Friday, April 29, 2011


      There is a church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, where smoke from incense sticks billows out of the doorway and across the marketplace. Up the steps and inside, it is dark and cool, flickering with the light from hundreds of prayer candles. The candles are not neat and orderly, not all white, like candles in American churches. Melted wax in a multitude of colors drips and gobs and forms uneven shelves all around the internal walls of the building. Fat candles, thin ones, tall, short, whatever people have brought from home, burn and sizzle and fizz as they drip.
     Indian women in brilliant colors shuffle in and out, up and down the stairs, saying prayers on their knees, lighting candles, feeding the vat of ever burning incense. The incense smells like woodsmoke and musk and maybe a hint of frankincense. To me it smells like the spirit of the earth.
     Missionaries have come to Gutemala, but have only altered the culture part-way. Christian symbolism is mixed with pagan iconography. The church is honest and I like it. It awakens in me a primal sense of life's deep mysteries and inspires reverence for the energy behind all that lives. I think in our culture, we try to separate spirituality from life. We keep our reverence and ceremony and peace offerings largely in check.
     One of the reasons the Guatemalan church has always spoken to me is because it feels real. It brings the spirit to me instead of pushing it out of reach, up on the altar and shiny crucifix, miles above me in stilted images of stained glass. Maintain your distance and have respect seems to be the message of many American churches and most cathedrals.
     But that's not what the Guatemalan church speaks to me. It says welcome! I invite you to sit down, light a candle, and engage every one of your senses in this rich and incomprable living experience. It tells me that life itself, every minute and every breath we take is a spiritual experience. Breathe in. Breathe out. Enjoy the colors and the flavors and don't miss any of it.
     It's been many years since I stepped inside that church in Chichicastenango, but the invitation it offers calls to me still. Even after all this time, its smoke gets my attention and all of my senses awaken to the colors and the light. I am invited by that humble, smoky, marketplace church to presence and the living moment, and the vibrant spirit that is wthin us all.

Today, I am willing to enjoy the spiritual experience that is my life!