Travel Writing on PureTravel: E. Freemantle experiences a remarkable visit to a unique church in Mexico.
A proud Mexican family stood around the font at a baptism service. Twelve feet away a shaman sacrificed a chicken. No one took photographs,the consequences are too severe. To the indigenous people a photo steals one’s soul.
I was in the most unusual church in the world where the worshippers of San Juan Chomula have embraced the Catholicism of their Spanish conquerors from five centuries ago and combined it with their own mystical beliefs.
I couldn’t have dreamed of a place like this. Nor imagined the experience I had deep in the heart of the spiritual pine forested mountains in Chiapas, Southeast Mexico. Home to the Zapatista National Liberation Army who fight against the government for the rights of the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico.
One early Sunday morning; while the mist was still lifting itself from the air and the sunlight hadn’t begun to warm the cobbled streets, I jumped on a bus from San Cristobal de Casas to San Juan Chomula, to find out the truth behind the folklore passed on by the words of travelers I had met. A church shrouded by mystery that can only be recorded through words.
The bus swayed around a myriad of curved roads, rising through the green carpeted land of pine trees and the indigenous groups who share a culture as old as the sun but whose hearts beat to their own beliefs.
This autonomous town of San Juan Chomula marches to its own tune of customs with their own police force. It was market day as usual on a Sunday in the town square. The Trotzil Mayan men and women conducting their daily routine, dressed in unique traditional wool outfits made from the sacred lamb. The women in wrapped skirts concertinaed at the front and bound by thick belts, selling their market wares arranged in little mountains like offerings to Mother earth. The officials were gathered for their weekly meeting to discuss matters needing to be addressed, wearing ribboned straw hats (the more ribbons, the more neighbourhoods you represent) Large families were gathered, spread out in their best clothes around plastic tables covered in empty beer and soda bottles, drinking to celebrate a child that had just been blessed.
On one side of the square stood the white church with its magical hand painted archway. Three swathes of blues with a kaleidescope of patterns and flowers.
A customary large wooden door, within which was another door, was open.
It took a while for my eyes to become accustomed to a glimmering glow. The light was emanating from wave upon wave of lighted candles, stuck on to the stone floor fusing with the natural light streaming through the windows. The shimmering mist from this sea interwove with the rising smoke of copal incense and the aroma of pine needles which were strewn all over the floor to purify and cleanse the energies of the church.
The permanent Catholic remnants from years past were swathes of fabric draped from the ceiling which evoked the feelings of a tent. It felt protective, yet open with the beams exposed, so the Roman catholic and indigenous prayers could be sent straight to the cosmos. There has been no mass for thirty years, but a priest is permitted to conduct christenings every 20 days . There were no pews, just one large open space of light, and all around the walls of the church sat the painted, mirrored wooden Saints watching from their glass fronted boxes. Fresh flowers displays stretched back as far as the eye could see.
I saw the baptism service with its chaotic bubbling river of excited families and children in frothy party dresses, who had been saving for this day, to have their child blessed under the eyes of God and the rest of the town. Then I became aware of whispered hypnotic prayers in the center of the church. In between the waves of light, people were gathered, little groups of two’s and threes within which shamanic healing ceremonies were being carried out.
I caught my breath. I didn’t want to disturb the pathways of mysticism, etched out in burning white and coloured wax. In the Mayan belief, a person is born a doctor. This is medicine, not magic.
There are many different doctors in Mexico.
The pulse reader who feels the blood flow to find out if the illness originates with fright, envy, bad spirits or with nature.
The mountain top prayer healer who connects to the spirits and prays for what is needed.
The midwife; all knowing of womankind and nature and the energy between.
The bone healer who heals through massage, whistling, (it frightens the spirits) blowing ( sending the bad spirits away) and praying. and the herbalist using the sacred plants.
I stepped slowly through the candles, and watched from a little distance a ceremony. Two women were kneeling and one was healing another. The candles were lit, coloured ones had been used here as it was a more serious problem. White candles are used to cleanse and balance out the coloured candles lit. Together they began to chant prayers. Then she summoned a child, I’m not sure it if was the woman’s child who was being healed. The little girl went to the other side of the church and from a sack pulled out a live chicken and carried it back to the curandera healer.
The healer circled the bird over the candles three times, with the cries of the bird soaring in a strange union with her chanting and then over the woman’s head three times. And then she ran her hand along the neck of the bird. There was no blood shed which would have been a bad omen and the bird lay limp. A soul exchanged for a soul.
Traditionally the person being healed would have drunk pox, an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane which relaxes the patient and ignites the gas that expels the bad spirits through burping. No part of the world it seems, has been unaffected by the giant conglomerates, as Coca Cola is now more commonly used.
There are many remedies used in the ceremonies. Flower petals, feathers, eggs and bones but the most powerful of all is the sacrifice of a live chicken. I continued to walk through the flickering waves to the alter covered in flowers but felt I couldn’t really continue to ‘watch’ these personal exchanges so I left this dichotomous church, where spiritualism meets religion and ancient indigenous ways are intermixed with western influences. Where anonymous tourists and travellers meander through the wishes of hearts and the pain from souls which are lifted, transposed in candlelight and belief and in return one carries away an experience that leaves you in breathless wonder.
It needed space afterwards. Time to reflect and gather up, like a dream itself. And I wondered is it impossible, as Joseph Conrad had said, “to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence? Ultimately, do we live as we dream – alone?”
So everytime I met someone on my travels In Central America I would ask,
“ Have you been to the church in San Juan Chomula?”