Saturday, December 02, 2006

Mass confusion

Today’s choice for my Christmas Art Advent Blog comes from my favorite Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The Virgin Mary, the beaded rosary she holds, and Murillo all remind me of my experiences in Spain. So I think I’ll tell my story of how a little Mormon girl from Utah once became an honorary Spanish Catholic.

When I was 8 years old, my family lived for several months in Spain while my father directed a Study Abroad program. In a highly effective language learning method called “throw the kid in the pool and they’ll figure out how to swim soon enough,” my parents enrolled me in a Spanish school even though I spoke nary a word of the language. The school was a private Catholic academy, as I believe were most schools in Madrid at the time. It felt like pretty much everything and everyone in Spain was Catholic. Except me.

On my first day at school, I was introduced to my classmates (who no doubt saw me as some kind of alien because not only did I have blonde hair and blue eyes but my name was inexplicably not Maria de la something or other.) Within a few minutes of my arrival, we were all being led out of the school complex and down the street to the nearest cathedral. The girls around me were all somber and a few were fingering the crosses around their necks and whispering. We went into the church – a cold stone building that smelled like my grandpa’s basement mixed with a new pungency I would later recognize as incense. An enormous painting of Christ’s body on the cross loomed above me on the wall. A robed priest at the front began chanting in a foreign language (Spanish? Latin? it could have been Botswanan for all I knew). At certain intervals, the students and teachers would respond to his questions with memorized replies and gestures in the air. I sat while they stood and stood when they kneeled. I was completely mystified, which isn’t a bad state to be in for spiritual purposes, but compared to the morning rituals I knew from my school back home – the Pledge of Allegiance and listening to the day’s lunch menu on the intercom – the whole thing was somewhat terrifying. So needless to say, I wasn't exactly thinking spiritual thoughts – not unless you count the holy in "Holy cow! Are we going to have to do this every single day?"

As it turned out, I had just happened to start school on a day when the entire student body was attending a funeral mass for a classmate who had fallen to her death from a school wall the week before. For the rest of my time there, aside from a few morning catechisms in the classroom, the school was not that different from what I was used to. I learned to swim very quickly. I learned the language and I learned to kiss my friends on both cheeks and I learned a hundred songs to sing while playing the Spanish version of Chinese jumprope in the courtyard. And after a few weeks, I knew every Catholic catechism by heart and would proudly recite them to my parents. It was a sign of their unshakable personal faith and love of the Spanish culture that my parents listened to their little blonde daughter saying Hail Marys and smiled proudly.


Anonymous said...

Love the title and symbolism in your post title!

What a neat thing to be able to experience another country at such an early age. One of these days I am going to take a trip to Europe!

By the way, what kind of wall was at this school that a child lost their life falling from it? What a sad experience to have to deal with at such a young age. I can't imagine how the classmates must have felt every time they saw this wall.

Julie said...

Ordinary Mom,
The school was a series of levels separated by courtyards. So each courtyard had a wall on one side that was at least 10 feet tall. I don't remember there being any railings or fences at all. I never saw the accident since it happened before I started school there, but of course it was a big topic of conversation the whole year (which I only began to appreciate once I understood the language a bit better).

Anonymous said...

I was raised by a very non-practicing Catholic mother. While I'm not sure I get much of a spiritual lift from a Mass, I enjoy the 'special occasion' memories that attending Mass brings me. Because, believe me, if my family attended Mass it was a special occasion. (Either that, or it's just because I majored in Latin.)

Julie said...

I'm making a note of your Latin skills and puting you on retainer. I'm always running into phrases and I wish I spoke it better. Dead language, perhaps. But still useful.

meno said...

How great is it that your parents saw fit to put you in a position to learn Spanish. And how sweet of them to listen to the Catholic rituals.

adios mi amiga.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story. I am so impressed at your ability to adapt as a child. I think it is wonderful that your parents were secure enough in their faith to allow you to experience another faith.

Just amazing.

Jenn said...

The Sink or Swim method is still alive and well today, although most of my class can help newcomers. But I know that look of sheer mystification that you discribe! My guess is that your Catholic exp. did little to change your faith. I was the only Christian in a Jewish 1st grade and I fell in love with the Jewish traditions. My parents bought me a book of Hanukkah stories for Christmas and displayed my paper menorah at home as well. Overall it just made me more accepting of others.

The Lazy Organizer said...

Wow! Growing up I spent every summer in a foreign country. It didn't take me long to learn the language. I can sill say, "X, Y, Zed" and "aboot" instead of about. Pretty cool, eh?

Anonymous said...

See, it's posts like these that make me link to your blog. Loved it, as usual! :-)

What a wonderful way to allow you to appreciate/learn about the culture. that what Heavenly Father had in mind for me when he stuck me as a Mormon in a Baptist and Catholic family?

Julie said...

Gracias muchacha.

My Dad's one of those "practice what you preach" Spanish professors. I do have to admit that I forgot much of the language when we got back to the U.S. But when we returned to Spain a few years later, it came back to me quickly. It's strange how the brain works.

Julie said...

Kids are incredibly adaptable and my parents are great (have I said that enough times in my blog yet?). They also encouraged me to attend Baptist services with my friend Jane in the 6th grade (I think the plan here was that she would also come to my church with me, but her parents weren't too keen on that idea).

I'm jealous about your exposure to Jewish traditions. I've always wanted to learn more. Does reading everything Rabbi Harold Kushner ever wrote sort of count?

You hoser! What a world traveler you are, eh? (Let's see if I can offend all Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Mormons, and Canadians in one post).

You'll have to fill us in on the details of your eclectic family background. Sounds like a fun blog entry.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

The first time I ever went to Catholic Church with my boyfriend and his parents I made a horrible impression. I thought the kneeling bar was a footrest much to the chagrin of his mother. I didn't know that there was an audience participation required either, and just sat there as everyone went through the well rehearsed banter between the chanting priest.

I'm glad I dumped him and married a Mormon instead. :)