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  • By Flor Santamaría

All in one church or in hundred churches.

I was sitting in front of the Tabernacle, conversing with Jesus. Looking at the eternal light dancing as a heartbeat connecting with my heartbeat, like if it was reaching out my hand, inviting me to dance a slow tune and me accepting the dance.

The picture of the crucifixion takes a major importance here in this chapel. With small shimmering particles all over the image, which at the encounter with the ceiling lights, will gritter every time to show a path, for me to pay attention to different points of the image, like fireflies in the dark woods, leading the way to wonderful treasures.

The blood of The Savior running through His body, Mary in the side, holding the pain in her heart, Mary Magdalen at the foot letting the blood clean her hands. Her face, covered, she is just immersing in her unbearable sorrow.

St Dominic in the side, turning his back to me, I can´t see his face either, telling me “Just look at Him sister, it is Him and only Him my dear daughter”. A painting filled with symbols and hidden messages of love, from the cross to all the scene, where all the people is speaking from their position, whispering a word of wisdom: fear not, child.

-The same reflective effect causes in me the big picture of the Ascension of Christ in st. Dominic´s church in Oslo, I can stare at the image of the apostles and Mary reunited looking how He ascent to heaven. While the apostles are somehow impressed and shocked, the mother of God remains in praying position and calmed.-

After few minutes of prayer and praises I asked, like old friends contemplating their relationship through the years “how many times have I come to visit you, Jesus?” How many churches have I visited, to find you in those cells where you rest while waiting for a visitor? The feeling of your presence and your closeness is the same in every one of them, yet is here, where I have come countless times the past six years, and where you have invited me and allowed me to sit with you, informally at your table. In other words, it is in this humble chapel, but rich in love, in the convent of St Catherine of Siena where I said yes to listen to your word.

The question spread to a broader counting: How many chapels and churches have I visited in my life? I could say hundreds! But I never got to stay for long or you never spoke so straight before. While I write these thoughts, a different matter rose, could it be, this closeness because I am praying to you, at last, from a Dominican home? Or because in the Dominican ground I can open safely to let you speak, as in the tradition I have learnt we have to dialogue in order to be converted?

A holy playground, bloody battlefields, testimony of the saints, oasis to grief, the embrace of a mother.

Since I was a small child, I would like to enter the church of the little town of El Rastro, where I spent my first infancy and part of my childhood in Venezuela. I was about four or five years old and I could “wonder” around because I knew the way from home to the main square, where the colonial style structure dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari was standing.

Back then, the tall thick wooden doors of the church were always open. I found it smell funny and rather distinctive. I thought it smelled like bats, because the bats lived in the tower. I liked to climb the heavy iron stairs to see the rusted bells, and when I was alone even timidly ringing one bit of it, I liked to trespass. But not because I was a punk, but because it was the church, and it was, somehow an extension of my home too.

To ring the bell was more like a collective fun. The children could climb to the tower on Sundays and call for the holy mass, but since I was small and not too strong and certainly not fast, very few times I got the privilege to do it. The sacristan from ground who will be waving “it’s enough” and we had a laugh, it never was enough fun to feel the vibration of the bells even while covering our ears, now as an adult the building does not look as big, but for me at that time, and in my memories, it looks huge. The memory is so sweet and dear to me, that nowadays, my favorite sound in the world, its the singing of the bells.

When I visited the churches during childhood, I was doing it without any real idea of the presence of God in the Tabernacle, but I always liked the feeling of quietness I could find there. It was an intangible portal to a mystery that was not made to scare me. And at that time, in that places where I grew up, myths and legends were “tailored” to intimidate children with twisted ideas of the divine and the evil.

Through the years I would walk around the temple wondering, stopping in front of the images despite I would feel overwhelmed by the numerous suffering faces of the saints and scenes of the Passion of Christ, or the many and many more Marian images, some of them fairly beautiful but fairly inexpressive too, weather she was alone or with baby Jesus.

She was for me the most incognito of the images, because of that facial expression the artists would give her, very distant, affable but lacking connection for me. Except when she was showed as “La Dolorosa” then, I understood she was human. Because she was telling me "I am suffering".

Otherwise, I only saw that peaceful beauty kind of expression in the face of my friend Domenica the day of her funeral as she died at age of 9 and I got to see her in the coffin. Normal practice in my country, to say the last goodbye with the coffin open.

She looked like one of the Italian porcelain statues. Peaceful, virginal, ardent in a way. Her black eyelashes closed but looking asleep, a little pink of make up in her cheeks, her two pale long thin hands closed over her chest.

"Like guarding a secret of love only God and now her knew, because it was hers, the secret of her death. I would get to know mine, the day I die, only God and me, and no one else".

Could it be that the face of Virgin Mary was so in-comprehensible for me, because that is the face of someone so pure, who has conceived God, who has raised God, who is with God and her heart is a reflection of God? Maybe. if so, then no statue would make honor to such beauty. How can I even figure?

While I write this memory, I remember the moment when I approached to see her, with my eight years, I spoke very low to her body, hoping at least her soul could hear me, "now you are meeting God. Send regards from me. I will miss you very much". I touched her face over the glass, like caressing her sobbing a little. She was dressed in her First Communion dress, she was preparing but she died before. The comments in the funeral were "oh she didn't make her first Communion", but the eight years old me said, "She is meeting God", let her alone! I was immensely grieving. In the cemetery I said that when I die, I wanted my tomb be red. I wanted to go after my friend. I mean, somehow I wanted to go to play in heaven with all the children there. After Domenica died, my interest in heaven grew, after all, she was there, right? This was my first personal encounter with death.

I suppose, this interest in churches and saints also came because I was following my mother´s example. I was doing what she did, but without understanding why she did it. It was interesting, historic, fun and made me feel part of my flock. My grandmother also did attended church often and my aunties, all the family in general, and in high season, all the town for processions.

I understood basics of worshiping and she was explaining why the particular saint we visited was venerated. I think I liked how they were depicted. Sta Theresa of Avila for example with a book, or with a skull, and St. Joseph, with a lily or the baby in arms. Sr. George with the dragon, Sta Eduviges with a house and Lucia with her eyes on a tray. At home they had the Saints of Butler, books I inherited property of my uncles, a priest and a Dominican fray.

I found a rich source of storytelling which would be speaking about the world and its wideness, a world without end, for a small town child. it meant a lot to read about a saint in France, Italy, Spain or Germany. And I had a huge field for fantasy and imagination as well, since I am speaking I experienced this until I turned ten. Places so far away and exotic yet so close in the faces of those saints who made it from wherever they were, all the way to that little church I visited.

But still, the presence of Jesus in the Sacrament, didn’t completely sink in me, even after I had taken my First Communion. I knew Jesus was alive in the Holy Host, but I didn’t know he was living in the church too. It was someone who told me. A priest? Perhaps. My mother? I don’t remember. It is possible also that it was a random person in one of those churches when I was late teens, because people shared thoughts in the church then. For example, once, I knelt in front of the figure of an angel, St. Michael, and a man approached to me and made me stand up, very kindly he said: We only kneel in front of God and Mary. Angels are servants, they will be very sad you are doing that because they are very humble. I jumped and said I am sorry! I didn’t know! And the man, with a kind smile, said back: I am just telling you. And he left. Later, I thought he was my guardian angel. Again I had a vivid imagination.

Maybe it was again a random person in church who told me about the Sacrament “When the candle is lighted, He is at home”. Oh well, then I will always entered the temple like: Is the Master home? Where is the candle.

And one of the things I love about the chapel in Oslo, the one in the convent, is precisely that when I open the door, the first to receive me is Mary, but I slightly turn my head to the altar and by the side is the red light saying “ welcome dear, come in, I am here”. And that candle became a big deal in my spirituality.

I went around the world looking for that burning candle, and many times I was surprised and felt blessed because the Master was out of his cell, exposed in his greatness, speaking openly to everyone, and I imagined in his great speeches and sermons in the mountain or in the house of Mary and Martha. More than thirty years wondering from church to church, to get to know now, it has been a way of contemplation.

I will not stop visiting him as long as I can walk, because wherever I go, that there is a church, a catholic church, He will be in the Holy Sacrament. He will be Eucharist, He will be bread and wine made flesh and blood, He will be present, alive, beating in the eternal light. Because that is the Mystery of our faith. In which we call him by announcing His death and proclaiming his resurrection, in a piece of bred.

The more the years run in my ephemeral earthly life, the more I am content to visit him in that small chapel, humble and rich in love, of the convent of st. Catherine of Siena in Oslo. He is there in the wooden cell, and, for instants, even come to the cave of my heart bringing me out to life.

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