Holy Monday in Seville

Fr Luke made a very profound point yesterday as we watched procession after procession in the Cathedral of Seville on Palm Sunday night. As priests, we are so used to being the ones who guide others spiritually, who tell others to have faith, that we forget that we have to be led as well. It was a pious thought, but we were able to put into practice today.
Don Pedro let us observe the processions very much as outsiders yesterday. This morning he said, “OK, so today we are going to do the processions my way.” As an Anglo-Saxon, I have always seen gate-crashing as a particular form of rudeness. I could never imagine just walking around in and out of processions like I owned Seville. But, lucky for us, Don Pedro does not have any of that Victoria reserve, and so we spent most of the day winding our way through one procession after another, and most of that time directly in front of the floats. Not only did no one consider the native son and his two American friends as interlopers, we were always guided to the spot where we needed to be.
Of course, directly in front of the floats you have Spanish army officers in their black plastic hats, servers in their albs and dalmatics, precentors of the confraternities with sticks they know how to use to keep order, and lots of people. There is perpetual motion, and even when the precentor uses the silver knocker to signal a stop, the stop is less a period than a comma, a brief pause in an other wise endless undulation of bodies.
How could there not be accidents? Men carrying literally tons of precious metal, sixteenth-century statues, velvet cloths, candles and flowers in abundance. What could go wrong? Everything! But it doesn’t. How? These processions are not choreographed with the precision of military ceremonies; they are as natural as the Sevillians are natural.
During the procession today of the Condemnation of Christ by Caiaphas and Annas, I began to see why nothing ever goes wrong. Trust. As a priest, I say I trust in God, I tell others to trust in God, but deep down inside I am as much of a pragmatic cynic as anyone else. How do you walk backwards in and through hundreds of people when there is a two ton float coming at you with men underneath it who can’t see what is in front of you? The costoleros who carry the floats are practically blindfolded and do their work in the hot, sweaty undercroft of the float. Their only instructions are given by the loud banging of the knocker. It is all instinct and obedience. For those in the light of day participating in the procession, everyone guides each other by hands, arms and elbows as the procession moves its way as one united motion.
This procession is different than many processions, because at certain points, the costoleros in unison not only jump high in the air, but they move as rapidly as 36 men holding two tons on their backs can move. The effect is one that I can only akin to the most majestic waves of the ocean, where sea foam is replaced by silver filigree and salt spray by velvet and lace. And the thousands of people that are in the procession all have to trust each other and work together as a team, all in instinct to the need for survival and obedience to the knocker. And as we three priests were right in front of the float, we more than anyone else had to trust the men who had our back, quite literally.
And so the dance began: tons of metal and statue rising up and down rolling forward like the crashing waves on the seashore, and the masses of people going with it like so many perfect surfers. But what we saw from our vantage point was not the azure sky or the reddening afternoon sun. At one crest of the wave it was the resigned face of the Savior, then a slave holding on his back the Law, another time Annas looking confused and bewildered. The music was a plaintive soliloquy of loss, pain and sorrow, and as I let myself be moved physically in this incredibly trusting way, I was able to surrender my own self-will to the obedience of the motion initiated by the Christ in whose honour this dance was held. Had I stood motionless, or tried to do my own thing, I would have been crushed, and would have imperiled other people’s lives. But I resigned my own will to the nature of the thing, and as such experienced a movement, bodily and spiritually, which lifted me beyond myself to trust in the LORD and my fellow men.
I nearly almost fainted from the beauty of it all, and that’s not being overly dramatic. It was that powerful. And when we finished the procession, we realized that we had traversed half of the city center of Seville in what seemed like a moment. But for Don Pedro the Indefatigible, we had other Prcoessions to participate in, each time as close as the first.
We followed Christ El Cautivo, bound in ropes and clothed in the purple livery of mock royalty. We followed the Betrayal of Christ by a Judas who was inches away from the kiss that sent the Prince of Peace to the Cross. We followed the Blessed Mother under her several titles and in her manifold dress as she followed her Son, pierced with a sorrow none of us can ever imagine. All the while, the music alternated between the minor Passion symphonies of the mysteries of Christ and the prophetic notes of joy that accompanied the Lady of Sorrows as she grieved for the pain of her Son while basking in the faith in his Resurrection to come.
Back in the parish of Moron, preparations were underway for the village’s Spy Wednesday procession. Thousands of dollars of flowers arrived from all over Europe as the men who would be disguised under robes unloaded and prepared them and the thousands of dollars of candles that would go on the one float they were preparing. It made me wonder. How on earth could a small village afford all of this? There were no wealthy Sevillian patrons of the aristocracy who could underwrite the thousands of dollars that went into making one float, much less the thousands of floats that floated all over Andalucia every Holy Week. And none of that compared at all with the inestimable value of the floats themselves.
My question was answered. We went to another village called El Coronil where a team of grandmothers were working overtime making pestinas, fried pastries soaked in honey, lemon and sesame fabulousness, as some wag called it. We knocked on the door and were ushered into the Kitchen that Makes Millions, a modest kitchenette in someone’s home where the abuelitas of El Coronil make this delicious pastry.
At first it seems odd to make pastries of this lavishness during Holy Week. I thought they must be for Easter. But in Seville, penance during Semana Santa does not apply to food. According to venerable custom, anyone in Seville who participates in the processions is exempt from fast and abstinence during Holy Week. The anxiously awaited fax from the Archbishop’s Palace arrived on Don Pedro’s IPhone granting those who participate a dispensation from fasting and abstinence on Good Friday.
So are the Spaniards weaklings who just can’t fast one day of the year? Are they really that pathetic? Actually, the immense physical exertion that those who participate in the procession, particularly the costoleros and the penitents, endure, is so great that they must eat big and healthy meals with lots of protein and carbs to manage. The bodily penance that they endure is more than anyone can imagine, and, in order to do the penance, they have to eat.
This is where we see the wisdom of Mother Church even in her laws on fast and abstinence, and how she adapts herself to unique situations all over the world. It also gives a unique character to the ascetical life of Seville’s Holy Week. The Manichean, Jansenistic, Puritanical tendency that stalks Catholicism from time to time tends to want to whitewash, denude and hyperperfect everything in a Pelagian attempt to use soulless penance to channel grace. Thank God for Seville and its Baroque piety, which destroys that heresy. For this spirituality, penance is done in an extreme way amidst a sumptuous and sensual display that delights the senses and moves the heart. Just as in the Incarnation, Divinity charges mortal flesh with the grandeur of God, during Holy Week, mortified flesh and bone meets a Christ whose real human suffering is retold in a display of beauty, chant and light.
As the day went on and the procession continued, silence descended upon the city. As one procession after another prepared for the Procession of the Cross, silence reigned. We were entering into a place where words and sound could do nothing. There was only the Cross, and that to end the evening. The silence of the tomb came down as so many droplets of dew from the heavens, bringing Seville to serenity.
But, the Blessed Virgin of the Waters was not far behind. And so, the silence was unexpectedly broken by a band out of nowhere, as joyful notes poured forth into a torrent of expectation for what would come on Easter Sunday. The great wood and copper doors of the Cathedral were closed shut and Seville had an early night at 1am.
Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.