Wednesday, February 20


Pews and Paradoxes

"We had gone to a baptism in the older section of Havana, in a very old church [...]. It was a creepy church, just like all the others in that part of town. Pathologically Baroque. Dark and gloomy, with scary images everywhere. Gory crucifixes. The awful smell of incense and candles. The Mass that had preceded the baptism had just started, and I was rolling around on the hard wooden pew, trying desperately to amuse myself while this guy dressed in a ridiculous robe mumbled words in a language that seemed oddly familiar, but also very strange.

"Dominus vobiscum. Dominoes vo-what? Why is he talking about dominoes, that game my grandfather loves to play with his white-haired friends? [...]

"Ah, but suddenly I noticed this church was different. The pews didn't have solid backs. No, these were interesting pews. Their backs were carved in an interesting pattern. Rows upon rows of wooden slats in interesting shapes. Lots of rounded openings. What intriguing holes these were!

"I tried to make sense out of the pattern, which looked a lot like that optical illusion you find in every basic psychology textbook, the picture that looks like a silhouette of a cup or urn if you look at it one way, or the silhouette of two faces looking directly at each other, nose to nose. My very first paradox. This being a church, I guess the cup in the pattern must have been a chalice. But that's neither here nor there.

"What matters is that I wanted to merge with the optical illusion, to live inside the paradox.

"I got down on the hard wooden kneeler and ran my hands along the undulating shapes for a while. Then I stared at the rounded openings, puzzling over their affinity to the shape of my head. Round head, round openings. Wow!

"So I decided to put my head through one of these openings. I tested the breadth with the crown of my head. Amazing! [...] A little twist of the neck here, another twist there, and bingo! Durchbruch, as my dear friend the mystic Meister Eckhart would say. [...]

"This was a great church. We should come here more often, I thought. [...]

"Oremus. There it was again. Why is it that the guy in the funny robe was always talking about oars? I thought he was saying los remos--"the oars." Oars made me think of the beach and the brightly-painted rowboats they had at our club. I thought of cups-and-faces, pews, rowboats, and the beach. I thought of the turquoise sea, which called to me even at that early age. [...]

"Then came the rude awakening. A woman sitting in our pew had to go to communion. Which meant I had to move. But there was one problem as I quickly discovered.

"My head was stuck in the pew."

~Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, 2003.

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