I have sat down to write about the good Friday procession here in Quito on a few occasions. I hope that maybe this time I’ll be successful at putting (at least some of) my thoughts into words.
For some people, penance comes only in the form of walking the figurative and literal path of Christ.
Why some people believe this, and the historical power struggles at work which created (and are still creating) a philosophy of penance through pain, is a much larger topic than I will go into in this post.
I don’t agree with this philosophy, but in order to be present in the moment at the procession on Good Friday in Quito, I had to attempt to quiet some voices in my head for an afternoon, in an effort to understand other people’s experience.
Thank-you to Pablo (our landlord) who invited us and introduced us to Juan Carlos, who owns the house on the corner of the Plaza de la San Francisco.
His house hosts the balconies, from which we watched as the procession went by.
There is nowhere better that we could have been in Quito (and perhaps in Central or South America), to view or understand the cultural significance of Good Friday for Catholics in this part of the world.
Here are the basic ideas (or the philosophical underpinnings) as I understand them, of two primary reasons people punish themselves while taking part in this procession:
- Christ was sinless, but was forced to carry the sins of the world. The cross is the great representation of that burden. Humans are sinful, but to become closer to God, must repent of their sins. One way to repent of one’s sins is to walk the path that Christ walked, both literally and figuratively. Walking in this procession, particularly with a difficult burden, is a way to be absolved of one’s sins.
- To be Christians (and in this case Catholic) means to be more Christ-like. One way to be more Christ-like is to endure the actions and pain of Christ.
The images speak volumes all by themselves…
People making crosses out of (REAL) cactus and strapping them to their backs, to be worn throughout a 5 mile procession
A man carrying a cross back to the church whose robe has been torn on the back from the lashings he’s been receiving
A back worn completely raw from the threshes which have been beating against it (from the person lashing themself) for the previous four hours, embedding tiny thorns into the skin with each thrashing
Crowns of “thorns” made out of barbed wire, poked into the head to intentionally cause bleeding from the head, before the 4 hour procession even began
Walking on 110 degree pavement in bare-feet, visibly uncomfortable as the procession began; blistered and bleeding feet covered in cardboard and plastic bags four hours later upon the return to the church
Even though I didn’t want to, and even though I was working to understand and accept, I found myself passing judgment on many of these people and their actions.
Here were the judgments I was making:
The most basic motivation of a human being is to gain pleasure and avoid pain. If some “sin” you’ve committed this year is pleasurable enough for you, and this pain isn’t as great as the pleasure you receive from the “sinful action”, you’ll be doing this again next year.
Does paying penance in this way allow you to go out and do the same thing again, so long as you come back next year and endure the same pain again?
In particular I found myself judging the adult who was dressed in purple, standing behind and whipping the child who was also dressed in purple and carrying a cross.
The child wasn’t being whipped hard, and the “whip” looked to be something made of cloth, albeit a heavier wool or denim type material. But to walk for four hours, being publicly flogged, (even without physical pain from the flogging,) while carrying a cross (that was small but must have been heavy for him/her), would probably cause pain and scars of the mental or emotional kind (at least in my understanding of the world).
Hours after the procession, Carrie and I both brought up the image of the child being whipped.
We had both seen it but not talked about it during the procession.
Carrie brought up something that I missed (due to their being lots of people and lots to see).
On the way out (as the procession began), there was a sign hung around the child’s neck which had on it the word “ladrón”, or thief.
- What did he/she steal?
- Did this severe punishment fit his/her crime?
- Was it the choice of the child, or the choice of the parents, which determined that this would be an appropriate punishment for the crime?
Children need consequences to learn that every action has a consequence. This is not in question.
But do some parents actually use this procession as a means of punishment for their children?
I remember being spanked for things I did growing up. But I was a child being taught lessons by my parents in a way that was always intended for my betterment (and I’d be hard pressed to find an example of punishment that I received growing up that didn’t help me learn an important lesson). Is four hours of some of the worst kind of public humiliation an appropriate way to teach your child a lesson?
While growing up Catholic, confession and reconciliation (forgiveness from God) usually involved something like saying 50 Hail Mary’s, 20 Our Father’s, saying I was sorry, and doing something nice for the person whom I’d sinned against.
Now, as an adult, I don’t punish myself as a “sinner”. (I don’t even agree with the doctrine of original sin… but that’s another longer topic as well).
I do take actions to avoid causing others harm while also taking actions to do good for others.
When I mess up (because I don’t always get it right), I apologize and take actions to repair any damage I may have caused.
Physical punishment brought upon myself as a way of redemption seemed (and still seems) quite foreign, unnecessary, and in fact, pretty unhealthy.
On good Friday, I watched as hundreds of people (maybe as many as 2000,) punished themselves for things they had done, or else punished themselves in order to emulate the life of Christ.
In general, I do not believe that physical, bodily punishment was Christ’s message or his teaching.
I also do not believe that destruction of the body is necessary to emulate the life of Christ.
I also do not understand how someone could think they had done something so bad, that in order to forgive themselves (not be forgiven by someone else, but in order to forgive themselves), they needed to embed barbed wire into their skin and walk barefoot for four hours on 100+ degree pavement.
At the same time, I have in the past beaten myself up with words for hours on end, and occasionally for months on end.
Eventually, I found my redemption through
- my own prayer
- words of hope and inspiration from others
- staring up at the stars and realizing just how small I really am
- apologies, both verbal and in action, towards those whom I had hurt.
On Good Friday, In order to let go of judging, in order to try to understand, and in order to be part of the experience that day, I had to simply accept that my preconceived notions of “penance”, and my way of forgiving myself, are not universally shared.
For some people in the world of today, penance comes only through physical self-punishment in the form of walking the figurative and literal path of Christ.
After writing for an hour, and giving this some thought, I came to a realization…
When I ask someone who is strong in their Christian faith the following question: “What is the worst kind of punishment you can ever experience?” and someone really thinks about it, they usually answer by saying something like:
“The worst kind of punishment is the kind you receive in hell.”
“Okay, but what kind of punishment happens in hell?”
“Fire, and flames, and gnashing of teeth.”
“Okay, “ I’ll say. “But won’t you just adjust and get used to that after a while? I mean, pain is pain. Once your skin’s melted off, you’ve ground your teeth into nothing, and your bones turn to dust, where’s the pain going to come from?“
“Hmmm,“ comes sometimes, but often it’s just silence from there.
“So who can punish you the most?”
“I don’t know. But the bible says that hell is the worst punishment.”
“Yes, and who can punish you more than anyone else?”
“Satan,” they usually reply.
“Really?” I ask. “Who, right now, can punish you the worst and to the greatest degree?”
“I don’t know… (if they’re younger they’ll say) maybe my parents?” (or maybe a friend or sibling sometimes will come up.)
“Isn’t the person who can punish you the most, YOU?”
“I don’t know.”
Wouldn’t it make sense that HELL is as much an idea as it is a place? Hell is both physical, and is something you inflict upon yourself, because you are, truly, the only person who knows how to keep punishing yourself over and over?
The fundamental philosophical difference between those who walked in the procession while punishing themselves with physical pain, and the philosophical position I hold, is this:
- I believe that God is primarily in me. I am a teeny-tiny physical representation of all of God on Earth. In this way, God works in and through me because God is in me. If God is in me, then forgiveness comes when I truly and deeply forgive myself.
- Others believe that God is primarily external. If God is external, then forgiveness only comes from an external force.
People are not participating in this procession to forgive themselves.
That is what I had thought all along, up until writing this right now.
They’re walking because they want God, the external, to forgive them.
To receive this forgiveness, or to become closer to God, they take external actions which they think will lead to the external God’s forgiveness.
When forgiveness comes (and for their sake, I hope it comes soon after this procession so that they stop beating themselves up), they will experience this forgiveness internally. However, because of their philosophy, they will perceive it as (the external) God’s forgiveness of them
This isn’t good or bad, nor right or wrong…
But it does help me to understand why some people take part in this procession in the way that they do.
It was an incredible experience.
In writing this account of Good Friday in Quito, I have focused here on the parts that were more difficult for me. However, there was beauty in this procession as well…
- In seeing depth of people’s faith (a very active, rather than passive faith)
- In the power of shared experience (people sharing the burden of carrying someone else’s cross when the load got too heavy)
- In the traditions of selecting a new patron saint for the year, throwing flowers and petals, and offering prayers and hopes for the new year