by Yoly Zentella–
About 200 children, nine tightly robbed, black habited nuns, eight bright but austere classrooms divided in half, separating the sexes, and at each desk, a bottle of blue-black fountain pen ink: this was the stage of the urban New York City working class Roman Catholic school, circa 1960s, I attended.
Our nuns, stern and stoic as they were , with only one among them being known to smile, were custodians of this small, immaculate, marble floored, parochial school occupying two stories. Children – Irish, Italian, and a sprinkling of assorted Latinos – ages 6-14 attended daily, quietly, so that only the black, swaying, rosary beads, hanging from the nun’s belted waist to her ankle, could be heard as she glided down the hall.
There was one classroom for each grade. In those days there were no special services; every student worked hard in class. If you didn’t pass you repeated the grade. There were rarely behavior problems.
We received a simple but well-rounded education, prayer book Latin, Gregorian chant – sung at High Mass and special feast days – catechism theology and Catholic art lessons on Roman, Medieval and Renaissance church symbolism. How we would astonish the upper classes at the out-of-our-league Metropolitan Art Museum when we would stand before the paintings during a class trip or on brief, unsupervised juvenile jaunts, analyzing aloud the symbolism in the Flemish or Italian triptychs! Working class children should be prepared for work in the factories, industry, service, not to view paintings as if they were art connoisseurs on holiday on the south of France. The upper classes bought expensive art books to learn that a palm in the hand of St. Lucy meant martyrdom. They attended museum lectures to learn what the dedicated but often impatient and perpetually annoyed looking nuns, grand-daughters of Irish immigrants, taught us.
The school was small, and I knew every inch of it by heart, with each inch being much like the other. But there was one corner of the school, tucked away in the tiny principal’s office, that was special. It housed a cardboard box, a parallel to the box that the cabaret, scantily clad, cigarette girl carried, securely held by a band around her neck. She would coquettishly ask the tuxedoed men drinking cocktails, “cigars, cigarettes?” A pretty standard scene in black and white movies, circa 1940s! Instead, the box in the office kept antidotes to sin, the weapons of repentance – religious articles for sale, among which were a variety of crisp, new, often gold-edged Holy Pictures. My contrasting boxes would most likely be considered by the nuns to be sacrilegious, sinful, or both. Better to keep my observations private!
Weekly, a well-behaved student was picked to take the box from classroom to classroom, silently hawking, among other objects, beautiful 2 x 4 replicas of scenes from the past – joy, ecstasy, insight, conversion, eyes looking to heaven, and martyrdom. I was never chosen for this task; the nuns knew better. I might have taken the opportunity to flirt with a boy or two, or give away rosaries, the plastic ones, at least. Charity! While I didn’t really want to be a hawker, I did relish being near the pictures that didn’t speak, that begged to be accepted in their frozen state. I was intrigued by their fragmented stories, much as I was by the mural that spanned three of the inside walls of the main church, the mother of the Catholic school.
It was a mural of larger than life saints, a parade of doctors of the church, martyrs, preachers, mystics, all crowned with halos except one, and curiously all White, except one, a female, Native American, Blessed Kateri. I always thought she and I resembled each other. The saints were separated by gender, males to the left, females to the right, each animated, theatrically posed, each holding a symbol in their hands or against their breasts -a prayer book, a palm, a wheel, a crucifix, roses – depending on their particular roles in the story of the church and the century.
The figures were splendid oil paintings – prominent above the sanctuary – soft colors and gold-edged halos, all in procession toward the absolving Lamb of God. They also were not offering any clues about themselves, not even of the nuances of their spirituality, the frailty of their convictions, or their personal perceptions of the potential conflict between church and state. They revealed only what we had learned during religious instruction, which was standard and shallow at best.
As Catholic school children we learned a more simplified version of the lives of the saints, most likely based on Jacobus’ hagiographical accounts. But one also had to have spent summers pouring over library books of myths and legends to connect the saints to archetypes. Perhaps this was my fascination with that pious parade that I could not keep my eyes off of when we, the class, were in the mother church for special feast days or for confession. I so wanted to have that mural in my bedroom where I could scrutinize the saints for signs of private thoughts.
As I could not have the mural, the Holy Pictures would have to do. I became a young, working class collector, storing them in my daily missal, thinking of the saints’ significant moments, during mass – the holy remembrance of the last supper which had been reduced to a series of clicks by the nuns – signaling to us when to kneel, stand or sit. Catholic conditioning! As absolute silence was demanded, I reviewed my growing collection and fantasized.
The saints had taken my adolescent interest, much as the archetypal fairy tale characters had as a child. I had been fortunate that the local public library, eight blocks away, had a good collection of world fairy tales which I poured over during the summer, when you could check out ten books at a time. Such immersion had become a pastime in my solitary room, unless I was at my paternal grandmother’s, whose penchant was for Mayan myths and Strauss waltzes played on her ancient piano.
Fairy tales, myths, hagiography, later the symbolism of the Tarot, Jung’s work on dreams, an interest in Medieval and Renaissance history, costume, music, and Mexican spirituality with its particular concept of death, created a mix that sometimes collided, but slowly transformed into an identifiable potpourri of persistent underlying thought.
One category of sainthood appeared prominent in the Catholic school setting – the martyr. Used as a teaching tool in discussions of faith and loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church, martyrdom appeared as the juxtaposition to the eternal torment of hell, where death was not even a possibility. Martyrdom carried with it the badge of courage and holiness, of modesty and virtuous faith. Yet, through these stories, we, the children, were also exposed to horrific tortures and death, glossed over by the romantic triumph of death and canonization. Looking back at these descriptions one could say that the nuns were unknowingly preparing us to cope with the real world – of Southern lynchings, of historical anecdotes on mob violence toward Mexicans and Chinese in the 19th century and reports on 21st century human rights abuses in Iraq. Tales of martyrdom pierced the protective coating of innocence that children came into the world with. By age 12, if we lived in a state of family violence, such accounts reinforced the idea of physical punishment by parents and nuns, standardizing discipline for many during this era, like David Copperfield’s harsh treatment by both step-father and schoolmaster.
The pain of others appears to be a consistent subject of curiosity. The British spectacle of brutal executions from early times to the 19th century, spanned from the carefully designed execution of royal traitors, with members of the council, the clergy, and servants-in-waiting attending, to the public scenes of mayhem as traitors of lesser social status were drawn and quartered, to the burning of heretic Catholics and Jesuits. Even during the age of Humanism in England, Thomas Moore, author of Utopia, portrayed as kindly and just, in A Man for All Seasons, relentlessly pursued heretics. For Catholics, the Roman centuries of early faith were backdrops for martyrs, descendants of the crucified Christ, whose death pallor was caught so well by Velazquez’ in his Christ on the Cross (1632).
Churches in Mexico and Central America, territories that have sustained centuries of conquest, uprisings, and repression with gross violations of human rights have incorporated their historical and collective suffering to those of the crucified Christ, with statues often displaying signs of torture and finally death. Such portrayals are unlike the Euro-American and European Christ figures that seem relatively unharmed while crucified, perhaps displaying a quiet, private reserved suffering, very different from the Mexican and Central American public display of emotion and pain, reflections of a brutal cultural birth and history.
In this part of the world, the figures of Christ, the Virgin, and saints are dressed in native made clothing and cloaks. These life-like statues exist quietly in their niches, surrounded by flowers, candles, tiny rolled up petitions, and copper symbols of parts of the body that need healing, some perhaps already healed. Some figures are rumored to have nocturnal lives, slipping out to perform miracles, and returning to their places, soiled and torn.
In earlier European centuries, to a lesser degree today, the church had become the instrument of the monarchy and the state. During the English Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, the abbeys kept the faith alive through their vast, sometimes questionable, relic collection, while the suffering of the martyrs continued to be a reminder that such a state, as in the case of the common man, was a path to heaven. Were these ideas usurped by the authorities to control the population?
Martyrdom, as depicted by holy pictures and embedded in relics, has existed within the spectrum of victimization, occupying an earlier space in time, contrasted by a more contemporary one, within this disturbing continuum. Within the latter component were the sacrificed lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, regarded by some as Cold War martyrs; their execution described as a “legal lynching” by John-Paul Sartre (Reinholz, 2009). Different times, similar challenges to authority.
Extreme suffering, and often death, is the price that one pays for challenging and resisting authority, any authority – the tribe, government, the church, parents. History and literature are replete with examples – religious, political and historical figures - archetypes for ideas and causes. There exist newspaper reports of child abuse and infanticide cases – because a child asked too many questions, cried incessantly, required attention, or otherwise overwhelmed an already emotionally distraught mother – the child should have known better. History tells us of the ambitious Thomas Wyatt, who opted for rebellion at a time of perilous, pre-Elizabethan plots. Wyatt should have known the price for treason; he should have treaded lightly, waiting for better times.
Christ and the martyrs, so closely connected to politics and treason, took part in the war of ideas, pushing and pulling on the dilemma – the survival of the idea or of the believer. This was the stuff of history, of my history that began in the still fresh shadow of World War II.
During the 1950s, NYC was home to refugees and survivors of the European holocaust. Riverside Drive Park, a favorite haunt of my father and I, had one memorial plaque to those who died at the hands of the Nazis. One day we, I about age 8, went on one of our park walks, during which time we contemplated the river and watched the barges slowly drift south on the Hudson. That day we engaged on a discussion of survival when coming to that familiar memorial plaque, and reading it again, my dad may have remarked, to perhaps my comments or questions with, “ I would have lied about my race to save my skin.” I remember my indignation, arguing with him, questioning his reasoning. The naiveté of my sweet, quiet dad. Did he really think it would be so easy to lie and remain safe? He underestimated the Nazis, their finely tuned policy of extermination, the requirement of papers, birth certificates, of documents tracing back for several generations, hunting for any trace of Jewishness – a meticulousness underlined by a German psychological fear of engulfment and annihilation, of starvation and humiliation by the Versailles Treaty of 1919, essentially designed to bring Germany to its knees. A desperate grasp at survival.
My thoughts at the time about his remark have remained with me: “What a coward, lying about his roots in order to survive – to save himself.” A war of ideas between father and daughter! Decades later, having studied and witnessed the historical and political process of social movements – religious and secular, right and left, I can appreciate his reasoning – not about the realities of fascism because, speaking respectfully, he lacked a historical foundation, but about survival – the universal human preoccupation with escaping, resisting, attacking, manipulating, lying low, strategies for physical and ideological longevity. Each of us picks our own battles according to values and needs. As a Mexican man with a family his goal was to protect himself and us, in this way preserving his culture. I learned so much from him. I am so much my father’s daughter!
And my dad was a survivor. He had survived poverty, migration from Mexico, a perhaps distant mother, the alcoholism of his father; emotional abuse. He had lived in Louisiana as an adolescent when Jim Crow was still part of everyday life, lived through New York union strikes – to join or not to join – the Depression, McCarthyism, The Cold War, an unfinished education, a monotonous factory job, the deaths of his parents and brother, and a marriage to a beautiful but emotionally challenging woman. He had been deemed exempt from WW II. He survived it all, with bearing and serenity; he had been speaking from experience and personal strategy. He died at age 96.
Holocausts have not only had martyrs; but also those who fought back, fled, lied, and hid. My father was neither a hero nor a martyr, but one who lived a quiet, retiring, resigned existence, reading his books and waiting with patience for the story of life to pass. Who was the naive and innocent regarding survival? The father or the daughter ? I have refined his strategy.
It is a Catholic school, a hot, sweltering May afternoon. We had been assigned to write and present a composition, in our best script, on our favorite saint. Most of the students in the class picked a martyr. There were as many portrayals of St. Lucy as there were stories about her martyrdom in the 4th century AD. I chose St. Stephen , stoned to death around 35 AD. I got an A for my efforts; I suspect the high grade was a reward by our Sister for being the only one in the class to have chosen the official forerunner of martyrdom, after Christ. As I waited my turn to present, sweating from the heat – we girls were made to wear our plaid woolen uniforms throughout the school year, to the end of June – I thought how much fun it would be to act out these martyr lives and deaths in a school play, much like the passion plays in the Middle Ages, usually taken from the liturgy, and very popular with the illiterate crowds. I thought, perhaps I should suggest it. My turn came and went. The play was only a fantasy. Decades later, I read that the Golden Legend had been stunningly adopted by choreographer Christopher Williams, into a 3 hour dance composition - performed in May of 2009 in Chelsea – portraying the lives of a number of male saints. This was a counterpart to the 11 female saint stories, Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, also created by Williams and performed in 2005.
The key to the success of these performances seems to be Williams’ skill for the fantastic – reminiscent of Medieval drama, for dance movement, for the use of Church symbolism, and for staging saintly, sometimes naked figures, coming alive on the stage in “short dance – plays” . Perhaps here, in these creations, decades after my Holy Picture fascination, one could catch a glimpse of, perhaps interpret, the thoughts of some of those frozen-in-expression mural figures. Williams’ portrayal of St. Laurence suggests that “he alone didn’t believe it [his death for the faith] could happen to him.” Was this a glimpse of an optimistic personality, of a thought-out plan for survival, or a personal perspective of politics at that time?
Martyrdom continues to attract our attention. Even for the non-believer, the concept of religious and political martyrs, archetypes of victimization, perhaps of perpetrators, past and present, is a point from which ideas and debates radiate – ethics, morality, loyalty, patriotism, law, justice, revenge, faith, survival. Controversy begins with officially approved or leaked reports on atrocities, newspaper features of child abuse, and innocent holy pictures airbrushed free of bloodstains. For me, it took a modest neighborhood library, a working class Catholic school and a conversation with a quiet father to cultivate a personal narrative on suffering and survival, to understand the manner in which faith in the unseen and ancestral experiences can emerge from a mix of disparate elements. Perhaps now, the saints and martyrs will share with me what they once would not.