Friday, October 10, 2008

The Dark Chapel

I walked across the wide curving street, surrounded by long gray and white walls and a long line of tall thick trees that towered over me like old calm observers, too old to judge, too tired to comment. I walked towards the green circle at the center, where the red and white triangular chapel still stood, calm and collected, sitting back on its foundations and waiting for more years to pass through its open doors. There was a line of cars trailing off towards my right, parents waiting to pick up their kids from the "Escuela Americana", the American School. This was the original entrance, the original one for me and the original one for the school, back when it was first founded. It was now the entrance to the grade school section, with a sign over its archway that said: "Through here walk the greatest kids in the world." As I had many times before, I wondered if they had made a mistake with me and maybe I should never have walked under their archway. I was certainly not a good example of the kind of man they wished to produce. I crossed the street and started up the wide cement steps that lead to one of the chapel’s three entrances. There were bright green plants all around the steps and a beautiful rock structure in the middle that overflowed with flowers and long green leaves. There was a woman in a white maid uniform standing by the chapel entrance. I looked at her and she looked at me and there was no expression on her face, no sign that she had noticed my coming, no sign of approval or disapproval, just a vacant stare. I took a picture of the church, with her in it, and then another. Then I walked straight towards her and her expression had not changed. I thought that maybe her years of experience as a maid had taught her to only see what she needed to see and ignore anything that strayed from her assigned job. I stepped inside the chapel and the present clashed with my memories like a tornado breaking a sand castle apart.
Many years ago my mother somehow decided that I should undertake the sacrament of the first communion. In all the years before this, my mother had taken me to church only twice. Her only regular reference to religious belief was in sporadic exclamations of "Oh my god!" or "God save me!" and in crossing herself anytime we passed by a church. But she had decided, maybe through some pressure from the school or from her friends, that it was my time to undergo the first communion, my first direct contact with the Body of Christ as held and defined by the Roman Catholic Church. In order to do this, I had to go to religion classes after school, and when they said "religion classes", what they meant was sessions of indoctrination into Catholic dogma. The classes were held in the same classrooms where we were taught during regular hours but these lessons were led by an unknown large woman with a fake smile and a high stuttered laugh that sent shivers down my spine. It felt like punishment to have to stay an extra hour in the same building that I yearned every day to abandon but I did feel some curiosity to learn about the secrets of God and Jesus and the basic framework of the Universe which was built upon their holy shoulders. I wanted to know what they would tell me. I wanted to know how it all came together in the end. So I arrived at the class with a little blank notebook, a couple of pens and an eager mind.
Here they taught me the seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, marriage, priestly vows and final rites. I remember drawing pictures of Moses holding the tablets of the ten commandments and trying to make sure I filled in his robe with blue and the tablets with yellow. I remember taking notes in large letters about the body of Christ and the Holy Mystery of the Host and the Wine and the Holy Spirit. I remember drawing a small pigeon surrounded by little lines that signified its power and its holiness and being told that that was the Holy Spirit and I remember being curious about it in particular and how this holy pigeon related to the Father and the Son and how it had made the Virgin Mary pregnant. I wondered why it was a pigeon and not some other animal. I wondered if I should love it. I wondered if it could love me back. I wondered how and why it was different from the Father, God Almighty. I wondered if it would come to me in moments of danger or need. My questions went unanswered.
We were given hosts to eat, ones that had not yet been transformed into the Body of Christ through the mysterious processes that only the priests understood, and, to me, the host tasted like a kind of bland chewy cracker, and we were given a small sip of wine to get accustomed to the taste, so that we wouldn’t be surprised during the actual ritual. One of my friends told tall tales about a little kid who had never tasted wine before his first communion and who kept on asking the priest for more, getting more and more drunk in the process. Someone else said that some kids would spit out the host if they didn’t like it and that that was a great sin. I wondered what the consequences would be, what would happen to these terrible spitters. I wondered how these little crackers became holy. I wondered what the priests did to them that made them different. My questions went unanswered.
As we progressed through the bureaucracy of the church, it was established that I had never been baptized. In the order of sacraments, this was a prerequisite before taking in the Holy Host. So one morning I was taken to the big church by my grandmother’s house, the one that stood next to the seminary where priests were taught in their secret arts, and, in front of my uncle and aunt and my mother and father, a priest spilled some holy water on my head, said a few words and declared me baptized. I felt no change. I felt no difference. I sensed that the priest was bored and not particularly interested. My father made fun of me outside for being too old to be doing this, as this little ritual was usually done to a baby, not to a nine year old, and I laughed with him and at the whole situation. He told me that my Uncle Raul had never been baptized as a baby either and that he had to do it right before getting married, all in a big rush, and I could only imagine my big Uncle Raul, with his huge beer belly and his thick moustache and his raspy high voice, bowing to a bored priest while water was spilled over his head and I could see him rushing outside to look for a bar, to tell the story of his late baptism over and over while drinking bottle after bottle of beer.
Around these days, I had some trouble with a few bullies at school. One of them had bothered me particularly and I had decided that I needed to take some kind of revenge upon him. His name was Figoni and he was good at sports which automatically put him in a caste superior to me. We had interacted only rarely but this particular day he had decided to annoy me and I had reacted angrily. We didn’t physically fight, but the cutting threat of it, the possibility of pain, anger and humiliation, left me with a very bad flavor that tasted like old vinegar and spilled over my tongue like black saliva. I came home to our little apartment in the heart of the dark garden and I proceeded to design a magic spell that would hurt my school enemy terribly. It involved a thick long piece of styrofoam, a figure made of sticks, some salt and dirt and a lot of chanting and harsh movements. I did it all that afternoon after school, in the highest level of the garden, where I hoped nobody would be able to see me. In the end, I broke the styrofoam in half and I loudly asked for a violent punishment for Figoni, who that day had become my greatest enemy. I came back from that session of strange magic feeling settled and at peace. That night I played the piano without guidance or rules, pressing keys here and there, trying to create strange little melodies that would be lost as soon as they were discovered. The shadows came over me without my noticing and my mom came home and found me still sitting at the piano in the dark, tinkling back and forth with the keys.
After the baptism came the next required sacrament: confession. In religion class the large woman emphasized that we should be completely honest, that we should not hold anything back, that we were free to say anything and everything and that the priest would listen and absolve us of all faults but that we should not hold on to any secrets no matter how terrible. I was terrified. I suddenly realized that I would have to say what I had done, or what I had tried to do, to Figoni, and I wondered how the priest would react. I thought that maybe this would go beyond the pale, that the priest would be unable to contain his anger and I would be expelled from the church and shamed in front of my classmates, my teachers and my parents.
I was also unsure of whether what I did in my mind every day was a sin. I had heard of the word masturbation but I had never applied it to myself. I had never caressed my own penis but I would bring myself to repeated and gloriously flashing orgasms every day by fantasizing about my little girl classmates from school and pressing my crotch against a pillow. I was convinced that that couldn’t be masturbation. I was so sure that it wasn’t that I didn’t see any need to hide it and sometimes I would do it in the sofa bed by the terrace while the maid was walking by me or on the white hammock while workers were cleaning the garden outside. But now, facing this terrible moment of confession, I began to wonder. I heard the teachers talk about impure thoughts and I wondered if imagining Elsa without a shirt, and trying to picture what her little nonexistent breasts would feel like in my hands, if that would be considered "impure" and that in itself made me wonder what "purity" was and how had I fallen from it and how could Elsa’s soft white body not be pure as snow and if it was, why were my thoughts so wrong and why should they be hidden. I would picture myself saving her from great dangers and she would come to me and kiss me to let me know that she loved me and I would kiss her back and sometimes I would hold her tightly and sometimes I would simply say goodbye and sometimes she would come with me and our arms would intertwine as we walked away towards a glowing horizon. As the day of confession approached, and as the religion teacher kept on insisting on purity and impurity and sin, I asked myself more and more if maybe my little sessions of mysterious pleasure were somehow a sin in the church’s eyes. I didn’t stop having them, and I didn’t stop creating little stories and rubbing myself to peaks of intense pleasure, but I started to hide my activities from the eyes of others and I started to feel a creeping sense of dread.
The little chapel was in the round circle that stood just outside of the entrance to our school. I had seen it a thousand times, each morning as I was driven to school and each afternoon as I waited outside to be picked up. But, as often as I had seen its triangular shapes, its hollow red bricks and its dark closed windows, I had never been inside. When the dreaded day of confession finally came, our little group, about ten kids, was brought across the street in a little line and we walked, one by one, into the dark beautiful chapel that had watched over us like an elegant eagle flying like royalty over turbulent dreams. I looked inside and saw a great church of infinite proportions, as if the little chapel was much bigger inside than it looked from the outside, as if with each step that I took inside, the chapel grew bigger and bigger, and I felt that the deeper I entered, the farther the altar would be and the taller the pyramidal roof would get. There were large paintings on the walls, of the last trials of Jesus, all done in a thick, forceful, dirty style that seemed to me foreboding, confusing and appealing all at once. Here Jesus looked a bit more like Conan the Barbarian and I could feel true sympathy for him as the tall men in black hoods crowded around him and called for his death. To me, the chapel was full of mirrors and glass and figures that repeated onto themselves and flashed towards me like endless fractals, fragments of lost stories and ancient rituals of magic that someday I wanted to understand. I felt that here, in this dark little chapel, was the true living heart of mystery that was only hinted at in the little drawings of prophets and the lists of words written on the blackboard that we had to copy in our little lined notebooks and try to memorize every day after school.
I was lead into the confession booth by my teacher and I sat on a little chair and I looked under a small curtain and I could see the mouth of the priest and I could see his body and he was wearing regular street clothes and I could see too much of him so that I didn’t feel hidden enough, I felt too naked and exposed and for a moment I thought that maybe there had been some mistake, maybe I was sitting in the wrong place and the real confession booth was somewhere else, but then the priest asked me to begin talking and I opened my eyes wide, I looked at his lips pressed together and his white shirt and his hairy arms and I said: "I confess Father that I have sinned… I have lied to my parents."
I waited for some kind of response but I could see his mouth and he was simply quiet, sitting very still and waiting for more. So I continued: "I confess Father that I have sinned, I have said bad words, I have said them in anger." Again there was only silence in response and I could only take a deep breath and continue. "I have had bad thoughts…" and then the strange anonymous mouth opened for the first time: "What kind of bad thoughts?" and I scrambled for some way of describing my fantasies in a way that this priest would understand but not think too badly of me: "I have thought of girls and of kissing them." I saw the face nod and then he said: "Anything else?" I swallowed hard and I knew that this was it and I could walk away and not say anything more but I knew that my thoughts would trail behind me like wet mud on my shoes and I knew that I had already decided what to do, even before my mouth moved and said: "I have engaged in witchcraft, in spells…" The mouth nodded once again and I was alarmed. Was he about to let me have it? Was he about to invoke the wrath of the church upon my head? Was he going to ask for more details? But he simply asked again: "Anything else?" and I said "No." and he said: "5 Our Fathers and 5 Hail Marys" and I walked out and knelt on a pew and proceeded to recite softly the prayers I had learned in class. The "Our Father" I knew well, but I was not so clear on the "Hail Marys". I did my best and I stood up when I had finished. I felt no different. I wondered how many kids came here and confessed to practicing witchcraft. Maybe it was so common that the priest would have been surprised if I didn’t say it. I felt a little let down. I had worried about this moment for so long and now it was over and there had been no wrath, not even a hint of surprise. But I did notice that it felt good to have said it. It felt good to simply say the truth, even if it wasn’t in its full adornment of flowery detail. It felt good to have a moment when there was silence and I could simply talk and say what I had done, no matter how awful, no matter how dirty, no matter how bad. I walked out of the mysterious dark chapel feeling lighter and ready for the communion that was to come.
When I walked into the chapel today, there were no mirrors and the chapel remained the same size no matter how many steps I took. The paintings were still beautiful but they had lost their shine. Maybe the years had scraped their magic away. There was the sound of people shuffling papers behind closed doors. Someone was answering the phone. I took some pictures and I sat down, looking at the blue statue of the virgin and at the hanging statue of Jesus crucified. They both had a new meaning for me now and the little chapel was too small and limited to hold their new significance. A security man walked in carrying a heavy planter and a rich woman in tight jeans, wearing large shiny earrings, walked behind him, giving him orders. His large shotgun was tied around his back but the woman held another power in her movements that was invisible and that loomed over him like a shadow of fear and deep ingrained respect. The maid I had seen earlier followed the woman as she walked back out to a waiting BMW. The security man soon followed. Again I heard the rustling of papers and another phone was ringing. The floor wasn’t dusty but it felt abandoned. I could see the beauty that was there in the design of the chapel, in the slanted walls, in the multiple doorways, in the indirect light. But the current groundkeepers had let it fall upon itself, they had allowed it to fall from the darkness of truth to the smoky light of illusion and they probably couldn’t notice the difference. I closed my eyes and did what I had come to do. After a few moments, I took several deep breaths and I heard steps around me, a door opening and a female voice talking on the phone. I pulled myself inside and worked in this little broken sanctuary, allowing the sound of phones and the scraping of furniture to become within me as flowing and alive as the singing of birds outside or the rustling of tree leaves in the wind.
When I was finished, I walked towards the main altar. There was a metal inscription on the floor dedicated to the priest that had originally sanctified this chapel, maybe the one who had made it come to life. I imagined that he had been a loving builder and a good groundskeeper. I wondered if he had known the man who stood behind the little curtain while I confessed my sins so many years ago. I took a few pictures and then I walked out. I saw the wrinkled security man I had seen carrying the potted plant and I asked him if I could take his picture. He said: "Si, hombre!" in a full and friendly tone and he posed for me with a slight grin across his face and the thick shotgun across his torso. As I walked away, I took a few more pictures of the beautiful triangular shapes of the chapel. The dogma I had been taught in the classroom had long faded into oblivion, but the glimpse of dark magic I had felt within that space had multiplied as far as my senses could reach. Maybe, as I had felt back then, the magic just grew larger the deeper I moved into it, and it had now grown so big, that the little chapel had shrunk in comparison, and now Elsa’s breasts had grown and were flowing with passion, and her soft skin engulfed the church like a vast dark jungle holding a tiny earth worm in a long thin strand of green rain soaked life, and her hidden overflowing love was a greater mystery than it ever was but her legs were open and welcoming and I had flown into her moist secret gateways and I had returned with some crystalline sharp answers but also with fiery new vibrant questions and the crackling energy that I had been ashamed of was now what was opening my eyes wide and clear and I could now see the little chapel for what it was, for what it could be and for what it would never be, no matter how many years flowed past its wooden doors. As I sensed the change in the nature of my perceptions, within me I was still grateful for the original glimpse, for the strange vast chamber I had once witnessed and for the effort of some hard working beings that had made it come into existence, devoted beings that I would never know. As I walked away, my heart ached with the vision of the infinite work and sacrifice that was implied in every corner of endless raw creation and I allowed myself the faint wistful hope that, as far as space could reach and as long as the progress of time could be imagined, someone somewhere would always be ready to do the real Work, the Work that broke past all intellectual barriers and tore like a hurricane through the structures of tradition, the Work that was done in silent, unreasonable and incomprehensible service to the endless depths of the unknown.

The maid that was standing outside the door.

The altar of the little chapel.

The rough beautiful paintings that made me
see the story of Jesus in a new light.

The doorway to the secret inner chambers of the chapel.

The security guard who smiled and said "Si, hombre!"
when I asked to take his picture.

Elsa Montoya as I knew her when I was nine years old,
when she kissed me in dreams
but never came near me in reality.

The virgin that made love to a pigeon and gave birth to a God.

Elsa Montoya as I would come to not know her,
years after our paths had separated forever .

The gateway to the secret inner chambers of the world.

I turned around to have one final look
at the little chamber that one day
extended into forever.

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