The Catholic church in San Mateo is about 5 centuries old by a conservative estimate. It is two stories high, painted a bright white and orange with a steepled facade featuring images of various saints and holy figures in recesses along the walls. The figures of the saints barely resemble whatever shape they must have originally had, because every year the church is plastered over with a new layer of limestone, rounding and blurring off any sharp edges. Inside it is like most Catholic churches I´ve ever been in, with two rows of pews and a stand of candles to light, with an A-shaped ceiling rather than an arch. Right now the beams in the ceiling are hung with purple cloth in preparation for Semana Santa, or Easter week.
The church has a Catholic school attached on one side, and in front of the Catholic school was a basketball court. Basketball is fairly popular here, almost as much as football, which is good news for me since basketball is going to be central to the next two books in my Popul Vuh trilogy.
Directly in front of the church, however, is a structure that I have never seen connected to a Catholic church before. ¨The altar¨ is a simple open limestone structure with metal roof above it. There is a fire constantly burning in it, and it is solid black from the smoke. Sitting around the altar are many older women in traditional Mayan dress, burning hundreds of long candles connected in bundles by the wicks. There are simple crosses about six feet high made of wood 4x4s nailed together stacked around the altar.
Angie showed me the church and the altar. The tradition of the monks that came through Latin America was to build their church near to where people already prayed. Always practical, the evangelizers didn't want to make it any more difficult than possible for their charges to come over to Christianity. With the Mayans they had plenty to work with; even before the first Christian came the Mayans already considered the cross a holy symbol, the shape of the world-tree, with each of the four points representing a different sacred direction.
If what Angie says is true, and I have every reason to believe it is, then the altar is something much older than the church. Which doesn´t mean the women around it aren´t good Christians. They light their candles in the church first.
But the altar might represent something more, as well. More than I can understand right now, if ever. I´ll have pictures tomorrow.