Archive for May, 2010

Our Lady of Peace

May 4, 2010

Every day I pass the Church of Our Lady of Peace (Nossa Senhora da Paz) located just a few blocks east of my apartment.  It was one of the first substantial buildings in Ipanema when it was completed in 1918.  A lovely cathedral with beautiful vaulting and a soaring altar, the church seems to have a steady stream of parishioners and masses.  It sits across the street from a luxuriant, one-square block park by the same name.

Nossa Senhora da Paz Church

Just outside the church, tucked away in a corner off the sidewalk, behind a wrought iron fence, is a small grotto with the image of Nossa Senhora.  On the street side of the fence is a concrete table rimmed around the top edge by a stone border.  Inside this border, the faithful place lighted candles.  I often see parishioners placing votive candles on the table and then they usually pray and, sometimes, speak to the Virgin.

The scenes bring to the fore my intense exposure to evangelical Southern Baptist worship in my youth and adolescence in East Texas.  In that hellfire and brimstone, revivalist culture I learned to believe that there was but one way to Heaven, through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Savior, and that salvation came through direct communication with God.  I was taught that Catholics were evil and, at best, seriously misguided.  At worst, they were hard drinking, uncouth heathens who prayed before idols, in particular, of the Virgin Mary.

When I see these devout Catholics lighting candles and praying to this image of the Virgin Mary, it instantly brings out my old prejudices, even though I long ago left behind the Christianity of my youth.  My years of anthropological training have made me a bit of a cultural relativist willing to entertain the notion that no one has a monopoly on truth, at least, no one can prove to my satisfaction they do.  I say “a bit” because I do not accept the extreme cultural relativist position that all beliefs are equally valid.  As Voltaire said long ago, “understanding is not toleration”.  I may be willing to empathize and try to understand the logic of others’ religious beliefs, but I do not automatically then accept their validity.

The devotion of Brazilians (and all Catholics) to the Virgin speaks volumes about the importance of Catholic values as the fundamental basis of Brazilian culture, a cultural logic for centuries constructed on patriarchy, hierarchy, and a deep sense of collectivity.  It is a world apart from the intensely individualistic and egalitarian ethos of evangelical Protestantism.  I was taught that every man is his own priest, and that salvation ultimately hinges on a direct and personal relationship with God.  There is no need for intermediaries such as priests, bishops, and popes.  Yet this deeply individualistic worldview also produces a mechanistic “community” of individuals rather than an organic community of the collectivity.

Ultimately, the Protestantism of my youth was radical individualism embedded in an atomized community.  Despite the inequalities and hierarchy, the Catholic worldview that has created and shaped Brazilian civilization created a community in which all were bound together, albeit in bonds that were reciprocal, but not equal.  As a child, I may have been speaking to my God directly in a personal relationship, but I was ultimately on my own.  Brazilian Catholics speak to the Virgin Mary, and other intermediaries, rather than directly to God, but they are bound together in ties of solidarity.  They may light candles to the Virgin and carry the burdens of hierarchy and inequality, but all those Protestants nurtured in my religious tradition–who speak directly to their God–do so alone.