- By Flor Santamaría
The Bells. A loud call from the deep love within the walls
I don't have much idea of how many chapels and churches I have visited in my life, so far, but I could say hundreds! And it is because 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 back in Venezuela.
I was about five years old, and I could “wander” around because I knew the way from home to the main square, where the structure built in the 1800´s dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari was standing, and because it was a place where everybody knew I was my mother´s daughter.
Back then, the tall thick wooden doors of the church were always open. I found it to 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 one bell, and when I was alone, timidly ringing it one time only. To ring the bell was more like a collective fun.
The children could climb to the tower on Sundays and call for the mass, but since I was small and not too strong, 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 to feel the vibration of the bells. Nowadays, my favorite sound in the world. The Church´s bells ringing. Breaking time and space, travelling with the wind to call out for souls to listen.
When I visited the churches in childhood, I was doing it without any real idea of the real presence of God in the Tabernacle, but I always liked the feeling of quietness that I could find there. It was sort of an inaudible voice, an intangible portal to a mystery that was not made to scare me. And I was extremely easy to scare. In the 80´s, in those places where I grew up, myths and legends were “tailored” to intimidate children with twisted ideas of the divine and the evil.
I would walk around the temple wondering, stopping in front of the images, observing them with curiosity, even if I would feel overwhelmed by the numerous suffering faces of the saints and scenes of the Passion of Christ, also the many and many more Marian images, some of them beautiful but inexpressive too.
Like wax figures looking to an eternal emptiness that I was not old enough to figure. To me those were not dolls, they were something else, but what?
These feelings came while looking at Mary, whether she was standing alone or with baby Jesus on arms.
I suppose then I was following my mother´s example, doing what she did, but at my age, not really understanding why. And I kept doing that all my life, so far, although, for few years,I had a Time Out, but that is for the second post.
In my childhood, after my First Communion, the same curious feeling remained. And was even more intense.
I didn´t admire the golden and majestic altars, they were pretty and amazing, yes, but it was not that. Even if I visited a very austere temple, or a magnificent cathedral, I was not amazed by the architecture, there was something beyond that. There was a mystery.
When I was in the university, a Jesuit campus, I visited the small chapel there, The Ignatius Chapel, of course.
It was adorned with a big image of The Immaculate Conception on the right wall. The small altar in the middle and the bible in the side. The walls of the place were painted or wallpaper, can't remember, in dark toasted red and the altar where the Sacrament was all gold Peruvian colonial style, kind of Baroque. The director of the university was a Peruvian priest. Very admirable man.
Now, the Blessed Sacrament. I didn't know what this was about. In depth. That I found many years from there, but only one thing, a priest came to me one day and just told me, pointing at the Tabernacle:
"When the candle is lighted, it means that Our Lord is at home"
That day, everything changed for me, for an amazing good, and also to a great pain. With knowledge comes great responsibility and when you are as young as I was, do you really want or can handle such responsibilities?
In the meantime, I was smart but lazy. Over confident in my capacity.
I studied Social Sciences. I could understand my class by just paying attention and memorize it good. Philosophy, History, Psychology , it was fascinating. I hardly took notes. I would read, I would listen to my professors and I would just write the essays and I would score good, but I was lacking something. Humility.
When the teachers would say I was smart, but I needed to study more, I did not care.
“Your analysis is very good, Flor, but you have to know very well the theory grounds, not improvise”. You have to study. After two years I was kicked out from the University.
Well, at that time, I didn't know I was going to be a Dominican, which one of our duties is to study. Ironically.
But yes, I was mediocre with whatever I was not interested in. I ended up studying journalism, but before, there were another few years in a whirlpool.
I was living the typical case of the fable "The tortoise and the hare". And little by little I allowed that mediocrity to enter my spiritual life. Because, there was a time, in which everything else seemed more interesting for me than God.
Every other current of spiritality was so, inviting and exotic, perhaps more magical and cosmic, free and less demanding or figured out than my Catholic faith. So Jesus could wait, right? Although I did return to visit the churches all the time and spent time in chapels, specially in the darkest hours. Specially when death came to pay me a visit and we met face to face.
What was there, inside those walls, that kept me coming back? What was that, that was glowing through people I met, while they were praying or helping others?
It was love. Not me the one loving, but instead a feeling of been loved. Loved? By this invisible been. I must be getting crazy here, I thought. And why? If what I do is to fail in life?
How is this possible? And by the time, I didn't attended mass, or read the bible or know the Gospels, or anything beyond what I learned in my First Communion. I had forgotten that He was in the Tabernacle as well.
To be continued ...