night watch of Good Friday has begun.
James Michener described in his still-popular 1968 book Iberia
as "the world's most profound religious spectacle" is
being enacted before a silent multitude lining the broad avenues
and narrow streets of Sevilla.
late Mr. Michener (who never actually lived in Spain and from what
I understand spoke little of the language) apparently misunderstood
the nature of Sevilla's Semana Santa (Holy Week): it is not
meant to be a spectacle to be dispassionately observed; it
is above all a participatory drama.
the days and nights beginning with Palm Sunday, eighty-one pasos
(to call them "floats" is to trivialize them in translation)
have been carried in multi-hour processions to Sevilla's vast cathedral
(the world's third largest), then back to the forty parish churches
which house them. Thousand of hooded penitents (nazarenos)
have marched these streets, some of them unshod, some bearing crosses,
and some – waist-high to the penitent alongside – with their mothers
anxiously scurrying along the margins of the watching crowds, water
bottle at the ready, a tableaux reminiscent of the Passion being
memorialized. There is in fact a paso known as "Thirst"
(El Cristo de la Sed) that is carried by 42 carters hidden
beneath the effigy and its palanquin, accompanied by some 1,350
see this "spectacle" – more to the point, to experience
it – means to be part of the multitude moving from one place
to another through Sevilla's serpentine alleyways. While it is far
more comfortable to hire a chair in the reviewing stands behind
the city hall and the cathedral, one misses out on the marvelous
moments that occur spontaneously along the routes. Perched on one's
chair, Pilate's Ecce Homo might echo in one's subconscious;
better to be in the midst of it all, with drum-blows echoing in
one's bones, the blare of trumpets setting teeth on edge, clouds
of incense invading the nasal passages along with the heavenly scent
of orange blossoms.
Lady of the Angels is approaching. This street – Street of the Eagles – is
very narrow, perhaps fifteen feet wide. We are walking backwards,
gazing at the figure atop the swaying palanquin with its eighty
or so yard-long candles flickering. To our left a creaking sound,
a long-shut window opening behind a wide grill. The Clarissas!
and serene faces appear beneath the starched wimples they wear every
day of the year, every day of all the years from their entry into
this convent until the day of their deaths behind these selfsame
walls, behind this window on to the world that is normally shut
so as not to distract them from their inner world of silence.
are those who would say that these women are wasting their lives,
are prisoners behind those bars. Those who would say that have not
seen the faces that I see as we pass, smiling and waving, wondering.
beyond the window we pause.
We have our backs to the walls of the two-story houses that line
this dimly lit street. Opposite, a purple cloth with last Sunday's
now-dry palm frond beneath it is stretched across the wrought iron
rail. Three women lean upon it, watching.
procession halts. The palanquin is before the barred window. Slowly,
solemnly, ever so carefully, the representation of the Suffering
Mother turns to face these cloistered brides of Christ. The exuberant
crowd has fallen silent.
run up the spine as a chorus of sweet, reedy and clear voices rise
in song to greet their Patroness. This is a moment that those seated
in comfort will miss, must miss. And it is a great pity,
because it is at this moment that the paradoxical phrase "the
sound of silence" is clarified through experience. It cannot
be explained; only experienced.
the song's last syllables have faded away, the silence fades with
silver striker at the front of the palanquin is struck thrice. Thirty
men, their heads wrapped in turbans padded where they lay across
the shoulders, give a mighty heave from their places beneath the
sumptuously gowned Lady of the Angels. The effigy rises.
my captain! Carefully, carefully!"
the balcony comes a voice very different from those we heard only
moments ago. This is the voice of a woman singing to the man charged
with the care of the Virgin as she moves through the crowded streets,
a voice nearly stentorian but at the same time seductive as it moves
in glissandos through the scales.
ever so slowly, Our Lady of the Angels is turned back to face the
street, to continue along the road of sorrows whose voice now fills
moment. Another unrepeatable experience.
we are awaiting Silence.
is not yet midnight when we arrive at the Church of St. Anthony
Abbot, but already the small street is jammed to overflowing with
those who wish to see the paso with the longest history (over
650 years) emerge from its chapel: "Jesus Penitent," or
as this paso is known to all: El Silencio – "Silence."
is somehow appropriate that this effigy should be housed in a church
dedicated to the third century traditional founder of Christian
monasticism. St. Anthony Abbot understood well before Pascal that
"It is the heart which experiences God, not reason" (Thoughts:
278). These lovingly carved effigies, lovingly cared for, lavishly
decorated thanks to donations from poor unlettered parishioners
over the course of centuries, these objects of veneration were after
all originally created to illustrate the Passion story that the
simple people could not read.
"modern" folk enjoy scoffing at these "pagan"
effigies, perhaps without knowing the derivation of the word. Latin
is little studied these days. It's irrelevant. Dead white folks'
language. Not at all politically correct. Dangerous, in fact: what
if Westerners of European origin decided to reclaim their heritage
and reject the secular nonsense intended to replace it in a society
geared to the spectacle rather than the reflective?
As Miguel de Unamuno pointed out in The
Agony of Christianity: "Pagan (paganus) means,
in Latin, man of the countryside (pagus), hamlet-dweller,
peasant." Unamuno goes on to add that the countryman is "he
of the spoken word, not he of the written word." It was to
this individual, male and female, that the Passion Play was directed;
indeed, it was they who demanded it.
descendants demand it still, though Spain is now a secular society
with a Constitution that has disestablished religion, as did the
U.S. Constitution. It is a delightful symbol of the Spanish soul
that Sevilla's cathedral dominates Constitution Avenue. Here there
is no contradiction seen between a secular state and a strong religio-spiritual
tradition. Tradition is honored, the spiritual and religious seen
as a living force in the community.
old-fashioned lamps on the narrow street just around the corner
are extinguished with a pop and hiss. A collective sigh is heard.
Now only a single yard-long candle glimmers on the wall opposite.
Silence settles over the crowd. The moment is at hand.
in the darkened, silent street we all stand. Hundreds of hooded
figures gowned in black file past holding four foot long purple
candles. Among their number in times gone by were the artists Velázquez
and Murillo, painters whose works awaken the emotions, as the late
art critic Bernard Berenson insisted was necessary for a work of
art to be considered "great." Only that which enters the
heart can be great, be it a work of art or anything else. That and
street is utterly silent as the effigy approaches.
Homo: "Behold the Man."
is truth?" asked Pilate.
Jesus Penitent (El Silencio) had passed and the moment had
passed, I found myself thinking of a Seamus Heaney poem: "St.
Kevin and the Blackbird" from The
Spirit Level. The poem deals with a legendary saint who
has a blackbird land upon his outstretched arm and chooses to maintain
the arm held out like a branch until the bird’s eggs have hatched
and the chicks have "fledged and flown." Describing the
saint, Heaney expresses Silence.
and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
his body makes entirely
he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
on the riverbank forgotten the river's name."
it was with Jesus Penitent and that very heavy cross.
Timothy J. Cullen (send
him mail), a former equities trader, lives in Seville,