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.