While Christ lay dead the widowed world
Wore willow green for hope undone:
Till, when bright Easter dews impearled
The chilly burial earth,
All north and south, all east and west,
Flushed rosy in the arising sun;
Hope laughed, and Faith resumed her rest,
And Love remembered mirth.
“Easter Even,” Christina Rossetti (x)
It is hard for me to accept that it was spring in Jerusalem when God lay dead in a cave. It was likely warm and damp and silent on the day of rest, and the earth did not look the sadder for its loss, because it is under no obligation to be metaphoric. There is something terrifying in that calm contradiction, in the earthly quiet in the midst of the greatest spiritual battle ever fought. We woke up one day to the liberation of the dead and the damned, and all that from a little tomb in the hills off the sea on a planet spinning among endless galaxies. All that, and most everyone slept through it.
On Avenida del Libertador, between the neighborhood club’s soccer field and a small technical school in the lively northern barrio of Núñez in Buenos Aires, there is a vaguely neoclassical and grassy campus that absorbs the noise of chatty passersby. It was once a mechanical school for petty officers in the navy. In the late 1970s, the higher officers’ housing doubled as a clandestine detention centre where citizens abducted from workplaces and restaurants were held as “political prisoners” and murdered in the thousands. Classes continued. Midshipmen slept through firing squads.
It was hard for me to accept, nearly forty years later, as I stood outside on the grass looking at the crime scene of the beige barracks, that it was such a nice day out. It was warm and damp and silent every day I was in Buenos Aires last month, and the campus’ sadness was as clandestine as it ever was, and damn it, against all my might, I was tired.
Mausoleo de San Martín, Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires
Avenida del Libertador is named for a man buried toward hell. His name was General José de San Martín, called the “liberator” of Argentina along with Chile and Peru. His mausoleum dominates a chapel separate from the main church in an expanded wing of the Catholic cathedral of Buenos Aires. The tomb is angled with San Martín’s head toward the floor and his feet toward the ceiling, permanently poised for launch into eternal fire, and all that on the rumor that he was a Freemason.
San Martín didn’t fight quiet wars even if his legacy has. He fought loud and ugly wars of independence, which I suppose is what we call it when the rebels win the civil war. You all know as well as I do why I was drawn to San Martín and why I spent so long in that chapel, peering up into the gold and black. It’s the same reason why I know every word to Les Misérables, why I’ve written three papers about Che Guevara this year, and why I get super territorial about the national origins of certain soccer teams. It is, after all, very easy to be fascinated by revolutions and nationalisms when they never touch you. And it is even easier to take on their language to describe the divides within you that you’re afraid to talk about directly.
My civil war is, of course, called a schism, and it lacks the narrative convenience of uniforms and battles and chronological distance. And it was all around me in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. I hid in the mausoleum because the main church held nothing but a very bloody loss for me, and I wanted to ask San Martín how he handled facing that.
He didn’t, though, is the thing. He died in exile in France. But it was worth a shot. See, dead or alive, political or religious, independentistas have a way of finding solidarity with one another. I have a few Catalan friends studying in Scotland who can speak to this. In fact, most rebellions count on the either the inspiration of others or their own vanguardism: Che and Castro fancied Cuba a microcosm for all América, and all the global South after her; San Martín in his day did not settle for freeing just the one Spanish colony; France took up arms both for and after the United States.
I started to see how San Martín managed, or at least how Argentina did. Independence movements and civil wars are great and terrible inventors of distinction. They are identifiers of thems. They are dividing, uniting, great movers of men and women and children. They contrive a right side to history, as if there were such a thing, as if the whole process were not written into our biology from the very beginning, as if we are not built to shed and divide and regenerate until we have exhausted the life within us.
That is what I am thinking about as I look up at San Martín. Not that Argentina would have been better off Spanish, but that he’d be better off buried at an even keel. The liberator of the Americas died in Europe, and they didn’t start calling him a hero for decades. His civil war is no simpler than mine. It’s a distraction more than a neat-fitting analogy. It’s a longing for narrative. So I leave.
But before I go, I notice this chapel hurling a warrior hellwards is called Nuestra Señora de la Paz: Our Lady of Peace.
Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires
The face and biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio stop you from entering the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. I mean this literally: the now-pope’s life story is pinned onto a shambles of a gate stretching across the central aisle of the church, leaving visitors to stare curiously above the signs at the dim nave until they figure out they can enter through the side doors.
He’s outside, too. Pictures of his meeting with President Fernández de Kirchner are plastered onto column after column on the plaza, which Falklands veterans are crumpling in annoyance. Advertisements and tour buses carry Bergoglio’s visage to every moneymaking corner in sight. And then of course there are the holy cards, for which you can haggle on the sidewalks if you can’t bring yourself to walk into a church.
So this iconographic deluge is my first challenge. I knew it was coming when I landed in Buenos Aires – he was even in the airport, on the front cover of Rolling Stone. And it’s not Bergoglio himself (I’ll never think of him as Francis) that bothers me, or even seeing a pope everywhere I look. This pope in particular was a friend to me, however distant, back in my Catholic days; he was one of the few people I saw as an ally in reforming and taking responsibility for the abuses committed by the Church, and I will be forever grateful to him for that. No, it’s not his commercialized ubiquity. If anything that amuses me.
It’s realizing upon entering the body of the church that he is not, in fact, there at all. It’s the empty bishop’s chair and the haunted anonymity of this place, the aching sense of loss that it is to know every word of the Mass everyone else is celebrating in Spanish around me and yet not to be among them anymore.
But the timeline’s different. When San Martín appealed to freedom for the colonies, he couldn’t refer to any historical freedom; he wasn’t asking to return things to the way they were, because they’d always been terrible. So when I say I miss the Church, I mean it without an adjective. For a girl who’s only been alive nineteen years and none of them in the eleventh century, I’ve got preschismatic nostalgia like you wouldn’t believe, and nostalgia without memory is the most dangerous kind. I can say I miss being in communion with all the Christians I know, but I can’t imagine what that would really look like.
I’m not sure I ever could, really. Schism is not one moment in history in 1054. It’s the feeling I have in my heart when I wake up every morning, and I carry it with me all through the day. I carried it with me to the very end of the world, and I sat there with it in that cathedral, under the watchful gaze of Rita of Cascia whose statue sits beside the bishop’s chair. She was the patroness of my parish growing up, and she is the patron saint of impossible causes and lost hopes. And it is not the first time Rita has watched me cry.
When I say schism is heartbreak, this is what I am talking about.
Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo
The ideals of the disappeared are alive. That’s what the women outside are chanting as they march around the Plaza de Mayo: “¡Alerta, alerta! ¡Alerta que están vivos / todos los ideales de los desaparecidos!”
These women’s children were detained as political prisoners and murdered en masse during Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship in the 1970s. They march for justice for their kidnapped grandchildren, who were given as prison-born babies to members or friends of the dictatorial government. Most of them have grown up not knowing that their parents are not who they say they are.
Reclaiming an identity that you never knew was your own is difficult. Parsing out the meaning of your false one is much harder. The whole of contemporary Argentine cinema and literature can be chalked up to these few hundred children and their identity crises; it’s hard not to relate.
No dictator uprooted me, or my family or their ancestors, from the Orthodox faith to which I have returned these past few years. There was never any particularly violent uprooting. We were not kidnapped or detained. We just drifted apart. I do not mourn a conflict between East and West, I mourn an evolution, and that is so much messier. I can’t march for justice, because that’s not what’s at stake here. There is no military junta, there is only historical sin and cultural reality, and the inability of the body of Christ to accept the grace he asked our Father for as he faced death: that we may be one. That we may be His.
I feel like a parasite in the Plaza de Mayo. These murdered activists did not die so that I can learn a lesson about reclamation of identity. I’m doing the same thing I did with San Martín but without the caution of elapsed time. So I leave, but of course, these questions cannot really stay all that far behind. I can’t get that statue of Rita out of my head, the sadness that I feel the need for a patroness of the impossible in a religion where our very scripture reminds us that nothing is impossible for God.
On the bus ride back to where I’m staying, I am fuming at myself, frustrated about how at home I felt in that hollow cathedral. It infuriates me that the Spanish Masses of my youth, the Argentine Catholics who formed me, the neobaroque passion of it all – that these things have such a hold on my heart. I wish they didn’t. I wish all liturgical language struck my heart the same. I wish I were not stuck in an Old Testament lament of singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. I want so desperately to be of one mind with other Orthodox Christians in this country who are constantly warning me against tribalism and nationalism, who remind me that language and ethnicity are no substitute for sacrament and creed, who know as well as I do that Orthodox is the adjective in our identifier and not the noun. If I am honest, though, I miss the Hispanophone religiosity of my hometown. It’s my spiritual native tongue, and I don’t know what that means. It’s an identity to which I have no right in so many ways.
“La sagrada está en nosotros” (“The sacred is within us”)
On Avenida Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz there is a bright white building that looks plucked out of a faraway desert, and I mean that in the Patagonian sense. Behind the soft black iron of its front gates is a church full of red and gold. Mixed Middle Eastern and Western style iconography is labeled in Arabic and in Spanish. This place looks like Mozarabic sounds.
As I walked in, I saw gold Orthodox-style candle stands and black Catholic-style votive candle shelves both packed full, especially in front of Saint George. There were pews but no one felt limited to them; there were kneelers but they were only used before the Cross. A few statues here and there drowned in the shadow of the domes. The service, which everybody called la Misa and nobody was cranky about it, was entirely in Spanish. Halfway through, the girl next to me turned to me and said, Esto no es una iglesia católica?
This is Buenos Aires’ Antiochian Orthodox cathedral, Iglesia San Jorge, and for the love of God, my friends, there were four little boys wearing Boca Juniors jerseys in there. They reminded me of the children in my catechesis class a few years ago, who when I asked them if they knew the sign of the cross simply reenacted Lionel Messi’s goal celebrations, pointing toward heaven at the end. Thinking of them, I looked around, and I noticed that everybody was making the sign of the cross like I do – right then left, but kissing the cross you make with your fingers at the end – not as an accidental syncretism, as it is in my case, but as a shared inheritance.
It was so good to pray in Spanish again, but to pray in the older way, to say the true creed in the language that corrupted it so many centuries ago, to feel Pentecost cleansing Babel on our tongues.
It was so good to feel at home, not in the sense that I had encountered an Orthodox iteration of a Catholic parish, which I had not, nor in the sense that I had encountered a transposition of the Spanish language onto a Syrian church, which I also had not. No, it was good to feel home in the sense that everything about it should have been a culture clash, it should have been strange, it should have been contradictory. But it wasn’t. It fit perfectly, as if we had been told to make disciples of all nations in the good faith that such a thing was possible and intended, as if God actually knew what He was doing when He crafted His commandments. It was good to be in a church that felt Latino and felt Orthodox and felt genuine and felt natural. It did not feel like syncretism parading as ecumenism, but just as a recollection of Christianity; it did not feel like an Orthodox church in a Catholic world, it felt like a Christian church in a united world, a reminder of what we are meant to be. And it was so, so good. That burden of schism wasn’t lifted, but for a moment I felt something like a memory have mercy on me.
It was the Sunday of the Holy Cross. I remember the look on the bishop’s face as he told us not to be afraid of taking up our cross, for Christ would never have asked us if He weren’t confident in our triumph. He looked concerned, the way I used to look at my catechesis students when they asked me if God spoke Spanish. It is his exhortation I took with me as I left that parish and as I left Buenos Aires. It is his exhortation that I recall when I wake up with that sorrow of separation every morning, and when I negotiate Sunday morning schedules with my family, and when I walk to church alone. It is his exhortation that got me to write all of this, really, because someday I’ll need to remind myself that tomorrow comes, and I figured some of you might, too.
Rita de Cascia, Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires
The world is in wait for Christ tonight. There is no calendric separation for once; east and west have fallen asleep in the garden next to each other. I thank God that at least we have done penance together, even as I fear there is no leaving this garden for a long, long while. Our disparate Church has trapped herself in Holy Saturday. Even in years when months separate our explicit commemorations of the day God lay dead, we act as if He stayed there the rest of the time. We go on in our warm and damp and silent days, forgetting we must rise together. We go on as if places like Iglesia San Jorge are anomalies rather than reminders, as if our quiet spiritual wars are not loud earthly ones, as if nobody has died from our unwillingness to love one another.
I have loved observing Lent with my family and friends. It has felt more honest to observe the beginning of the early Church, the formation of the disciples and the passion of Christ, alongside the whole body of the Church on earth. If we cannot move forward together we can at least repent for our stubbornness together, and I have been very grateful for that graceful coincidence.
There is a great deal of sadness in this post and I will not pretend that I do not still carry schism around with me as the greatest sorrow of my life. It is. In Buenos Aires, too, the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo mourn their loved ones every moment of their lives, but their weekly marches have become an occasion for gathering with friends in solidarity. They greet one another with kisses and chat all through the afternoon, and a tourist might think it a family reunion. That’s what it is, really. The detention centre that was once a navy school now doubles as a memorial to the victims and a celebration of the survivors. The schism I carry in my heart is the same. It is a great pain and a great promise, because in Buenos Aires I remembered what that united Church must have looked like and it too was a suffering communion. If I have one flaw it is my undying optimism, and I hope to slowly turn it into the virtue of hope. In the meantime, I wait, which in Spanish is the same word: esperanza.
Yes, our Church will still be broken tomorrow. But I will still sing Christ’s resurrection when I wake, in English and in Spanish. For in Christianity, a broken body can remain alive, and we are so daring as to call it communion.