From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline: Taking a photograph with words as situations change

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 18, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

There is a particular illness that I get every year, at the same time that everyone else is wheezing from it, that reminds me of why I am writing this today instead of three weeks later. It’s a kind of respiratory ailment that begins, develops and ends in the throat.

The beginning is the worst. There is soreness, fever, constriction. Yet the larynx, being not yet infected, vibrates normally, without interference.

It is only when the fever has left, and the soreness has left, and the throat begins to “thaw” and drip — it is only then that the larynx (at least, this is the way that I imagine it) receives the residue, and makes everyone aware of it.

In other words, people become concerned about my health the very day that I am feeling good again.

That is the way, not too incidentally, that I feel about the little town where I live.

The last Guatemala Dateline wished to photograph in three dimensions. It attempted to capture our pain, delineate our divisions. It attempted a kind of diagram of the structures underlying them.

But painting or photographing Ixtahuacán makes wildlife photography a leisurely task. Faster than a bird hops, the situation has changed again. You capture a tear, and as you put the camera down, the subject is smiling again. You feel a bit inauthentic for sending the tear to press.

At the time that I wrote the article, though almost everyone in the “old town” was preparing for the novena to our patron saint, Catalina, in all of us there burned the big question.

The focal point of our sanctuary is a contradiction. With Catalina removed, what sense is there in focusing on the vitrine that seems to declare her absence?

How long can the spirit withstand this sensual contradiction? Statues, according to our highest teaching tradition, are an aid to our worship. What, then, can a statue’s absence portend?

The situation reminded me in poignancy of a certain man I once met who detoured away every day from the scene of his wife’s death.

What is better, his situation or ours, where the people insist on their novena in front of the vitrine from which she was stolen?

*****

I know that in the United States there was a day or town in which a certain number of people thought that there was a “constitutional crisis.”

I know, too, that what happened does not begin to compare in trauma with our situation.

I know, too, that the Supreme Court decision was a shocking deus ex machina solution.

I know, too, that the resolution that occurred in the States was nothing compared with our resolution.

A miracle, according to them, happened.

Two days before the novena came the announcement over the Nahuala radio station. Catarina’s fiesta garments were no longer in Chwi Patan where they had been taken. They were found in a box where other liturgical items had been stored.

Reports immediately circulated about the other Ixtahuacán’s reaction. From neighbor to neighbor the word passed: Francisco Balux, who directed the church’s sacking, laughed scornfully, they said, when he first heard the report, and took a group to see where he had stored the precious items. From ear to ear words described how utterly pale he became when he found the robes absent.

Speculation went about that he was about to commit suicide, as one of his companions in the church’s sacking had done.

The fiesta then became by far the most religious of recent years. People who had to choose which fiesta that they would attend — the one in the “new Ixtahuacán,” where Catalina’s statue is, or the one in the old town, where she presided for 400 years — now had reason to throw their homage to the old town. The miraculous restoration of Catalina’s garments gave clear indication of her favored site. The people who came were no longer fiesta goers, but joyful, tearful pilgrims. All knelt before their patroness’s garments, their veneration increased in fervor from the year before when she herself looked down upon them.

*****

I talked to one of my favorite Ixtahuacán women a few weeks ago about my illness.

I told her how someone served me food a few days before it started, who was showing all of the symptoms of my throat infection.

Reluctantly (lit., “with two hearts”), I said, I took her food.

Yes, she said, shaking her head. “That is why you got sick.”

I looked at her and agreed, “yes?”

“You shouldn’t have taken the food reluctantly (with two hearts). If you had taken it with one heart, you would not have gotten sick.”

*****

Every time that I think that I understand the people in Ixtahuacán, something happens that disabuses me of my notion. It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. I can only thank God for placing me in their midst.

(Father Baronti has been a missioner in Guatemala for more than two decades.)


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