Tag Archives: prayer

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.

Living on Prayer (of all shapes and sizes and not just Bon Jovi)

8 Feb

Prayers made to the Virgin of Juquila remind me a bit of a third grader negotiating with Mom, trying to barter action figure cards for more time playing the video game. Does Mom really want your action figure cards? Does she just want you to sacrifice something? It doesn’t make much sense to me, but who am I to judge? 

I’m honestly not even trying to be snarky about the situation. The thing is, people go to the Virgin when they need a miracle. It’s a shameful sign of how bad the socio-economic situation is in Oaxaca and our neighboring states when most people’s miracles are things like buying a car, building a house, graduating from school, good health for their child- things that I fervently wish did not need miracle status to be acquired by people.

What I might think is a little weird, though, is the kind of deal that people make for their miracles. They make a promise to the Virgin in exchange for Her help in whatever it is they’re asking for. For instance, that three-day, giant, public, Christmas celebration I mentioned a few weeks ago. My friend’s family hosted that because of her mom’s promise in exchange for her health. One of Conan’s cousins promised to visit the Virgin every year in exchange for his truck that he uses to work. There are long braids at the shrine from women who obviously promised their hair away. There are folks who have promised to go walking on their knees from the entrance to town all the way to the church. Whole families make trips with a hired band, and dance in front of the church. All in exchange for something.

I guess, though, I just don’t get what it is the Virgin wants with someone’s braid. I don’t really understand why it would please Her to see someone get bloody knees. I can’t really imagine how it benefits anyone except the folks of Juquila selling stuff to the pilgrims if people come every year, or hire a band, or make a big fireworks display, or whatever. Wouldn’t it be better if they, I don’t know, promised to do some kind of good deed for someone else every year? Or even promised to improve themselves in some way- give up some vice or do regular exercise or something. I don’t know. I’m digressing from my point horrendously now.

My point is, there are all kinds of prayers, and I suspect they all work equally well as long as you put your energy into it and believe enough. I was raised Catholic, although the only remnants of that aspect of my life are my frequent prayers to my two favorite saints. One of them has been disclaimed from the Church, though- go figure- but that’s not stopping my loyalty. St. Christopher is (and always will be, for me) not only the patron saint of travelers, but also of Barga, the small town my grandmother is from. I’m convinced St. Chris is the only reason I’m still alive, after all the outrageous risks I’ve taken time and time again on all kinds of trips. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I can attribute some of my smashing success as a traveler to his help (beyond not dying, also acquiring good stories, meeting amazing people, seeing cool stuff, everything flowing just like it should with little effort on my part). That said, do I think there’s a guy up there in heaven or outer space or I don’t know where just waiting to hear my prayer and throwing out a helping hand? Not exactly. I picture the situation a bit more like the Mayans and their corn god- something/someone specific to focus your energy on when you’re want to invoke forces from beyond yourself.

My other saint/minor god is Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things (not to be confused with Saint Jude, who’s got it covered on lost causes). In Mexico, somehow, partly due to an old pop song, he’s become associated with helping girls find a boyfriend. Personally I’ve never asked him for this, but do regularly need help finding keys, notebooks, misfiled important documents, and much more. He pretty much always comes through for me, so who am I to doubt? 

I am a believer in the power of prayer. I think that when you focus your energy, send your energy up and out to whomever or whatever you call this energy beyond you- God, Allah, the Universe, a saint, whatever- then powerful things can happen. It’s no guarantee. But it doesn’t hurt, either.

As a teenager, I discovered paganism, with all it’s lovely rituals to help you focus your energy. I’ve long since stopped practicing any kind of religion, but I have kept on with my beliefs about the spiritual universe. So I pray, in my way. I don’t fall to my knees, I don’t cast a circle, but I do concentrate, focus my thoughts, try to be very clear about my intentions and my desires, try to get beyond the daily banality for just a moment.

Back in December, just two months shy of the estimated arrival time of this new baby, we still had no idea where we were going to give birth. I was getting some prenatal care with my insurance company, but I was adamant that I’d rather give birth in the middle of the street than leave responsibility for my body and my baby in their hands. That said, I knew no other doctor, had investigated zero other options. I was getting nervous.

I was also bummed out because we really wanted to have a doula like we did with Lucia’s birth. A doula is a non-medical birth assistant- basically someone who is there to support mama and (if present) papa. Our doula in Lucia’s birth had been fabulous times a thousand, surely one of the reasons that I did not end up with a C-section, and definitely a big help in keeping Conan and I on-track and relatively sane. Down here I’d only heard a vague rumor of one existing doula, and couldn’t find her contact information. I didn’t want any of our friends or family down here to accompany us in the birth, either, because we couldn’t think of anyone who could remain calm and collected, be emotionally helpful and get super intimate with us in that space.

Before I even tried any silent prayers to the universe, I did a little social prayer; I started talking to everyone and their mother about birth options, putting my energy out there, letting my intentions and hopes be known by all. This is the only real way to acquire information down here; Google ain’t got nothing on word of mouth. 

Sure enough, I started reeling in bits and pieces of useful information. I got the name of the doula. I made an appointment with a gynecologist at a clinic with a reputation for quality care. I got contact info for a German expat who had three home births here. The lovely German lady (who I’m still waiting to meet in person- it’s hard to coordinate busy mom schedules!)gave me even more information about possible doctors, and I made more appointments.

At the very end of December we found our ideal doctor. He’s a gynecologist, but he’s also the grandson of a midwife. He was the only doctor we met who wasn’t pretentious, who didn’t act like whatever procedures he routinely does for birth are definitely the best thing for us and if I want anything different it’s “at my own risk.” He really listened to us and didn’t think our ideas were unreasonable. He expressed his ideas about C-sections in exactly the way that I think of them- as a wonderful option that can save the lives of mothers and babies when they’re necessary, but that aren’t necessary very often and are risky when they’re not called for. (And in a country that now has the highest C-section rate in the world- yes, more than the U.S.!- having a doctor who’s not anxious to cut me open was of great importance.) The clinic where we’ll be for labor and delivery is comfortable and relaxing, much more like a birthing center than a clinic or a hospital. I’m thrilled that we’ve found what seems like an ideal set up to welcome this new creature into the world.

But then there was still the doula issue. Conan is an excellent birth partner, and I’d never have made it through Lucia’s birth without him. But it’s an awful lot of pressure on him if he’s the only one supporting me. So I enlisted my mama, an ex-Catholic who is an expert in prayer She’s had a whole lifetime of practicing prayer and trying out different communication styles with God and/or the Universe. “Don’t pray for a doula, though,” I told her. “It’s really unlikely I’ll find an official doula down here. Just ask for somebody who can accompany us in the way that we need.” 

I kept up my social prayer and I’m sure my mom did her part. I found an email for the doula, who was pregnant with her third and had almost the same due date as I do. She had just moved back to Canada after six years here. But she gave me some suggestions for places to look for accompaniment. And she said there was another lady who should be in town who’s done this sort of thing before. The doula said she’d contact the other woman and see if she could talk to me. 

She did agree to talk to us. When we met her, she was a bit hesitant in the matter. “I had no intention of working as a doula down here,” she explained. She and her husband spend the winter down here every year with their daughter and grandkids. “For one, my Spanish isn’t good enough,” she said. And yet somehow two other women had been put in her path just before me- a woman from Mexico City who speaks excellent English, and a French-Canadian woman who does linguistic services in French, Spanish, and English. They were looking for information and help, and so she agreed to teach a birth class, even though she said she’d never even attended a birth class before. She does have training and experience from the U.S. as a doula, plus some experience attending births here in Puerto. We had a nice chat and it seemed like she could potentially provide exactly the kind of support we were looking for. She did not really want to commit, though. Perhaps she was feeling a bit overwhelmed at this sudden surge of need for her help when it wasn’t something she’d been looking for. “I’ll pray about it,” she told us. “And you guys pray about it, and we’ll see.”

Forces aligned correctly in the universe, prayers were prayed, and a week later she was giving us paperwork to fill out so she could be our doula. So here we are, in February, me 38 weeks pregnant and now with an ideal birth team lined up to help bring this new life out of me.

Of course there are no guarantees on anything. Our doula could get called to the U.S. for her very elderly mother-in-law. Or the woman from Mexico City with almost the same due date could go into labor at the same time as me (which would be really bad because we have the same doctor as well!). All kinds of things could go wrong with the baby. But at the end of the day, part of the strength and wonder of prayer, in whatever form it takes, is the power of letting it go. When you believe in a power or a force beyond yourself, you can bundle your worries and doubts into a prayer, and ship it right out so you’re not hanging on to your fear, so you’re not taking responsibility for things which you don’t have much (if any) control over. So I guess even if you have to walk a long way on your knees or cut off your hair or make some other deal, if it can help you travel down your path and give you a little piece of mind as well, then it’s probably all worth it, and about as much as any of us can hope for.