
The man and his family are obviously very poor. He has eleven kids and a half-dozen grandkids, who joined us. They were curious, intelligent, kind, and playful, but quite aware that Papa was doing something important. He brought out a smaller carved statue of Maximon/San Simon, and one of the children told me he even owns a tiny one. Cheryl Stevens took this picture, also.
Of the priest’s many siblings, only two have continued their grandfather’s indigenous religion in addition to their Catholicism. I wondered which of these children might someday pour sugar on a fire in this same house in front of other skeptical, curious, and respectful visitors.
Maximon has shrines in most of the villages around the great Guatemalan Lake Atitlan. We were encouraged to visit the shrine in Santiago Atitlan yesterday by a man greeting passengers at the dock. The shrine is a popular destination for tourists in the know, but we were headed for a shrine of a different kind: the pilgrim church of Santiago, and the study of its late heroic priest, Fr. Stanley Rother.
Known affectionately by his Mayan name, Apla’s, Fr. Rother was murdered by a right-wing death squad in July, 1981. He had taken sides with the indigenous people of his town, the Tsutuhil Maya, who were being murdered and “disappeared” by the army. Having been warned numerous times that his name was on a list of those to be terminated, he finally went home to Oklahoma City earlier that year. But his conscience told him that if he really was the “shepherd” of his spiritual flock, he needed to imitate the Good Shepherd he so often preached about, and get back to the people who needed him. He knew that he stood a good chance of meeting the same fate as Jesus.
In his study are plaques describing his solidarity with the poor and a bullet hole in the floor, covered with glass. Fr. Rother may well become a saint in the next decades, in tribute to his integrity and compassion. The walls of the church are lined with statues of other saints, all dressed in vestments of many colors. This one is a woman mourning the execution of St. John the Baptist. It could be his mother, or the young princess whose evil mother the queen told her to demand John’s head as retribution for his having spoken truth to power.
Our guide and trip leader Bill Peterson showed me a carved figure of Maximon on one of the panels behind the high altar in the church where Fr. Rother preached, taught, and died. The were also depictions of the Holy Spirit as a quetzal bird, and scenes of indigenous farmers growing corn.
Discouragingly, there were also plenty of racist statues, including a fair-skinned angel subduing a dark-skinned devil, and conquistadores all over the place, triumphing and planting crosses.
Within just a few few decades of Ferdinand and Isabella’s cruel decree of religious intolerance, the Spanish were spreading diseases and looting gold all over what we now call Latin America. In 1492, despite 700 years of mostly-peaceful coexistence with Jews and Muslims, the Catholic king and queen ordered all noncatholics to convert, depart, or die. Their missionaries, once settling in the “new” world, were considerably more tolerant, allowing lots of syncretism like the merging of Maximon and Saint Simon. The church in Santiago Atitlan contains a sacred plaque in the floor in the center of the church, opened once a year to reveal the ancient Mayan “navel of the world.” In fact, the church was built on a Maya temple, a small pyramid set on this exact spot connecting upper and lower worlds.
As we travel the world this year, in search of trees and rivers of religion, I’m hoping to notice how both branching-out and flowing-together happened. Here in the mountains of Guatemala, where rivers rush down, chocolate-colored by sediment, we see mostly the erosion of human respect and generosity. We see more separation than unity. We see the results of conquest by what my cousin Paul calls Spain’s obsession with military honor: men with short-barrel shotguns guarding drug stores and gas stations, high walls around the compounds of the prosperous, and indigenous people, carrying huge loads of firewood uphill on foot, praying to their saints or gods for whatever this day will require.