When is a church not a church?

I’ve stepped inside many a church in my time. Living so close to continental Europe for so many years I was lucky enough to see many of the grandest churches going around – The Vatican, Notre Dame, Berlin Cathedral. I’ve even be known to bow my head and offer a prayer of thanks (though I’m still not entirely convinced anyone was listening).

However, I’ve never been so delighted to step inside a church as I was went I visited the Catholic Church of San Juan Chamula. It’s in a Mayan village, just outside the Mexican town of San Cristobal (which is worth a visit just to look at the ambar in the jewellery stores – amazing stuff).
On the outside, San Juan is a very very ordinary and rather run down Catholic Church. Anything but impressive. However, I now absolutely adore this church.
When you step inside however you quickly see this is no ordinary Catholic Church. Sunshine pours in through the windows, on to a concrete floors which is void of any pews or any place to sit. Instead the floor is covered in masses of pine needles and lumps of wax, from the hundreds of tiny candles that are stuck to the floor. Bunches and bunches of marigolds are placed at the feet of the icons of various saints, along with the odd shot of mezcal and packet of cigarettes. To top it off, our guide reassured me that mass hasn’t been said here in more than 30 years.
It is the most un-church like church I’ve ever been inside. Our Mayan guide tried to explain how this place came to be, and how the Mayan belief system has reconciled itself with Christianity. I really hope I don’t mangle the Mayan beliefs of the local people in my summary…. When the Spanish came to this town they razed the existing Mayan temple, a place of offering to the Mayan Gods. In its place they built the Catholic Church, and began preaching this new religion. But the Mayan attitude to the introducted religion was perhaps unexpected by the Spanish; it went something like this:
We have heard about your God. You revere your God like we revere our Gods. You pray to your God like we pray to our Gods. Your God is the source of all light and life, as are our Gods. In our minds, they are equal. They are the same. The temple you razed was a place of offering, the church you built is also a church of offering. We may use the name of your God, and kneel in your church, but it really makes no difference what we call him or where we kneel, because they are the same. We will always be worshipping our Gods.”
Like the temple that stood before it, it remains a place of offering. Along with offering prayers to Mayan and Christian Gods, the Maya people come here for traditional healing. So local shaman come here to conduct ceremonies which involve rubbing eggs on peoples’ bodies and sometimes even the sacrifice of a chickens. So here, in this tiny town, is a Catholic Church which is barely a church at all.
I love this church, I love knowing that places like this have survived, and that the descendants of this conquered race can still find ways to keep their culture alive.

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