Easter having come and gone with no perceptible change in the miseries of this world, I have been thinking about faith, manifested in two of its aspects in Taos: The Penitente Morada behind Mabel’s house, and the nearby graveyard.
The Penitente brotherhood (Los Hermanos) probably met in this little adobe church on Good Friday to re-enact the crucifixion, with their members taking all the parts. In the past, this would have involved a procession, and, some claim, an actual crucifixion, but due to public opposition and the less-obvious opposition of the Roman Catholic Church, the ritual has become not only private, but secret. It has been a long time since any outsider has witnessed it.
But to my mind, the ancient church itself as it sits solidly on the desert not far from Taos Pueblo is itself a statement of faith, which must perhaps always be private and even secret. Rationalism has made any open statement of faith likely to arouse mockery.
The Penitente brotherhood was formed here in Northern New Mexico after the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 drove the conquering Spanish and their priests back down to Mexico; some of the priests were even hanged on the Hill of the Martyrs here in Santa Fe. But the faith remained after the revolt, and the Penitentes, as laymen, tried to fill the gap left by the fleeing priests. When they returned, with the Spanish, thirteen years later, the Brotherhood was driven underground.
Here is an instance of a people’s faith outlasting its structure, perhaps more relevant without the imported priests than it had been with them.
A few steps away from the church, a graveyard fills a space between houses and a road, its dwellings appearing as commonplace and acceptable as the nearby junked cars. “A grave as gay as a dance card,” I wrote of a family graveyard in Kentucky, and this Taos graveyard is also gay. Every grave is decorated. Even the mounds of bare dirt marking new graves have artificial flowers stuck in them.
The children’s graves, contained in crib-like structures ornamented with bright-colored streamers, are the most decorated. One even wishes a “Happy Easter” to the buried child.
If faith means, as it often does, belief in bodily resurrection, there is no need to make graves and graveyard somber, as they so often are in the Anglo tradition with weeping willows, dark slate tombstones and chiseled images of skulls. Why should anyone regret, except on a purely personal level, the death of someone gone to glory?
Of course our rational minds rebel. Yet, for me, there is a powerful correlation between the church of the secret brotherhood and the bright flowers in the graveyard, as though if we could accept the darkness of repression, we could also accept the light of eternal life.