One of my first existential questions had to do with the sign of the cross. En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.
Growing up, I was fascinated to watch people around me—regardless of whether they were a man or a woman, young or old, poor or rich—running their right thumb and index fingers over their forehead in a cross pattern, at the sight of a church. Why did they do this? Was God watching—every one of them?
My dad, I vividly recall, did the sign of the cross without fail. He’d do it really, really fast, whispering to himself, lest the magic powers in his gesture escaped him as quickly as he drove past the house of worship. But never did I see him go to mass on a Sunday. And as far as I would later on discover, my dad didn’t wasn’t really a stranger to the so-called cardinal sins nor was he crippled by the traditionally Catholic sense of guilt. I’d like to think he was a social Catholic; like one who picks up a drink or a cigarette at a party because everyone else is doing the same.
I developed a sense of skepticism about religion and its commandments early on. I was raised by an atheist mom with the freedom to question God, to choose to believe or not, yet with a deep sense of curiosity and an awareness of the importance of religion in people’s lives. Years went on without me giving it much thought, until my daughter came along.
She’s just three years old, but she questions things, starting with her parents’ authority, of course. On a Sunday morning a few months ago, she and I took a stroll down in the historic center of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we then lived. It was around 10 am, when local families dress nicely to attend mass at the main colonial churches. We saw people rushing towards the old stone buildings, many of them carrying little statues of Baby Jesus dressed in velvet robes, their arms flailing towards the sky.
“Where are they taking the dolls?” she asked me. “Let’s go see!”
“They’re taking them to get blessed by the priest,” I thought out loud. But as I said this, I realized none of this made sense to a toddler, so we turned around and followed one of the families, jamming ourselves into the entrance with the rest of the parishioners. The smell of melted wax enveloped us. She was taken aback by the crowds, the singing, the other statues dressed in velvet that lined the church’s walls. The people faced them, kneeling and with eyes closed.
“Are they sleeping?”
“No, but they’re feeling and thinking good thoughts,” I whispered. We stood behind a lady around 80 or 85 years old wearing a long dark skirt with a single braid down her back. She prayed loud enough that I could make sense of her words; asking God to watch after her son, her grandkids, her husband. She did the sign of the cross over and over again in quick succession, just as I remember seeing so many others doing, when I was a child.
Hers was a fervor I have always envied: that ability to truly believe in the power of something you cannot see nor explain. My friend Daniela described the feeling to me recently as “the knowledge that someone’s watching your kids and keeping them safe when you’re not with them.” As a parent, I wish I believed in God for that reason alone.
The old lady with the braid swayed gently back and forth as she prayed. It was intense, infectious. My daughter and I just stood quietly behind her. I held back tears. We were two voyeurs staring shamelessly.
Women lined up beneath the nave to get their Baby Jesuses blessed. Those babies were who we’d followed into mass, but now my daughter paid them no mind. After about 15 minutes, I grabbed her hand and we headed out towards the light.
A few weekends later, we took a walk in the historic center again, past the same beautiful church. But my daughter didn’t say a thing about our last visit. Maybe she had forgotten? Maybe most of the world seems that magical and random to her? Or perhaps she won’t really show an interest in religion, I hoped, much like I didn’t growing up.
But then again, she could surprise me. And I will have to accept her God. Whereas I used to think that atheism was my family’s tradition to keep and uphold—an absolute negation of organized religion—now I realize that faith isn’t necessarily the opposite. It need not be good nor bad, and it isn’t for everyone. But the irrational and powerful feeling can take you over and bring about comfort, bringing about order in a chaotic world.
For my last three years of motherhood I have experienced feelings that are nothing short of self questioning, deep insight, ecstasy, rapture. As a mother, I have been capable of immense love and forgiveness—for my family and strangers alike. Does this mean I am now open to believing in a God? I believe in goodness and in balance. Two values you might find in any religion.
One day a few weeks ago, she came home from daycare in time for lunch. And as we sat down to eat at the table, I watched her as she held her palms together, in prayer. She closed her eyes for a brief second, mimicking the old lady we saw inside the church. “What are you doing?” I asked. I didn’t know they were asking the kids to pray at school; I may need to speak to the daycare director, I thought. “Nothing,” she told me in her little comforting voice. “It’s just something they’ve told us to do at school before we eat. And if we don’t eat, we don’t get dessert.”
This article was first published in MUTHA Magazine—Exploring real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage
Ruxandra Guidi has over 15 years of experience working in public radio, magazines, and multimedia, and has reported throughout the United States, the Caribbean, South and Central America, as well as Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region. She collaborates often with her husband, Bear Guerra, under the name Fonografia Collective. She’s originally from Venezuela, and is currently living in Los Angeles.
Photo by Bear Guerra. Published with permission.