I was eleven years old the first time I saw Hell.
My father loved taking the family on weekend outings, excursions that necessarily involved walking and, ideally, a cultural experience. Thus one weekend morning I found myself in a Catholic church in the historical part of the city of Quito. At the time, forty years ago when my family lived in Ecuador, this historical section had not been restored yet and was, especially to my immature eyes, grimy and dirty. All I noticed as we walked to the church were the scraps of newspaper blowing about on streets littered with rotting carcasses of fruits and vegetables, the stench of animal and human urine, the skeletal dogs, mangy cats, and broken glass. Beggars reached out to us, mumbling for succor by invoking God’s blessing in stoic humility. Children, of vendors or beggars, often with matted hair, bare feet, and torn clothing, paused in their play to stare, silent and wide eyed. I was relieved to enter the church, to pass through the tall, heavy wooden doors and into the soft perpetual twilight inside. Voices, even footsteps, were subdued there; solemn saints from centuries past gazed at the visitors from all sides in paintings, as statues, through stained glass, and even from above, looking down on us from the ornately frescoed ceiling.
For eleven years I had been raised Catholic by my Peruvian mother in a haphazard, almost casual manner. During my childhood we attended Mass sporadically; Sunday service was never a regular part of my upbringing. She cared enough to have me baptized as an infant and, after weeks of catechism, receive First Communion, but then she seemed to lose her commitment, if not her interest. Years afterward, echoing my father’s atheist beliefs, she confessed to me that she questioned the existence of an omnipotent god in the face of human misery. But that was later, much later, when I was an adult. The morning we toured Quito’s colonialist history, I was still child-like, secure in my unquestioning faith in a good God, a benevolent father figure, a compassionate Lord who cared about the minutiae of my days, who oversaw the intricacies of my destiny.
Thus in some ways I was unprepared for what I found that day. As I turned toward a dark and deserted corner of the hushed church, quiet and peaceful after the noisy tumult and bright sun of the city streets outside, I saw it. Its size—huge; its palette—bleak; its subject—nightmarish, seemed to conspire together, reaching out, darting and quick, to overpower me—my feelings, my emotions, my consciousness. As I became overwhelmed with gruesome images, my eyes widened, shifting from corner to corner and side to side, desperate to find some relief from the terrible scenes meticulously detailed on the large canvas. But I could not. There were demons and devils tormenting human souls with vicious excitement. There was anguish and pain made tangible through fire and bondage, with spears and shackles and chains and pits. People were objects—broken, thrown, crushed. Everything was depicted in shades of black—gloomy and dark–or of red—bloody and barbaric. There was no relief. This world with its threat, its promise of punishment for the sinning, the unrepentant, the ungodly, oppressed me to the point of panic. I felt like I was suffocating. I could hardly breathe. I turned back to the center of the church with its more standard, more familiar paintings and statues of martyred saints with pierced torsos, Madonnas with bleeding hearts, and Christs with crowns of thorns, for space, for air, for breath, but ultimately had to cross the threshold of the church, go back through its doors, and step outside, returning to the light and the noise and the chaos of the living.
Thirty-two years later, my older son is eleven. I have brought him and the rest of my family to South America to visit my relatives and introduce them to my Ecuadorian past and my Peruvian heritage. We are scheduled to view the catacombs at the Convento de San Francisco in Lima that day. I am worried. I do not want my children to be traumatized. I feel the familiar clenching in my stomach from conflicting concerns: Is it a mistake to tour the catacombs, like a family would a Disneyland ride, with an eight and an eleven year old? Will it be too much for my sons, still so young, to descend into the underground crypts and the dark musty tunnels and walk through the grisly piles of human bones—tibias and ulnas and femurs and skulls—even more macabre, it feels to me, because arranged by type? Will they realize that these buried bones represent entire lives and whole personalities, once alive, now dead? Or will this tour be beneficial? Educational? An exposure to the history of Peru and the culture of Catholicism? We go anyway; it seems, as usual, that I am the only adult in the group, which includes my husband, my mother, and my aunt, obsessed with these worries. I determine to keep an eye on the children, to ascertain if I need to intervene at any point and swoop in to soothe anxieties with softening fairytale explanations for the grim mounds of human bones.
We arrive at the entrance to the monastery where we purchase tickets for the tour of the catacombs and wait for the guide. As we sit, side by side, on the hard wooden benches lining the vestibule’s wall, my older son gets up and approaches a life-sized statue of the Crucified Christ on the opposite side of the room. I watch him curiously. What is he thinking? He passes back and forth in front of the statue a couple of times, observing, analyzing. I watch him as he takes in the drooping head, the thorny crown, the blood dripping down the face, the side, the palms and feet. I see him consider the naked torso, the thin limbs, the protruding ribs and concave belly. What does he make of the pierced forehead? The wounded side? The nails and the cross? Because my husband and I are both lapsed in our respective religions, we decided before our marriage to eschew any formal religious upbringing for our children. I have never taken my sons to church, Catholic or Protestant; I have never told them about Christ, Martyr or Savior; I have never read to them from the Bible, Old Testament or New; I have never shown them religious images, of Jesus or Joseph, Mary or Moses. At that moment I seem to see the Christ on the Cross, an image so familiar that I take it for granted, as if for the first time. I am startled to realize that this figure, that is so well known and often comforting to me, is frightful, appalling, repulsive.
My son returns, his face questioning, to ask, “Who is that man? Why is he hanging there?” I think quickly. How to respond? What to say? There is so much history, so much context, so much personal experience bound up in any answer to my son’s question. I realize he has no language for what he is seeing. Unlike me, who cannot remember not being intimate with the graphic details of Christ’s execution, my son, having no knowledge, no words, sees only the literal physicality of the statue in front of him. I decide to go the sociopolitical route. “Well,” I say, hoping for a calm casual tone, “His name is Jesus and he was a great man who had a vision to make the world better for everyone. He lived hundreds of years ago and his philosophy about life and love was so different that it threatened the people in power. And when people are threatened, they get scared. So they killed him by hanging him on a cross.” He ponders my words for a few moments then, apparently satisfied, or perhaps merely bored, leaves me to poke at his little brother.
Later that day, after we tour the catacombs and look at the arrangements of bleached bones preserved in the chilled dank air, the boys think only of getting ice cream and going home. They stop an helado vendor bicycling his cart through the streets and my sons make their selection from the variety of fruit and chocolate paletas. I hear them, as they bite into their popsicles with satisfaction, talk about the “catacoombas.” They soon segue into composing a little ditty, with a happy childish tune, whose lyrics consist solely of the word “catacoombas” repeated indefinitely. “Catacoombas! Catacoombas!” they sing. So much for a traumatic experience, I think to myself.
A week passes and we are in downtown Quito, poised to visit the very same church that housed the painting that occupied many of my nightmares, and even some of my conscious fears, for years. The memory of the day when I was eleven and first saw the vivid depiction of human beings abandoned by God, left to be punished forever by disciples of evil, had grown rather than diminished with time, looming large in my imagination as a rite of passage, a loss of innocence. My part in the joint determination with my husband to bring up our children without religion was determined, to some extent, by my desire to protect them from the fantastical fears of a fairytale-like mythos. Now that my children are almost grown, I question my decision as a mother, our decision as parents, to bring up our sons in a void, a vacuum, rather than expose them, carefully and thoughtfully, to what we decide, as mother and father, as Catholic and Muslim, is the best of both religions. In hindsight I feel that this has been a mistake—in seeking to protect our children we may have deprived them of the good and the valuable that has been distilled, over centuries of faith and practice, in the overlap of our two religions.
But that afternoon I have yet to pause and reflect on my instinct to protect my sons from a Catholic tradition that includes visions of horror such as the one I remembered from my youth almost four decades prior. I insist that the boys stay outside on the steps of the church with their father while I enter first, on a sort of reconnaissance mission, to ascertain if the painting is still there. I find myself holding my breath as I cross the same threshold and turn toward the corner, the same corner from decades ago. And there it is. Still hanging in the same place on the same wall, still depicting the same hellish landscape of a Catholic artist’s imagination. But I am surprised to see that it is . . . small. So much smaller than the one, massive and overpowering, of my memories. Have I grown or has it shrunk? I feel a bit like Alice after falling down the rabbit hole—confused and disoriented.
Nevertheless, calling my children into the church, I position myself between them and the painting to guide them past the dark corner into the suffused light and the relative safety of the nave beyond.
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