Friday, January 1, 2010

A Child's Christmas in Buenos Aires

My mom told me this story about my niece in Argentina, and I thought it was sweet in all its innocence, so I’m writing it here. Ana’s mother (my sister) has a Catholic background, while her husband comes from a non-religious background. When she turned five, my sister who had been talking to Ana about Jesus, decided to take her to a church in Buenos Aires for the first time. “We are going to the house of the Lord!” was the theme of the day. So Ana, excited to get to see the Lord, put on her best dress and shoes, tied her blonde curls away from her face, painted her little nails pink and held my sister’s hand all the way o the church. There was no mass when they got there but there where plenty of sculptures and images of a crucified Christ, and a suffering Virgin Mary, crying at the feet of her son, the usual guilt-trip oriented Catholic stuff that we see a lot in Argentina. Lighted candles with melting wax, holy water at the entrance, the smell of wine mixed with salt and lavender, the usual James Joyce-Dubliners-catholic decorative items, etc.

But Ana was enjoying herself, until she sat down with her mother in front of the altar and waited anxiously for God to come out and greet her. It was his house after all, was it not? After a while of silence, Ana began to yell “God! God?” with her five years of youth and her innocence placed at the altar, she was only waiting for God to stop being rude. She wanted a face, she wanted to see. “Mom, this man is very rude!” she complained to my sister on the way back home, “We waited for him and he didn’t come!” “Maybe he lives in some other church! Maybe this was the wrong house Mom! What a rude man!” “Where is he?!”

And at this young age, and given her upbringing, Ana will probably hear two different answers to this question. Her mother will tell her that even though she can’t see him, Ana will feel God in her heart. And that God loves her unconditionally and that through the gospel, she will learn to love the way Jesus did. Her mother will tell Ana that there is an ultimate truth to God, and that part of her life’s mission should be to get closer to this Truth.

Her father on the other hand, may tell her that Truth is at times relative, that she should believe in principles that help her get along in life, without constraining her mind, and that she should not fall into dogmatism. He may tell her that although some people want to look for ultimate truths in their lives, such as a God, others are ok with the certainty generated by a community. Her dad might say that if some truths don’t work anymore for society, then we can discard them, and that this may only be for the better.

Both her mother and her father’s teachings will, hopefully, only strengthen Ana’s perspective, and her critical skills as a religious or as a non-religious person, whatever she chooses to be. I don’t write to take sides tonight (I spent way too much time debating about this in the past.) But what is interesting is my niece’s initial disappointment at such an early age. This disappointment is linked to her want of an easy answer, and a fast relief to her anxiety. How many countless times have I myself experienced this disappointment? Ana, with her five years of age and her ruffled skirts, her childlike manners, wanted God himself to confirm to her perceptually that there was a God. Because in future times of trouble, she would then be sure that this God would back her up regardless.

My niece’s anxiety at the church, related to her inability to see, reminds me of the time I took a Metaphysics class. One of the first themes we had to cover was Aristotelian substance, which is basically a non-changing, intrinsic aspect of being which we don’t see (we only “see” the changing aspects of being). Fine, but when I commented to another of my professors how interesting that Metaphysics class was, this is what he answered: “Metaphysical Substance?! There is nothing such as a substance Carolina! Where is it? I can’t touch it and I can’t see it, so why do we need a substance? Obviously, he was a pragmatist and a pretty cranky one too. He was not a metaphysician, but who can blame him for wondering? Who can blame him for, like Ana with God, having once felt disappointment due to lack of direct proof that it was there and that it was successfully working?

Something I know from experience is that whatever path my niece chooses from here, in faith or outside of it, will probably be equally as arduous. But hopefully she will pick the one that, besides orienting her in spiritual or earthly matters, will also allow her to handle life’s disappointments as best as possible, so goes it.

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