Updated: Feb 18, 2022
"Going to Mass", as we Catholics generally call our attendance at the Eucharist on Sundays or other days of the week, is a different experience here in Ecuador than it is back home in the United States. That is to be expected, since the cultures are so distinct in so many ways. Here we live within a thoroughly "Catholic culture" in which the piety and spirituality of the Catholic tradition as interpreted through both its indigenous and Hispanic roots, fills the air. It is everywhere and inescapable. From the small stone cross built into the roofline of an old house downtown to the rosary hanging around the neck of an elderly lady selling limes on the street to the opulently gilded sanctuaries within the colonial churches that dot the city every block or two. This culture breathes Catholicism. And so "going to Mass" here in Cuenca is for me, as a North American, an experience that leaves me feeling almost split in two.
Let me explain.
On Tuesday, I walked up to the Cathedral for the daily Mass celebrated there at noon. It is about a twenty-minute jaunt from my place up into the heart of the old city, but I gave myself plenty of time in case I wanted to wander into a shop or two along the way. I arrived at the triple-domed Cathedral with about fifteen minutes to spare, so took some photos of the lovely arches and the interior of its domes, then settled into a pew about a third of the way back from the sanctuary, a good spot to both observe and participate. In spite of a smattering of tourists wandering about, looking very much like they weren't getting what all the architectural fuss was about, I found myself paying more attention to the locals who were gradually filing in and finding their places in the pews, as I had just done. There was no doubt that they were "getting what all the fuss was about"; this is their home, their place, their sanctuary, their holy place in a noisy world...not far from what the Irish used to call "the thin places", where the divide between ourselves here below and God above is negligible. The holy for them here is tangible. The religious paintings of saints and moments from the gospel stories on the walls, the angels and saints in their niches, the gold-leaf touches here and there, the sheer volume of space in the domes above, the muted noise of rosaries being rattled and prayers said aloud: all this contributes to the "holy" of this place for them, the "thinness" of whatever separates us from God in this life. Among those I see are old men and women, some of whom are dressed in typical indigenous garb their long black hair always braided down to their waists, others in western outfits with hair bobbed or styled to keep up with the times. I see some young people as well, usually off to the side and sometimes with a rosary around their necks, shoulders hunched and heads deep down in their own holy world. I see a business man in a suit and tie, a small child at play under a pew, staying close to the knees of his abuela. The place fills with such as these and, as I said, it is their place...their place that they share with God.
The sanctuary has been prepared some time in advance by loyal sacristans and a lady at a side lectern has read aloud a long list of intentions for the Mass, a cavalcade of names for whom we are invited to pray during the coming minutes. An unseen cantor receives his cue to sing one verse of a hymn I've never heard before even as an elderly priest hobbles out from a side arch of the sanctuary to formally begin the great prayer of the Church. En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo, quickly followed by, La gracia y la paz de parte de Dios, nuestro Padre, y de Jesucristo, el Señor, estén con todos ustedes. And so it begins...
The priest's voice is that of an old man, its cracks and crazings muffled even more by a KN 95 mask (hooray!). The penitential Kyrie is chanted and its ten piedads fill the Cathedral's great space. The padre's homily, it seems to me, is being read from a prepared text, perhaps provided by a "homily help" service of some kind. It bothers me a little, but no one else seems to mind. So different from our liturgies up north, here the homily is almost an accidental element of the liturgy; no one is expecting to be "filled" by it...that work is done by the reception of Holy Communion later on.
And so it goes. It is almost all ritual here. So little "personal touch". Almost nothing of the priest's character is revealed and certainly not his cleverness or sense of humor. I find that at the level of my North American self, it all seems to be rather rote and dry, distant and not so moving. But being here surrounded by these Ecuadorians at prayer, I sense the depth they find in precisely the roteness of the ritual. By their body language, hands sometimes raised, eyes intently forward, attention fixed, I know something deeper is happening among them than what is happening in me. While I feel mostly untouched, they remind me of Moses before the burning bush. Or Peter, James, and John before the transfiguring Jesus. Or maybe the Emmaus disciples blinking their eyes in belief before the blessed and broken bread left behind by their now disappeared companion from the Way. These people I share this place with, much more than I, understand, no, more than understand, they feel and know that God is near them and before them, and in them, here and now. They carry me along. Their faith gives support to my own. Their eyes, open to what is unseen, open my eyes. Their intensity of prayer supplies for my far less devoted prayers.
So this is the "split in two" thing I mentioned above: I really love the dynamic flow of the liturgy in my former parishes back home: the grand processions, the attentiveness to the proclamation of the scriptures, the mutuality of the homiletic moment when the Word is opened and welcomed. I revel in the silences, feel the rhythms of our best prayers, and I love a tender hymn sung with grace while Communion is distributed and so much more. All that is good and holy and as it should be. A lot of that is absent here and I miss it. But on the other hand, in this culture, in this place, in these people from a world not my own, there is something more that I do not usually see; they reveal to me that there are yet deeper things to attend to in this Misa that we share but celebrate so differently. When all is said and done and the final Amén has been mumbled or whispered, beautiful liturgy or not, the people surrounding me in these pews, they have come here because in this cathedral, in this rote rite, in this, their own version of thin space, for a while, they have camped out with God.