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Marco Machado, SJ | Chiapas, Mexico

During my first days in Chiapas, Mexico, I visited a small Maya village. They welcomed us with open arms and very good food. But then I got a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge and was unable to hold any food for the next three days. As soon as I was better, I was sent to Tatic (father) Antal’s family in Yalelmesil, a village in the middle of the mountains about four hours away from the Jesuit residence in Bachajón.

Before arriving in Chiapas, I heard how much Maya mythology influenced their worldview and prayer. For many, Tseltal theology seems syncretistic, – a merging of different cultures – because they pray in Tseltal (their native language) using their prayers, symbols and rituals.

Tatic Antal and his family were very welcoming and showed interest in who I was right away. He was very happy to be hosting a Jesuit, and all the kids – whose happiness and energy was contagious – immediately came to greet me. It did not matter how weak I felt after my stomach virus, I had to go play and run with them.

Then at dinner time Tatic Antal told me about the next day’s regional Ayuno.

“Marco, we have the Ayuno tomorrow. Do you want to come?” he asked me in front of all his family.

“I am not sure,” I responded hesitantly. “I am not feeling too well yet.”

Then Tatic Antal told me that everyone else was going to the Ayuno, even Marisol, his 12-year-old granddaughter. As soon as I heard this, I felt the pressure to participate.

“You know what Tatic, I have changed my mind. I want to go.”

I had no idea of the challenge ahead of me, but I suspected I would remember this day for a long time.

Once I committed to the Ayuno, I was told the whole truth: it lasted for 24 hours without food or sleep.

There were about 200 people at the Ayuno whose ages ranged from their eighties to children like Marisol. The chapel was bare, more like a warehouse. Only wooden boards were available for sitting. There were two altars. The Christian altar was set on a table and included many religious images of Jesus, St. Sebastian (the patron of the region), St. Jerome and of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The people’s devotion to the saints was very strong.

The Altar Maya was on the floor. I immediately saw why many thought of their faith as a syncretism between Maya mythology and Christianity.

The Altar Maya has the shape of a circle divided into four sections, each representing a cardinal direction with its own colored candle. Each section of the altar includes food such as fruits, grains, tortillas, tamales, etc.  Then at the center was a statue of Our Lady.

dimly lit room with candles surrounding circle of food. Crosses and images of Mary on the wall, with people in a circle holding candles
Christians pray for the intercession of Our Lady around the Altar Maya.

At 5:00 a.m. sharp, the Nantic Principal started the ritual Maya prayer around the Altar Maya by walking and bowing at every step. She was blowing incense from the copal towards the center of the Altar Maya. The red candle in the east section was lit and we all turned towards the east and started praying in Tseltal, the Mayan language of that region.

“The sun rises in the east, that’s why we pray for illumination. If we get close to the sun, God will give us His light,” Tatic Antal explained to me.

The food placed in the east section either came from warm weather or was colored red, like some kinds of corn. Then everyone lit a white candle and placed it somewhere in the Altar Maya. There were about 200 candles, each one representing one of our prayers.

At 7:00 a.m., Nantic Principal lit the black candle, and we turned to the west, asking God to guide us while we walk in darkness. At 9:00 a.m., Nantic Principal lit the white candle, and we all faced north while praying for cold weather.

“Cold weather brings us rain. We thank God because these gifts are necessary for life,” Tatic Atal explained to me.

At 11:00 a.m., the yellow candle was lit, and we prayed for wisdom while facing south. At 1:00 p.m., the blue candle in the center was lit. Facing the Altar Maya, we prayed for the intercession of Our Lady. In this way, she could take all our prayers to God. Then the cycle of prayers would repeat until 5:00 a.m. of the next day.

The time between prayers was used for socializing and networking. Many people introduced themselves to me; they wanted to know the cashlan (white person) Tatic Antal was hosting. Everyone asked me why I didn’t speak Tseltal.

After a few hours I started to get anxious, especially because the wooden boards were uncomfortable. So, I walked and prayed the rosary a couple of times. But at about 8:00 p.m., I was done. I was really hungry and very tired. I asked Tatic Antal if there was a place where I could get something to eat. He immediately took me to a family who gave me some beans, corn tortillas and coffee (I was not risking it with plain water again). They noticed I was not going to make it through the night and got me a place to sleep.

At about 4:30 a.m., Tatic Antal woke me up for the closing ceremony. A cow had been slaughtered and there was caldo to celebrate the end of the Ayuno. Everyone was very happy to see each other, but more than that, they were happy to know God was in charge of their harvest. I was very impressed by everyone’s endurance, especially Marisol’s.

Although many think the Tseltales’ beliefs are a mixture of Maya mythology and Christianity, I know this is far from the truth. Maya mythology did not infiltrate into Christianity; Christianity was translated into their language and worldview much like St. Paul did for the Greeks. They are not praying to the mountains and the Maya deities; they are praying to our God in their own way.

Their prayer is so genuine and intense because they know that if their harvest is poor, they will starve. They also know God will not let that happen. They bring their whole past and culture into every prayer, which is what we do in our prayer.

Staying with the Maya taught me what it means to be at the borders; for three months I lived at the edge of western culture. At the same time, I felt as curious about the incarnated God as the Jewish and Greeks must have felt 2000 years ago. This glimpse has been one of the most enriching faith experiences of my life.

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