Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Guatemala Dateline: There is seeing, and then there is seeing
by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register
(From the June 13, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
Most of us – I have – experienced at least a variant of the following.
We are looking at a picture with someone (perhaps the artist), and she asks, “What do you see?”
You (or I) are not sure to what she is referring, and we fidget inside.
“The figures in the clouds, can’t you make them out?” she asks, hopefully.
We squint, we blink our eyes, we list to the left, we tack to the right. We do whatever, until the inevitable moment when we are less aware of the picture than the lack of breath at our side.
She cannot hold it in (her breath) any longer; it happens – the dreaded exhalation, atomic bomb-like. She walks over to the picture ... and points.
What happens next is more truly a Kodak moment than anything that Madison Avenue has contrived: It is as if the air between us and the picture contained no longer hydrogen and oxygen, but molecules of Kodak’s sodium thiosulfate and magnesium chloride. As clearly as a photo emerges in a developing solution, the image develops before our eyes. More remarkably yet, a fixing solution is simultaneously applied, so that from that instant on, we cannot not see but from her vantage point. The figure in the cloud has suddenly become the picture’s focal point, as obvious as (when we are looking in the mirror) our own eyes. No more than we can look at a picture and pretend the page is blank can we return to the picture and not see the lines to which the artist directed our eyes.
Gestalt psychologists no doubt have theories about such examples. They may analyze it in terms of figure/ground, for example, and understand perception as involving a smaller, compact figure (in this case, that to which the artist points) set off against a larger, more diffuse ground. Perhaps. The point is that we do not see and cannot see as God sees. We are physiologically limited, and see only as human beings see ... partially, selectively, culturally, interpretatingly. We are inevitably, and even essentially, interpretating beings. As surely as we see, we interpret. There is no absolute vantage point or figure from which or to which we see, any more than there is an absolute vantage point to seeing a house. The person who is born in front of the house cannot see the back, nor can the person who is born in back see the front. But he must see the house. Like the proverbial blind men examining the elephant, human beings must interpret. We must, even if we are blind.
In some real sense, therefore, the only alternative to error is to die.
Such considerations, the product of a missionary life, preclude the chauvinism that is often characteristic of the missionary neophyte.
If one sees error (or a certain, limited perspective) in a foreign culture, it is largely because one sees another figure or comes from another vantage point.
There comes a watershed moment, however, in the missioner’s life when the perspective that was familiar becomes more (but not totally) alien, abnormal, and exotic, just as what was alien becomes more familiar and normative to the way that we see life.
There is a beautiful book by the Belgium theologian Joseph Comblin, Sent by the Father, that reflects on the value of this change. Like Jesus in John 1, the missionary, because he comes into a culture from without, can see more clearly the limitations of its vantage point. But the reverse is also true, as Maryknoll’s William Donavan in Christianity Rediscovered wrote, somewhat less elegantly.: “One can smell the malodorous at home for having been away.”
Ixtahuacán culture is esoteric. Had I seen the minds of the people at the time that I first arrived as clearly as I saw their two arms and two eyes, then I would perhaps have suffered a more severe form of the shock that I experience in a milder form every time that I return stateside. An example of an illustrative psychological domain is the interpretation of dreams. In Ixtahuacán it is an extremely elaborate and dangerous terrain, fraught with omens of death and demise.
If one dreams of being drunk, or of eating eggs, for example, sadness is coming; if of the town fiesta, a collective problem is in the offing; if of a baby, one will suffer calumny; if of water, the steam bath sickness is coming. If one dreams of losing one’s tooth, one’s father or mother will die. If a woman, part of whose daily occupation is to wash clothes at the river, dreams of losing her clothes downstream, it means that she will die. If she recovers her clothes, then she will suffer a sickness, but survive. If one dreams about someone else, a domestic or civil dispute is approaching (the same is true if one dreams of a cow). If one dreams of a white man, one will die. One can make in fact a very long list of dream subjects and the consequences that they give or the harbingers that they provide: a cat or dog or snake (one will have an enemy), walking around without clothes (one will be shamed); drinking moonshine with one’s companions (one will suffer a grave calamity, or one will die); thread (calumny); eating a black tamale (one will die).
If there are a few dreams that portend good, the list is not very consoling. How many of us regularly dream of peaches, avocados, bananas or corn? They are the only items that I have heard that bode tidings of something akin to joy.
Ixtahuacán beliefs sound exotic to American ears in a variety of domains. One can cite cures for diseases – e.g., beating oneself with thorns in the steam bath (rash), dancing in front of a grey-barred wren (warts), burning chile (poltergeists).
Such interpretations do not seem strange to me today, to the extent that I have participated in their lives.
Most of these dreams, for example, have their internal logic: barking dogs do indicate the presence of enemies, and tangled thread in K’iché is metaphor for pernicious lies (somewhat like the locution spinning a yarn in English).
All one has to do is accept a basic proposition: dreams are symbolic language that those of the other world use to communicate. As we constantly use metaphor to make the ethereal concrete, so does the spirit world use the symbols that are associated with our experiences to convey meaning.
Morever, some beliefs, however exotic, have a disturbing way of making their case compelling.
I saw a film years ago that deals with a young priest among the Indians of British Columbia who suffered from a fatal disease. Its title, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, refers to the belief that the priest came to experience in a personal way that the owl approaches the dying and calls them away.
A Westerner could of course snicker and deconstruct their belief: the owl’s hoot resembles the moan of someone sick, but exactly the same belief exists among the K’iché 5,000 miles away, and one of the last things that Donna Borsos said to me before she left Ixtahuacán to die was that an owl did come up and perch outside her window that night.
I am consumed with such thoughts because I have come to believe, on the basis of my own experience, that our whole interpretation of life derives from figures or vantage points, whether it be the Twin Towers for an American or the murder of Michael Collins for the IRA.
What one sees depends upon how one’s culture, like the artist in the initial paragraph, positions one to see.
Two children from different halves of the world playing tic-tac-toe, because they have felt tip markers, filled up their squares as they played. They decided to immortalize their game by drawing a frame around the lines. The Western lad, seeing his marks (in the center column, up and down) intersect with the others (in the center column, left to right) expressed delight that they had made a cross. The other lad ran away crying. He saw not a cross, but the symbol for the dreaded four-eyed awkwaang. In his case, he saw the four corner white squares that were left (which represented the monster’s eyes).
When I was in the States last year, I read about 1,500 killed in Nigeria in a riot protesting the particulars of the American response to the Twin Towers tragedy. It occurred to me then how, like with the tic-tac-toe story, different cultures can see different figures in the same reality. If we Americans are locked into one figure (The Towers) others may lock into another (the tens of thousands of deaths others have suffered as a consequence of that atrocity). A generation back, newspapers covering Viet Nam focused on the number of GI deaths. The U.S. media once again did not even mention the 3 million Vietnamese and 1 million Laotian and Cambodian fatalities; not surprisingly, a focal point for other countries.
If I have a quarrel with God, I sometimes think, it is because he made it so difficult for human beings to change figures and to adopt a neighbor’s erspective.
It pays not to pick fights with the Almighty. We did not see a new picture (first paragraph) for all our looking. It was the artist who changed our perspective.
Maybe it is not for naught that we belong to a church called Catholic. In this multi-cultural world in which the Senegalese can defeat their former masters in World Cup soccer, and in which three Eastern Europeans can teach the indomitable Lakers the power of team, I believe that the renewed presence of foreigners among us is perhaps one of God’s last gifts to save.
Have you seen how Americans marginalize the other until he is assimilated? That is more than sad. The artist from without, the foreigner, is there beside us, asking us if we see. Would it not be wonderful if we opened ourselves? If, even for a brief moment, the barrier were broken down, and they could show us another way to look at what we see?
(Father Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)
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