January 04, 2008

The silence, the violence

Inside the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there is a strong smell of incense, an almost Indian fragrance to welcome this Indian. There are also two large signs that say "No Flash Photos". The whole place is still decked out in Christmas finery, wreaths and lights and poinsettia and a Christmas tree behind the altar with big bulbous lights.

I know enough by now -- I didn't, not so long ago -- to be aware, coming in, that this is a Catholic church. The bookstore at the entrance has, among others, a book titled "What Catholics Really Believe" -- an effort, the blurb explains, to address various mistaken notions about Catholicism people have. There is also a gently smiling statue outside of a woman who died aged 24 in 1680. She is Kateri Tekakwitha, the "first Indian of North America to be promoted a saint."

It's quiet in here. If people talk, they do so in whispers. I sit in the silence, writing these words on the back of a Google map printout someone has given me, and I think about three things.

First, the eruption of violence in Kenya after a contentious election. In particular, this horrible atrocity, in which a mob set fire to a church, roasting 50 people inside. Maybe it was a church much like this one, maybe with Christmas decorations still up like this one. Yet my mind swims with the effort of juxtaposing the quiet here with the screaming horror there.

Second, the eruption of violence between Hindus and Christians in Orissa, starting at Christmas. Without assigning fault, I wonder again: like with the Kenyan murders, how must I reconcile religious silence like in this cathedral with religious violence in Orissa? How does the same human impulse give us both reverence and bloodshed?

Third, the man I heard on the radio while driving yesterday. I believe it was Chuck Colson, a man I share a university with. On the radio, he pronounced -- and was that a smug note in his voice? -- that Christians are the best citizens of the USofA because of their connection to god. But in his next sentence, he suggested that Christians had better get on their knees to repent their shortcomings as Christians and citizens. The smugness got to me, but the disconnect between the two consecutive sentences got to me too. Does Colson not see the contradiction there?

Those random thoughts done with, I'm back to a familiar question: Do we follow our various faiths only so we can feel superior to those who follow other faiths?

And yet, that superior feeling itself gives us license to attack -- physically or otherwise -- those who follow other faiths.

There's a faint chanting going on now. I'm in the last pew writing these words, with various respectful tourists swirling around me. I've been silent, yes. But respectful? Given what's been on my mind, no.

Mostly, what I've been is uncomfortable. Like nearly every time I enter a place of worship. Uncomfortable with the contradictions that I invariably find myself ruminating over.

That discomfort usually keeps me away from places of worship. So what am I doing here? Writing. Time to leave.

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