June 18, 2017
Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
The feast of Corpus Christi was today; a Catholic celebration of the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharist and I never think about it until that Sunday when I am reminded at mass. There isn’t a big procession at home, though I know in Europe it is still a big deal. I found out this morning, that in Malawi, it is a really big deal. Malawians are very good at celebrations.
I woke up late this morning. I am usually up by five and read or look at emails or Facebook for a bit, then am out of bed by six to write for an hour before I leave for mass at 7:30. Today I was barely out the door by 7:40 for the half hour walk to eight o’clock mass. I figured I’d sit in the back since I’d be late and duck out before the announcements which take about a half hour at the end. I had a lot to do today and Amelia, a fellow volunteer, is arriving from Mzuzu this afternoon and I need to meet her at the bus. There is dinner to plan and blog to write and the usual Sunday stuff, so even though mass usually takes a few hours with walking there and back, today I thought I’d shave off an hour of that, starting late and everything. So off I go on this gorgeous morning, cool and breezy, for the really nice walk to church with Soche Mountain in the background. When I turned onto the dirt road to the church I was surprised to see no cars. Then I realized I didn’t see the people from the six o’clock Chichewa mass leaving. Hmm. I got to the church and the door was closed. Clearly I had missed a memo. Not being in church last Sunday, there must have been some announcement. I walked around and found two older women sitting inside praying. They greeted me and I asked them what happened to the mass? They said today was Corpus Christi and there would be a procession from Jumba over to the church and it would start at 8:30. Oh! So I wasn’t late after all! Ok, I thought, I’ll go join the procession and come over here for mass. I thought that might be fun. But I had no idea where Jumba was. Not to worry, for as I was walking out of the church yard, a guy in a car stopped and asked if I was going over to the procession? I said, “Yes”, and he told me to wait for him. Perfect, I thought. He’ll show me the way. You know, whatever you need comes to you. So he parked his car and joined me and we walked up to the main road. I asked how far away it was. “About a kilometer” he said, “we’ll take a minibus.” Then a woman in a van stopped and said something, and he told me to get in her car with a bunch of other people obviously going to the same place. I wedged my way into her car and she drove way more than a kilometer. More like three miles. They don’t estimate distance very well. But, no problem, I was just thinking it’d be a nice walk in the procession with (I’m sure) good music, and I didn’t need to stay for the whole mass. I’d be home by eleven.
My companion, whose name I have forgotten, is someone big on the parish council. He was a big guy with an air of authority. I followed him and did as I was told. He said we had seats at the front. Seats? What seats? I thought this was a procession? Oh well, I thought maybe there were some prayers and blessings before we started. The singing and dancing was already in progress when we got there. At least a thousand people were already there under three separate tents. The altar, set for mass, was under a fourth tent. “This was where John Paul Two said mass”, he said, now a sacred spot apparently. He led me to the front of these thousand people where one empty chair sat, for him. He told me to sit, and I protested, not wanting to take his seat, (and also not wanting to sit in front) but he said, “Sit!” so I did. Then someone handed him another chair which he placed next to me for himself. Of the two hundred rows of seats, ours was the only row in the sun. That’s how far in the front we were, the only row not under the tent. But, at 8:30 this morning, it was still cool. I was wearing a light sweater, in fact. I thought I should just enjoy the good seat and the show. A large group of girls in matching dresses were in the open area in the middle of the tents dancing to the music. The combined choirs, probably consisting of a hundred people, were singing their hearts out. It was lovely.
I thought of my friend Donna, a converted Catholic, very devout, who passed away this week. I thought she probably never forgot Corpus Christi Sunday. I’ll bet she knew the complete history of the celebration; converts are always better informed. They learn about the faith because they want to, not because they had to. I’m sure it was part one of my Sunday School curriculum but couldn’t tell you much about it. As a kid, it probably meant a longer mass and incense, which made me sick on my empty stomach, since we couldn’t eat before communion in those days. Which reminded me I didn’t have time to eat before I left his morning. And then, come to think of it, I hadn’t eaten supper last night either. I evaluated my situation. I’m a little hungry already. I’m in the front row of this huge celebration, which means, most likely I’ll be staying for the whole thing. The altar is set for mass, which means the mass is probably here, then we’ll do the procession. It’s all three masses combined, which means this may go on for three hours. Don’t panic. I looked up at the sun and it was clear skies for the next several hours. I was going to fry.
The front row of plastic chairs was about four inches from a short cement curb, which meant I had to either kneel on the cement or squeeze my knees between the curb and the chair, a little more comfortable since it was grass, but we kneel a lot here, much more than at home, and it was getting hard to hold myself up. The music, like I said, was lovely, for the first two hours anyway. After that the repetitive lyrics and beat were starting to get on my nerves. I thought about Donna again, and how she would have liked to hear about this, how she said “Shalom” instead “Peace”, how sincerely reverent she was, how I wonder why she left us without warning. How a week ago she said she was looking forward to seeing me in August.
The sermon, was at least a half hour long. Malawians are wonderful orators and I was intrigued by how lyrical and comfortable the pastor was. I go to the English mass, and they speak English very well, but there is such a difference to hear one speaking their native tongue. It was fun to listen to…for a while. Then I started thinking, “What on earth can he possibly be saying for this amount of time?!” People laughed here and there and he was certainly animated, but honestly, I wondered if everyone there but me was prepared to stay for the entire day? Wouldn’t you know it was the one time I didn’t bring my water bottle. My nose was starting to burn. I put my hand over my nose to protect it, but that was not comfortable. I took off my sweater and held it over my face. Other women in the front were holding their prayer books up to shade their faces. There were parts to this mass I did not recognize. There was more music, more dancing, more speeches. Hours were going by. When we finally had communion, which took about a half hour with all the people, I considered slipping out, but I didn’t know what to say to the man who so kindly placed me next to him. After communion there were at least six songs. I thought of my mother who complained that the Easter Vigil in Bar Harbor was too long. I would have had to take her out of here on a stretcher! By now it wasn’t cool anymore and my arm was sunburned and I was worried about my nose. I leaned forward with my foot up on the curb, with my elbow on my knees and held my hand over my face to block the sun. One of the little girl dancers left the group, came over, and squatted in front of me. I leaned forward to hear what she wanted to tell me. “Sit properly” she said. I was startled! I said, “What?” She repeated, “Sit properly.” I put my feet under my chair, and sat bolt upright. My companion leaned over to me and asked, “What did she say?” I told him, “She said to sit properly.” He nodded like he agreed with her. So I had the NEXT hour to obsess about how I was sitting improperly? My skirt was to my knees; I didn’t think that was the problem. Other people had their feet on the curb. Granted the other women had a chithenje over their legs and my shins were bare, but that’s the only thing I could think of. That and I was leaning forward on my elbow, but I wasn’t aware that was a cultural faux pas. And for a seven year old girl to come reprimand me was really strange. I would think I’d really have to be doing something inappropriate. I took my sweater and draped it over my knees to hide my shins. I wanted to go home. I was ecstatic when they finished the ten songs after communion. I hoped the procession would start. But, no. The announcements started. Hundreds of them. I was no longer feeling warm and fuzzy about sharing this ancient tradition with kindred souls. This was feeling more like penance. All I could think of was, “Get me out of here!” When the announcements mercifully ended, the priest got up to say what I thought would be the final blessing. “Finally”, I thought, then the procession would start and I would get lost in the crowd and bee line it for home. No such luck. He talked for another ten minutes about something before the final blessing. I saw them bring in the canopy for the procession and I thought at last we would move. Oh, thank God. But. Nope. Everyone knelt and started saying the rosary! I think the last time I did that was my mother’s wake. By this point my companion, Mr. Parish Council was up kneeling in front of the altar. I thought I couldn’t slink out without saying goodbye to him, so sat through the rosary. Then some other group prayers that I did not recognize started, and I said uncle. I risked appearing rude, got up, walked in front of all the bowed heads, up the aisle and off the sacred field.
Then I didn’t know where I was. Crammed into the car that delivered me there I couldn’t see where we went. I didn’t know how to get back to the church. I asked a woman on the road the direction to the church, she pointed the way and I started on the hour’s walk home.
So, now I’m wondering what I would have written about today if I had decided not to go to church?
We’ve got to go meet Amelia.
Love to all,