Saturday, March 3, 2012

Carnaval Once More

The Spanish word cuaresma has two different meanings: Lent and Carnaval.  On Ash Wednesday, United States Catholics fast and abstain from meat. And while U.S. Catholics indulge in Fat Tuesday practices, consuming stacks of pancakes or whatever constitutes a feast before famine, Ash Wednesday, while not a holiday, receives lots of attention, the services very crowded as the church begins the Lenten season.

Wednesday before last, Miércoles de Ceniza, I went to the Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 a.m., taking Joel’s cane with me to ward off menacing dogs as I walked in the early morning to Mass.  The La Salette Church was half full (it’s a large church), and we received our ashes in pairs, facing our partner and saying, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (“Conveírtase y crea en el Evangelio”) as we made the sign of the cross in ashes on his or her forehead. I went up with Maggie Magenda, a Maryknoll sister from Tanzania. It seemed right that all of us would make the sign of blessing on each other’s forehead, while advising that one turn away from sin and anticiipate God’s Good News.

In our neighborhood parish, it is a tradition for the nuns, priests, brothers, missioners, and the other lay people to have breakfast in the priests’ house after Mass. I had brought a bag of milk and some blackberry jam for my contribution. I intended to simply drop these off, supposing that there would be no breakfast on Ash Wednesday. But there was!  A La Salette brother from Argentina was visiting, and he was making stacks of pancakes for everyone. I sat at the end of the table with the visiting brother,  Adrian,  another La Salette brother who is taking English classes from Joel, Padre David, and a teenaged boy who is also taking English classes from us, who just announced his plans to go into seminary. His little brother sat next to him. The rest of us were Maryknoll and Franciscan lay missioners and two sisters from different orders. One missioner, who was returning to the United States the next week, with the intention of coming back to work for three years, had made scones, with vanilla frosting. Another person had baked a cake.  It was truly a Bolivian breakfast, sugar and starches.   I tried to eat moderately; after all, today was a day of fasting. But as I observed everyone eating with zest, I wondered what kind of Ash Wednesday breakfast I had stumbled onto.

I had plans to go to three services that day, but only made it to one (how many does one need?) Joel went to the Ash Wednesday service at the prison where we work, El Abra, but I did not go because I had to prepare my classes for the afternoon at the high school where I had two afternoon classes.  After Joel attended Mass at the prison, which began at 11:00 a.m., he made the discovery that during lunchtime, from 12:00 until 2:00, the guards at the prison lock the doors and gates: no one gets into the prison and no one gets out. It was at this time that he was able to reflect on his Ash Wednesday experiences as he waiting patiently to be allowed out of prison.

That afternoon, I took the bus from the high school into the city where all the Franciscan missioners were to meet for 7:00 Mass, to be followed by a mission meeting. As I was boarding the bus, an elderly man informed me that there was a bloqueo in the city. I got on the bus anyway, thinking that I would be able to get information after boarding. I asked one of my fellow passengers in this bus were going into the center of town. She said yes, and then turned to the driver himself to get the official answer. “Yes,” he said, the bus is going to the center of town.

I sat on bus for the usual twenty minutes as the bus threaded its way into the cancha.  Now any tourist guidebook will tell you that the cancha  (which means ground or court) in Cochabamba is the biggest open air market in Latin America. Our visitors from the U.S. who had left us only three weeks ago had insisted on experiencing this phenomenon.

As we neared the cancha, the bus driver stopped his bus, looked at all of us, and told us that we had to disembark. Looking at me, he said that I should be especially careful because of the thieves in the cancha at this time.  It was agreed upon that I would have an escort until I could find a trufi, which is a car that fills up with passengers and goes on a set route. Yes, today was the festival day in the cancha, with lots of loud music, eating, and drinking. I had been warned by my neighbors to avoid going into the cancha at any cost, that it was dangerous, particularly for someone who looked so different. But I had thought that the celebration was to be on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, not on Ash Wednesday. Who would have thought that there would be so much partying on Ash Wednesday, especially in a predominantly Catholic country?

I looked around at the cancha: everyone was drenched because of the water balloons, water guns, and buckets of water that were customarily targeted at people during Carnaval. Was I going to get off the bus? No way! I asked the bus driver where he was intending to go.  Back to the outskirts of town, he said. Well, I was going with him, I declared. I reached for my cell phone to call Joel to let him know that I was not going to be able to meet him or anyone else in town, and advised him to return to Zona Sur, our part of town, near Laguna Alalay. The bus driver quickly motioned for me to put away my phone: cell phones can be stolen from bus passengers while they are talking.

As we left the cancha, more and more people piled on the bus. We headed down a long highway that  leads out of Cochabamba.  Unable to see out the window, I had to ask the driver where we were in order to getmyself out of the bus, somewhere close to my neighborhood, about three miles or so away. I got out of the bus and huffed up three long hills to get to Suisse Avenue, where I hoped to catch the “C” bus. The sidewalks were deserted as I moved along, one lone white person in a neighborhood that I had vowed never to walk alone in with my backpack. I finally made it to Suisse—where suddenly there were lots of people. It was at that time that I learned that the “C” buses weren’t running.  I tried to flag down a taxi, but all of them were full or were not radio taxis, which all of us have been trained to take here in Cochabamba.  Finally, I called Joel: please come get me!!

As I waited in front of a hospital, I began a conversation with a woman carrying her ten-month-old daughter in an aguyo sling, her nine-year-old at her side. We sat on the curb of the sidewalk, talking about the differences between our countries. As it turned out, she lived in my neighborhood, and we made plans to visit one another. Finally, Joel came to pick me up, and we headed home.  It was seven o’clock, and getting dark.

But to return to my first point: Cuaresma means carnaval as well as Lent in Spanish. Of course, Carnaval and Lent mean two different things in North American usage. If we are in Lent, we are fasting or giving up something. If we are celebrating Carnaval, we are letting ourselves go. And I recall last Easter weekend, celebrating Good Friday with the Velize family. We took part in the particularly Cochabambino custom of the “12 plates,” in which the family brings in twelve different courses of food, representing the twelve apostles. That is one way to recreate the Last Supper, at least it is a custom in Cochabamba (not many other places, as I have discovered). And so, we all have to eat 12 plates of food, one after the other. The Velize family was conciliatory, though: “Don’t worry!!  We only eat 6 plates!!”  And oh yes, the plates were vegetarian, because it was Good Friday. But here in Bolivia, it is hard to fast. Not on Ash Wednesday, and sometimes not even on Good Friday. Where is the sacrifice, then?  How do we show God that we feel that these days are special? How do we show our love for our God?  Today’s reading from the Liturgy gave me a clear answer. These are the words that God said to his people in the book of Isaiah, when they complained that God did not hear their cry for help, that God was ignoring them, even when they fasted. He posed the following question, and then presented his definition of an effective fast:

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! **

** In his "Apostolic Constitution on Penance," Pope Paul VI did more than simply reorganize Church law concerning fast and abstinence. He reminded us of the divine law that each of us in our own way do penance. We must all turn from sin and make reparation to God for our sins. We must forgive and show love for one another just as we ask for God's love and forgiveness.

The Code of Canon Law and our bishops remind us of other works and means of doing penance: prayer, acts of self-denial, almsgiving and works of personal charity. Attending Mass daily or several times a week, praying the rosary, making the way of the cross, attending the parish evening prayer service, teaching the illiterate to read, reading to the blind, helping at a soup kitchen, visiting the sick and shut-ins and giving an overworked mother a break by baby-sitting—all of these can be even more meaningful and demanding than simply abstaining from meat on Friday.

from Ask A Franciscan, St.Anthony Messenger magazine

My Reflections on Ash Wednesday, Miercoles de Cenizas, in Bolivia (in short lines)

Back home, the people pray, give alms, and fast.
But here, it is the Fourth of July.
Children chase one another with water guns,
Throw water balloons like North American children throw snowballs.
It is February in the North,
But here in Bolivia, it’s summer, and
The firecrackers mark the season of fiesta.
As I pass on a large bus through the cancha, I see
Chicha and plates of food that I cannot eat (I do not buy street food)
Balanced in the hands and consumed.
The long ribbons of color flow from cars, bedecked with summer flowers.
Soggy ribbons and deflated balloons hang from the front of houses
(we are still in the rainy season).
I have somehow found myself here in the cancha
With a loaded backpack and no way out.
This morning, in the safety of my own barrio,
I went to early Mass to receive my ashes.
The marking of the forehead, with the words
“Conveírtase y crea en el Evangelio”
Seemed to be punctuated with the rhythm and tempo of a Mariachi band.
Like the acts of penance in the daily Mass, ten piedad,
We sing joyfully, loudly, somewhat off key, that our sins will be mercifully forgiven.
No shadows here,
In these celebrations, there is only light.
Today, in the priests’ house, we eat pancakes, scones, bread and marmalade,
Pass the syrup, please.  Another piece of cake for you?
The brother who made the American pancakes speaks to me about his vocation,
Why he serves God better as a brother, not a priest.
His vocation sounds just like mine.
We talk (sometimes in English) about the transmigration of souls.
He speaks firmly about church doctrine, not be to disputed,
About the newness of each soul that is conceived.
I wonder what kind of God can make so many new souls?
And how can human beings possibly be the crown of God’s creation?
But such is Catholic doctrine, and I think of all the beautiful souls that have passed
Before my eyes in my lifetime, souls that grew to greatness in a very short time.
The visiting brother tells me that many people see the Catholic Church
As doctrinaire, immovable in its laws,
But he lets me know that really, in truth, 
We have many choices.

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