Sunday, July 20, 2008

Maybe God still speaks Portuguese.

The Portuguese community in Artesia has for many years circulated a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to homes of community members for increments of a week at a time. The idea is that during that week families are to pray the rosary together. Despite its nod to devotion, such an affirmation of faith seems to me an unintended yet rather obvious acknowledgment of the failure of the very thing it aims to safeguard. That is, if we really believe, why don't we pray the rosary more often? Putting a statue in one's living room (although voluntary) practically makes devotion obligatory. That is probably the point to many, but forced devotion can't be called faith anymore than forced obedience (playing with Machiavelli here) can be called love.

The fact that I can even still pray the rosary in Portuguese is something of a source of pride despite the fact that I haven't been a practicing Catholic or praying Christian in quite some time. I was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy when I was younger; even now I must admit that I've remained more than a little enamored with the pageantry and imagery of Catholicism. Furthermore, deaths in the community (and, in a tightly-knit community such as ours, one stays updated on plenty) are always observed with a rosary, resulting in frequent opportunities to practice over the years. For me the rosary, prayed in Portuguese, has always been more of a way of remaining connected with my culture and community. Sometimes I wonder if that's disingenuous, but I do not think it's particularly unique.

It has always seemed to me that the apparition at Fatima has more significance to Portuguese people as a national event than a religious one. The Catholic Church does not mandate belief in it, and I've known people whose avid faith results in unquestioning adherence to the story of the shepherd children as told by Lucia dos Santos even as they give rational explanations for their disbelief in the apparitions at Guadalupe or Lourdes. From any skeptic's perspective, the only substantive difference between the three stories is the nation in which each takes place. So we venerate Nossa Senhora de Fatima as a matter of Portuguese pride rather than Catholic faith and, in doing so, pray the same rosary that the French pray in honor of the Lourdes sighting and Mexicans pray in honor of the Guadalupe sighting.

If I'm right about this, I suppose in a way it matters more that you remember the words than that you believe in their efficacy. There's something tragic about that realization which is not blunted for someone like myself who--even as a faithful, credulous altar boy--had severe doubts about why the hell Mary would concern herself with Soviet politics.

Getting to the point, I'm visiting my parents this weekend and they have the statue. On my way to the shower, I hear my father ask, "You want to pray the rosary with us?" Now, he can tell I don't want to; I can tell he really wants me to. "It's only ten minutes," he says. And he's right. If anything, it isn't inconvenience that bugs me but rather the creeping sense of my own disingenuousness. I sit down with them in front of the statue and my dad, almost apologetically, remarks, "Might as well. It's been here all week and we haven't even been praying." Then he proceeds to lead the rosary, occasionally stumbling over certain parts and laughing at his own mistakes.

Having personally witnessed my father's crises of faith over the years, the first thing I noted at that moment was that when I was a kid there's no way he would have chuckled in this way. He would not have likely made the little mistakes in the first place. Here again, prayer as such seemed to take the backseat: if to me it's a way of staying Portuguese, to my parents it's a way of gathering the family peacefully in one place.

Oddly enough, realizing this was a bit scandalous to me. If my parents don't fully believe, where does that leave me and my polished Portuguese-ness? For an instant I found myself the returning tourist angered that the quaint village he'd once loved had moved on and, catching myself in that sentiment, I felt ashamed. How dare I exoticize my own parents in this way? And my own culture? Shame! Yet that is (again, assuming I'm right about what really matters here) precisely what we do to ourselves with this statue, with our traditions. Exoticize our past, our culture, our ethnicity, our little blip in space and time. We Portuguese-Americans go to visit our relatives in the old country and lament the fact that nobody goes to church anymore, but it has more to do with our romanticizing of a "quaint" past than with lamenting a loss of faith.

It's patronizing and embarrassing, and yet I genuinely love my culture and its traditions. Maybe I'm a hypocrite or an impostor, but if that's so then I'm not alone. Not within the Portuguese community or any other that I may be a part of. I don't suppose any overt affirmation of a movement or belief can help but serve as a marker for its eventual downfall. Nor do I think that any tradition can help being both bastardized and sentimentalized--otherwise it would fail as a tradition. It would simply die. Then what?

Well, then you wake up in the morning and see if you still agree with what you typed after midnight the night before without giving the thing much thought. That's what.

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