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Sunday in the Park

My street Spanish, growing up in California, has long since left me. Ditto my high school French. So, por favor, forgive my inability to communicate clearly in the languages I wish I was fluent in. My attendance at churches this ano has been limited. I often work Saturday noches, which turn into Sunday mornings. I tell myself God understands my need to sleep and decompress. I try to carve out time to be quiet and thoughtful. Not an active member of any iglesia, I find this works well enough para mi. In May I traveled to Spain to be a part, un pocito part, of mis amigas’ journey on El Camino de Santiago. In seven dias, I think I visited no fewer than 21 iglesias. Some simply for their historic museum quality. Some for worship. Some to take shelter from the storm. As an old padre I once knew used to say, I don’t care how you come through la puerta, just so long as you do. I was thinking about that Monday noche when the sky was clear and la luna was almost full and reflecting brightly off the snow. I grabbed the heavy carved door of St Mary’s and walked inside to uno of mi favorite iglesia services anywhere, anytime — the celebration of Our Lady of Guadelupe. Para those who may not comprende this story, let me give the Reader’s Digest version. A young man, Juan Diego, a worker, had Mary appear to him on his way home from work. There are no witnesses. He tells his story to others including a padre and they do not believe him. Finally, Mary tells him not to be discouraged but to take a bouquet of roses and press it against his shirt. When he opens his shirt, those disbelievers will believe. He runs pressing the roses against the cloth and when he unrolls his shirt and the roses fall to the ground, the image of Mary is imprinted on his shirt. Ah, the milagro. The service on Dec. 12 each ano is one of my favorites. It involves a good story, and really, for me, good church is good theater. It also involves a suspension of the rational, a bit of magical thinking as so many Latino authors have embraced and Joan Didion has recently titled her poignant best seller. And I have always loved the real excitement and joy involved with this service. I hadn’t been in years. But this year I was especially drawn. Latino church services are nearly always boisterous affairs with many ninas and ninos active and vocal. On this night they were also dressed as miniature Juan Diego’s complete with drawn-on mustaches and beards and with great shirts to carry the roses in. Little girls were dressed with long braids and colorful skirts and there was much excitement in the air. The music, not stuffy and heavy chords from an organ, but rather the strumming of Spanish guitars, combined with lilting voices to carry the songs. The welcome was delivered in a strong, able voice by a leader in the Hispanic community, a beautiful woman named Alma. A woman who works in the schools, in the People’s Health Center, in a variety of ways to serve. A woman, who since September, has been a widow. Her husband Aniceto, mi amigo, was murdered while driving home from church on a Sunday night. His funeral was one of the largest I have ever attended, anywhere. He was beloved by men and women of all ages and walks of life. He was a good man, a good father, a good husband and a deacon of his iglesia. Alma is carrying on her own work and his. She does so with remarkable dignity, pride and gratitude. Her family worked long and hard to become citizens here. When she stood to speak, there was a radiance about her. An elegance. And a quiet, powerful, private sadness. The service, other than Father Bob’s brief welcome to those of us who were clearly visitors, was entirely in Spanish. I caught maybe 20 percent. I mean "Hallelujah" is universal as it turns out and Cristo I remembered from past services. The "viva"s to Our Lady were easy to translate and the final hymn with adios followed logic. Out of the congregation that night of close to 400 people, there were maybe 10 of us Anglos in the crowd. And, honestly, I quite liked that. There is something intrinsically important to me to try, on occasion to make myself the stranger. I like not exactly knowing the repetition of the words and I am forced to reflect on their rhythm and to try to remember their meaning. The Our Father, the communion words, those memorized responses that are far too easy to repeat by rote and miss their meaning. Struggling for translation in a church is a spiritual workout for me. Being in a place in a town I lived in for more than 25 years and knowing so few people in the room is healthy as well. We are a community that has grown dramatically since my entry to town and my attendance at Christmas Eve mass in the stone St. Mary’s in Old Town. No, in answer to the constant question, I am not Catholic, though my Irish grandparents on both sides were. Which is probably why I loved the drunks in the midnight choir, singing off-key with great enthusiasm. Those days, where we huddled together for both warmth and communion, have somehow passed. And we are busy. My, how busy we all are. We run to and from appointments, commitments, obligations. Our time to gather and reflect is minimal. To be still and quiet is impossibly difficult. But on Monday noche I was still and quiet and embraced, though the stranger. The sharing of the Pax de Cristo, a symbol of fellowship needs no translation. The smiles and handshakes and hugs were genuine. Our small town is less small than when I moved here but it is richer for the interesting lively people who have chosen to call it home. In this season of giving and receiving, it is my hope — my prayer really — that we will find joy and forgiveness and acceptance in the gifts that come unbidden. It is not so largo a milagro to expect, is it? I look for it each day this season, but especially on Sunday in la Plaza…


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