Silence

Silence awaits.

The night watch of Good Friday has begun.

What 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.

The 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.

During 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 penitents.

To 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.

Our 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!

Smiling 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.

There 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.

Just 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.

The 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.

Chills 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.

When the song's last syllables have faded away, the silence fades with it.

CLACK! CLACK! CLACK!

A 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.

"Ayyyy, my captain! Carefully, carefully!"

From 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.

"Slooooooowly! Sloooooooooooooowly!"

And 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 the street.

Another moment. Another unrepeatable experience.

But we are awaiting Silence.

It 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."

It 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.

Many "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?

"Pagan"? 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.

Their 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.

The 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.

There 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 Silence.

The street is utterly silent as the effigy approaches.

Ecce Homo: "Behold the Man."

Closer.

"What is truth?" asked Pilate.

Silence.

When 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.

"Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river, u2018To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays, A prayer his body makes entirely For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name."

Thus it was with Jesus Penitent and that very heavy cross.

Silence.

April 19, 2003

Timothy J. Cullen (send him mail), a former equities trader, lives in Seville, Spain.

     

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts