200 Year Old Icon, Jesus, and Mary

A rut worn dirt path of a hundred yards or so led to a very small house with a smaller out-building at the end of a cul-de-sac of sorts. My son and I were visiting the family with whom he had lived for six months while learning Spanish and working with an NGO in this small Guatemalan town affectionately called Chi Chi. Don Julio and Doña Marta, and their daughter were excited to see their “son” Andy again and to meet his dad, after having met his mom the summer before. It was a wonderful time, sitting in one of four tiny rooms, on a patio under a ceiling, yet surrounded by no walls, as twilight gently descended upon these gentle, humble people. Love was in the air. There was no doubting how real was their love for Andy and vice versa.

Before leaving, Don Julio and Doña Marta insisted we join them in their tiny kitchen for coffee and homemade pastries, Andy and I seated and we ate, as family stood and didn’t eat. This was a special treat reserved for very special occasions. Generously sharing their food was but a precursor to a more important sharing. Leading Andy and I a few steps over into their small bedroom, Don was very proud to show us his prized possession, a two hundred year old icon he worshipped daily, as had his father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather. The icon was a small stone animal figure hung with old, rub-worn silver coins. This was a big moment for Don Julio, bringing a big smile to his face when I asked him if I could take a picture of his icon.

Doing so, I noticed how the icon had been carefully placed on a colorful woven mat sitting upon a dresser, prominently displayed in front of small pictures of Jesus and Mary, behind and to the icon’s left and right. The people of rural Guatemala, actually probably much of the population of this Catholicized country, had over time melded their centuries old animistic beliefs with that of the Roman prosletizers. Missiologists call this syncretism – the amalgamation of different religions, cultures or schools of thought.

I had photographed another example of this earlier that afternoon, a man performing an animistic ceremony, waving a can of incense back and forth outside the doorway of Chi Chi’s Catholic church on the town’s plaza. And then later that evening, I was in the right place at the right time to photograph an Ash Wednesday procession with Mayans carrying a richly decorated cross through the center of town, stopping each block to perform an animistic ceremony.

What an odd combination: a 200 year old icon, Jesus, and Mary. A situation, God Almighty cares for not in the least.