Last night a lovely woman I met while traveling in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas regaled me with horror stories of “Mayan Purification Ceremonies” that seem much more like coerced sexual trauma – rocks in your undies, humming mouths in your crotch, hands all over your body, and that’s just the beginning. Naturally, when Sarah and I today went to the famed church San Juan Bautista in Chamula, we signed right up for a purifying cleanse with a curandero called Domingo.
I was the most skeptical and least comfortable of the three of us – Peggy from Ireland, Sarah from England, and me – and, honestly, if Peggy hadn’t wanted to have one, I’d still be the dirty little girl you’ve become accustomed to.
I can promise you that after not sleeping all night thanks to my flea-infested bed, a seven-hour free walking tour (totally recommended, but lord have mercy), and late-evening champagne, I 100-percent did NOT want to get up at a decent hour and take a colectivo to yet another Latin American Catholic church. “Thanks,” I thought, “but I’ve seen PLENTY.” Well, I’m trying to do more of those things that even though I’m not wild about the idea of them, I’m here so I might as well. (For more, see how I climbed a goddamn mountain to have grilled chicken and got up at 4 a.m. to get the first bus to Macchu Pichu.)
Anyway, I told Sarah that I wanted to go, so I put on my let-us-pretend-we-want-to-do-this undies and my best I-still-have-not-had-coffee-so-please-stop-talking-to-me-but-I-need-to-be-nice smile, and we drank some coffee, had great pastries, jumped in the van, and arrived at the main square.
The square and the church are heavily decorated in green to symbolize and stress the community’s connection nature. We all know green is the best
last name color, and I’ve had two coffees, so right away I feel a bit better about the whole thing. The church is actually a fantastic blend of Catholicism and what I guess we could call Chamula Mayan Revival. I say this not to be dismissive or condescending. We can’t call it Ancient Mayan, of course, because it has changed so much; it’s been completely conquered and mutilated and buried during the past few millennia. And we have to keep the Chamula because even just 20 minutes away in Jovel (San Cristóbal), the traditions and beliefs are different. The following information is what I remember the guide (curiously also named Domingo) explaining.
There is inside a white Christian cross (not crucifix, that’s important); but outside the in the church square and in the main plaza are displayed the CMR cross: a cross painted green (nature) and decorated with a cup of incense, stalks of corn (the Mayan creation story says that man is born from maize), and symbols for the four cardinal directions. Outside, the church itself is the typical Spanish 3-bell style (it has a name; my cursory Google search didn’t yield it, however); white with a lot of green and some yellow and blue.
Walking inside, after presenting your 25-peso ticket you non-believing heathen, you notice there are no electric lights, the only illumination is a shit-ton of candles. You think you’ve seen a shit-ton of candles if you’ve ever been into a Catholic church; I promise you you have no idea how many candles is actually a shit-ton. The second thing you notice is the floor’s sparkly white tile is completely covered with pine needles. The pine needles are significant because the pine tree is sacred. The most sacred tree is the ceiba, but they don’t grow up here in the very arid mountains, so the pine is second-best. To be certain, the candles, lack of incense, and millions of pine needles make the church smell great and not at all stuffy. To be certain, trying to walk on pine needles that cover and shiny tile floor is precarious; take your time getting up to the alter.
Before we get to the alter, though, let’s talk about the saints: all 46 of them. The church is named for Saint John the Baptist; he was a shepherd so now the Chamula community doesn’t eat lamb but they do dress in dyed-black sheepskin skirts and vests. Instead of having a church named for one saint every couple of blocks, there is but one church for the whole area’s three barrios and mass is only once per week (8 a.m. Sunday, if you’re so inclined). So, all the saints. The saints are in wood-and-glass vitrines and dressed in their typical common garb with their typical common facial expressions. People act as the saints’ butlers, to dress them and clean them and parade them around during processions or ceremonies. It’s a one-year, completely volunteer job. Apparently they’re running low on volunteers. Each saint also wears a mirror so that the devoted can see themselves. The parishioners confess, like all good catholics, but not to a priest. Instead, they stand in front of their chosen saint, look at themselves in the mirror, and ask forgiveness for their sins. That’s something right there, if you ask me; redemption does not come from on high, but from within. But I digress. There are tables in front of each saint to light your candles, which make up the largest contribution to the aforementioned shit-ton. Fun fact: One of the saints is Santa Rosa of Lima, Peru, which was only called out to us because there was a Peruvian tourist in our group.
Another of the saints is of course the Virgin Mary, La Virgin de Guadalupe n this case. She wasn’t in her case the day we were there because she had just participated in the first Friday procession for Lent. (We also missed the giant market day because during Lent it happens on Fridays instead of Sundays, and minor but important detail the Lonely Planet guidebook fails to include, much to the chagrin of basically every tourist there today.)
Carnival has just ended, obviously since it’s Lent, and the cloth banners are still hanging in upside-down Vs to represent mountains (and also stay out of the way of people walking around). The ceiling is painted black and if you cross from the main room to the alter room you can see it decorated with stars, a sun, and two moons (full and crescent). You can go all the way to the back, there’s no sacred “priest-only” zone in this church.
There is also no crucifix. They don’t celebrate a dead body in CMR, they celebrate Christ’s life. I like that too. Normally Jesus rests in his tomb, another green wood-and-glass vitrine. But for Lent he also has to participate in the parades, so he was absent today. The only time this church displays Christ crucified is from Good Friday (the day of his crucifixion) to Easter Sunday, when he is placed back in his tomb for another year. I bet he prefers it that way, instead of hanging, injured and tired and dying for 365 days a year.
The church is open 24 hours per day; it never closes. And I can imagine there are worshipers and healers at all hours of the day and night. What do they do? Well, they sit on the floor (pine needles, no pews) and do purification and cleansing rituals. Practitioners believe that every physical illness, failing business, troubled personal relationship, and any other problems are caused by bad energy and evil spirits. So, if you are sick or can’t find work or are having trouble in love, you need a healer to trap that spirit and get it away from you. Our guide had a healer remove his bad spirits long-distance when he fell ill while visiting the USA – powerful medicine.
To remove a bad spirit and help protect you from further attacks, a healer will take your pulse to determine your diagnosis and best course of curative action. Then you bring the healer the supplies s/he requests, which will be a specific combination of pine boughs, basil, candles – white for gratitude and protection; green for nature; blue for the Earth; yellow for the sun; and red and black for the evil spirts – eggs, a hen, pox – a kind of aguardiente made from corn – and a soda. The ceremony’s length and exact ritual depends on the malady, but essentially candles are lit with prayers and songs – always invoking god, the sun, Christ, the earth, and saints &ndash then there is lots of hugging and thumping and arm- and leg-caressing with prayers. Then you get cleansed with a bunch of basil; Peggy got her stomach whipped a few times with it, maybe she had parasites. Next an egg is passed all over your body with more prayers; the egg, which has presumably collected the bad energy, gets passed over the flames of the candles and then lightly cracked and tossed to the rubbish. If your malady is more severe or complex, you might have a hen passed over your body in the same way; the healer will then snap the hen’s neck. The hen will later have a short funeral and be buried; you can’t eat hen contaminated with mala vibra. There’s no blood but it still managed to put some guests off their lunch; I got really hungry for sopa de gallina. After the egg (and possibly the hen), the healer gives the earth (or the floor) some pox, spits a bit out of his mouth, gives you a micro shot to drink, and then spits some more out onto the candles. S/He might repeat this process with a soda as well. Then more hugging and thumping – our curandero cracked my back, it was great – more prayers and you’re done.
I don’t like strangers touching me and I had just come off these nightmare tales from Sarah, so you can imagine how excited I was when asked to lift up my shirt (just exposing my tummy) and receive all these crazy bear hugs and thumpings. But it all seemed on the up and up. I have to say, I didn’t feel any different except slightly giggly from having had the experience. Sarah decided the best thing we could do after was get drunk; we were all clean so it was time to jump back in the mud. Sarah and I left Peggy to explore the market and met up with Andrew for lunch. We ate fish tacos first, drank hot chocolate at Fanny’s (an endless source of jokes), and then later danced and drank until 3:30 in the morning. It was pretty fantastic. I’m healed.