Since I’ve been in India, a country with EXTRAORDINARY religious diversity, I have been trying to indulge in understanding each one of them as a means of better comprehending the culture I’ve been dropped into. Religion is very important here, almost everyone practices one, and thus necessary for gaining an adequate cultural context to every day experiences.
While I could go further about this, I will save it for later because right now, I have some confessions to make about my own cultural upbringing and faith.
I’ll just admit it; I’ve never sat through a full Catholic mass. I’ve been with friends as a kid a time or two, but even then we did not sit during the entire service. It’s not that I am the type of person to get fussy about denominational divides like this, it just simply is because that’s how I was raised.
So let’s lay out the facts:
- I am from Missouri.
- Missouri is in the bible belt (Yeah, true, Kansas City may not be so bible-ish-ey because it’s a city, but have you been to Branson? Exactly. BIBLE BELT.)
- Or, if you prefer, wikipedia says:
Or, if you prefer, wikipedia says:
The Bible Belt is an informal term for a region in the south-eastern and south-central United States in which socially conservativeevangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is generally higher than the nation’s average.
- I was born and raised in a protestant church. (Shout out to the Disciples of Christ!)
- Result: Jennifer is not well educated in Catholicism, end of story.
The thing is, most of the Christian churches here happen to be Catholic also. Although Christians are a minority in India, many of the schools that children in the cities attend are private, catholic schools, regardless of their own faith.
Public education offered here has a poor reputation as being insufficient so people send their children to private schools. My guess is that the catholic trend is a remnant of the European colonization of India, especially since Bombay was the hub of the British rule.
What does this mean?
Well, I am confessing (I know, very Catholic of me) that many of the Muslim and Hindu children running around Mumbai know more about how to behave during a Catholic mass than I do.
Why is this important?
A couple of weeks ago I was encouraged to go the Rosary Church down the street to check it out. So I did.
Rosary Church from the inside. It’s a bad picture because I was trying to be discrete and because I am a bad photographer. BUT, what you can’t tell is that those mural paintings up top, they are indeed, Indian because they depict women in saris, just like how our Jesus is always very white, I am sure.
Oh, hey ominous Jesus statue and your shadow! Isn’t that wild? Also not that I photographed this, but there are A LOT MORE Jesus statues in churches here than I have ever seen in my life. Another one of those things that left me wondering if it was a Catholic phenominon or an Indian cultural one influenced by the Hindu idols–I don’t know.
This really bad photo is one that I took from a distance of the entry, where to the left you can see the Jesus statue mentioned below. I was trying to be as not rude as possible, while still photographing it.
What resulted was me staring down people as they fondled the Jesus statue and kissed its feet and me being stared down by others as I:
- sat when I was supposed to stand
- stood when I was supposed to sit
- and tried to cross myself in the wrong direction.
I kid you not when I say that I walked in and wondered why there was a foot rest in front of all of the pews. Whoops! That’s not a foot rest, it’s a kneeling bench—it’s good to know, FYI, if you are attending mass.
The first time I went this was on the board and I liked it. The preist actually gave a very important sermon calling attention to the issues of rape, abuse and molestation.
Mostly I stumbled away in a haze thinking two things:
- Was I confused about that whirlwind event because that was Catholic or because that was Indian? Like, is this syncretism of religion or am I just really dumb? Answer still to be determined. I’ll have to attend a mass back home and get back to you.
- You know what they say, fake it till you make it! I wanted to do this so I could participate and not draw more attention.
And then it
hit me was texted to me by James: a revelation!
I was going to be in India for Ash Wednesday and Ash Wednesday (today!) also marks my half way point of being here, and furthermore I am flying home on Good Friday, just in time for Easter!
It’s as if the stars had aligned for me here in India and my whole life made since.
That’s when I decided that I need to learn this stuff (being Catholic) because I WILL participate in Ash Wednesday festivities.
My steps to get there?
For starters I walked to the church yesterday to check the time for the mass service only to be stampeded by hundreds of kids and their parents. How was I to know that school gets out at 6pm? So I took a walk, explored the area, and then circled back nonchalantly like I had meant to do that all along and saw that mass was at 7pm.
This evening in a tizzy I texted James asking him how to cross myself because after working summers at a Catholic daycare, he IS well-educated in the practices. He then referred me to the internet.
Tonight at 6:45pm I marched/strutted (learned that from all the chickens I see here) confidently to the church, crossed myself as I entered (forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, thanks, Google!) and I plunked my rear-end down, of course after kneeling. I got wedged in-between women who showed up by themselves. At first I was nervous they would be on to me, but then I realized, everyone is so no-nonsense and introspective. I am used to church serivces where nobody shuts up and people socialize a lot. While I wouldn’t enjoy the rigidity at home, the meditative attitude is ideal for me here because simply put, I am not talked to, nor am I expected to talk to anyone.
Don’t ask, don’t tell. Don’t ask me if I am faking being Catholic so I can get ashes on my forehead and I won’t tell you that I am faking it to get ashes on my forehead. Don’t ask me if I am Catholic while you stick that communion bread in my mouth for me (I have never been fed my communion, but let’s just say, I didn’t hate it. Was I supposed to let him do that? I digress…) and I won’t tell you that I am not Catholic as I accept your motion to put that bread in my mouth for me.
I did it like a pro, and I felt great about it! Through the formality in his voice, the echoes and the thick Indian accent I could make out that what the priest said is that Lent should be a season for pensiveness, reflectivity and joyful waiting in “bright hope.”
And so starts my lent, giving up America (obviously) and taking on a go-getter attitude during the final half of my stay here.
Good Friday will have never felt so good, as going home is, thanks to my
weirdo lovely family, always good, just in time to celebrate Easter!
I can already smell the vinegar of egg dying (which will likely be done at midnight due to jet lag), feel the bunny sweater that I will be wearing that Lynn painted in the 1980’s—it looks better now than ever, taste the sugar cookies we will make (and feel the subsequent stomach ache from consuming half of the dough), see the beauty of the sunrise at the 7am service, and anticipate the joy of spending a day in celebration with family. Oh, and a belated birthday bear hug for Grandpa Frank, too.
I can truly say that Lent has never been so symbolic for me! I am having way too much fun with this.
Another, golden gem of a selfie. End result: ASHES, ASHES, WE ALL FALL DOWN!
But until my return to the bible belt, I look forward to being awkward at more Indian religious events, accumulating my reservoir of creepy photos that I’ve taken of elderly people with red hair and spending my days teaching the cutest kids alive, all the while in an endless pursuit of milkless coffees.
This humiliating closeup was an attempt to capture the fact that when I got home I realized I had been walking around with ashes on my nose. I look like one of the dogs when they get into the litter box…