Prayer Parties! Inducing Yawns since Colonial Times

25 Oct

Thanks to the extreme lack of stimulation that going to church brought about for me as a child, I learned that yawns were caused not just from sleepiness, but also from boredom. I hadn’t even realized I was bored per se, but I remember asking my mom why church always made me yawn when I swore I wasn’t tired. Bless my little heart; I was just not cut out for Catholicism.

I still feel the same irresistible urge to yawn when faced with participating in the rhythmic ritual of Catholic prayer. This is now a rare occurrence, since I don’t attend mass if I can possibly avoid it. Here in Mexico, however, the unique Mexican brand of Catholicism is so deeply entrenched into social life that I occasionally find myself obligated to attend a prayer party. The one at my neighbor’s house last weekend was so- ahem- relaxing that I went beyond yawning; I was semi-entranced, nearly asleep in my chair at 8pm.

I know, you’re thinking that a prayer party surely should be more exciting than church. To clarify, it’s not a party like a fiesta, in the grand style of Mexican parties where you save up money for ten years and invite everyone you’ve ever met. Perhaps “party” is a poor translation on my part, but there’s just no equivalent in my culture for this sort of phenomenon. It’s absolutely part of what makes Mexico so special. Where else can you turn prayer into an important social and cultural event? In Spanish, in Mexico, the event is called a rezo, and it literally just means a prayer. It comes from the verb rezar, to pray. So we could call it a prayer…. circle, theoretically, but that doesn’t fit, either. A prayer hang-out session? I don’t know. Let me tell you about it instead, and maybe you can help me give it a more apt name in English.

As far as I can tell in my 4 years of sociological investigation here, there are two main types of rezos. One type is part of the obligatory action that happens when someone dies. (which I mention in this big rant of a blog post about a string of bad luck). This is tradition, first and foremost, and legitimized as THE way to properly honor the dead. I can certainly respect that. Also, I suspect that it forces the grieving parties to continue to function and to have a social and religious backdrop for their grief. It seemed a bit appalling to me at first, to make recently bereaved folks cook for others, invite people to their homes, and serve them food and drink. I theorized that maybe they set it up like that so folks would be too busy working to fall apart entirely? Maybe that’s the only way to ensure that plenty of people will go visit with the grieving- create this custom of 9 evenings of prayers and food? I don’t really get my own country’s culture on this issue, either, so I am certainly not one to judge here.

Whatever the case, the prayers-for-the-dead rezos are not something I would ever scoff at, and I’m excluding that type of rezos from my intense sociological scrutiny in today’s blog (haha). The other type of rezo, however, is kind of beyond me. It’s a little prayer party- a party like the way we say it in the States- a gathering, a get-together,that takes place at someone’s house with a bunch of invited guests.  However, there’s no catching up, no card playing. The music is abysmal (because there is no music, unless you count the sad singing/chanting business.) Not a bit of dancing. The conversation is pretty much limited to basic, boring small talk, if there’s any talk at all.  And there’s no alcohol involved, unless it’s the last night of a funeral-based prayer session. But there’s food! Free food! And coffee or juice!

The food is not usually that great, for the record. I’m an expert on this because my mother-in-law went to rezos weekly in Juquila when we lived there, and she’d always bring the food home instead of eating it there (another weird Juquila custom). So I know all about what food is given. Something big like pozole or tamales is awesome. Often it’s something simpler, like a piece of sweet bread or (gag) some gelatin (this is another cultural puzzle for me, this love for and creativity with gelatin). Granted, I appreciate the gelatin-givers, because I’m sure if I were religious and inspired enough for this sort of party, I’d be giving out something equally low-maintenance. All in all, though, the food in itself is not sufficient motivation to get me to a prayer party.

Even when they happen outside, somehow the atmosphere becomes dim, perfect for a nap. People set up chairs in rows facing an altar, with candles, incense, and religious images- especially the particular Saint or Virgin that they’re praying to (yes, there’s only one famous Virgin in the Catholic faith, but there are different versions of her- the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Juquila, etc.). Folks come, sit down quietly, and pray this advanced, fancy version of the rosary all together in unison. There are readings from the Bible that correspond with it. When it’s over, the guests get a plate of food and a drink of something handed to them, and they either eat it there or leave with it.

Above: A guide to the rosary- this explains why they say “second mystery, third mystery,” etc. Thank you, Google, for giving me more information. 

These prayer parties are fairly commonplace, too; it’s not like only fanatics have rezos. Tons of people have them. Totally reasonable, lovely people. For example, every year Arturo and Paulina have a rezo for Saint Jude. Before any big neighborhood parties happen in Juquila, people pass around statues of the saint in question and take turns having rezos for him or her. Our favorite neighbors here- the ones across the street- just invited us to their special rezo– the same one we attended last year. I don’t even know what saint I was supposed to be praying over, but I figured since it was our neighbors and they were kind enough to invite us we could go and show our respects. These people are not crazy, by any stretch. This is just what many people do.

The first rezo I went to was one with Conan’s grown-up niece Lili (whom I love and adore), when I lived in Juquila. I successfully avoided the prayer party excitement for the better part of my year there, until Lili made me attend. For some reason, Lili had felt herself obligated to commit to paying for part of a really big rezo, so she asked me to go and support her. We walked through town setting off fireworks all along the path (so Juquila-style). Lucia was right at that age when she was just walking and refusing to be still, ever, so I spent the whole time chasing her around someone’s yard instead of praying (and let me tell you how grateful I was about it). I let my curiosity die down about it from there.

I was talking to my mother-in-law about it again, as she prepares to go to her and Arturo’s yearly rezo. She explained to me quite a bit more about the “mysteries” that they talk about during the prayer- because I’ve yet to understand how/why different people volunteer to read the first, or second, or third “mystery.” “Just what are these ‘mysteries’?” I asked her. She explained that it’s all about praying the rosary in honor of a saint (or a recently deceased person). The mysteries correspond with the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers on the Rosary, and…. that’s about as far as I got in my Catholicism class before one of my children faithfully distracted me.

Of course, the most interesting part of our discussion involved the origins of this ritual. Paulina was telling me that this is how they do it because this is how the Spanish supposedly taught the indigenous folks to pray the rosary. “Aha!” I said, “That’s why giving out food is obligatory. That was probably one of the strategies the Spanish used to lure indigenous folks to their religion.”  And that was all the progress that I made in my intense sociological scrutiny.

Paulina explained that people do it for what she laughingly named the “celestial benefits,” which I suppose I could theoretically understand. Seeing as how I’m not religious and also not Mexican, though, I’m still slightly baffled about why people feel compelled to host these events. I mean, I’m a really big fan of certain saints, despite disavowing Catholicism for myself. But it would never, ever occur to me to invite people over to honor that saint. And okay, I know I’ve been known to have parties partly just to motivate myself to clean the whole house, so I guess the saint motive is loftier than mine. And sure, I cook food for folks at my get-togethers, but then we all enjoy it together; people don’t leave with their untouched food in hand. I guess their party is just holier than mine (hehehe). It’s one of these cultural mysteries that I can respect- because it’s culture- but I cannot really comprehend it.

Meanwhile, I’m still yawning over Catholic prayer- whether it’s in party form or not. And pondering a better translation than “prayer party”- so share your stroke of brilliance if you have one! Love you, dear, colorful Mexico.

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