Coming from a secular Jewish household in which we light candles and sing a few songs every Friday night before eating dinner with family, I have a soft spot in my heart for symbolic ritual. These last few days, I have been lucky enough to experience a ritual, both similar and different, in the rural Ecuadorian village of Cosanga. It’s called the Novena. Every year, for the nine nights before Christmas, one household hosts the rest of the pueblo for prayers and a meal. Helping to cook food for one of the nights reminded me of Friday nights at home, scaled up by a factor of ten or twenty. The whole family is expected to help in whatever capacity they can, cooking, cleaning, moving furniture and so on. You might even recruit some friends and acquaintances for extra assistance. The night seems to be as much about reinforcing the bonds of responsibility between family members and neighbors as it is about religious devotion. Grownups chat and kids play. Everyone eats.

I remember being dogmatically opposed to any form of organized religion for many years and I remain extremely critical of the way institutional religion (particularly the Catholic Church) is often used to concentrate power in the hands of an elite and serve as a tool for social control. Nonetheless, the Novena and other rituals offer a connection to people around us that seems utterly lacking in much of our modern secular world, a sense of something larger than ourselves that is not only mystical, but socioeconomic and even political. I don’t know if it’s possible to retain something like this connection while discarding the oppressive elements of religion. Like Friday-night-dinners, I find the experience of the Novena to be bitter sweet. Christianity took hold in Ecuador, as it did throughout the New World, with incredible violence, destroying what existed before. There is no way to justify such horror. It would be obscene to try. Yet, fully conscious of this impossibility, I look at and listen to the people and Novena around me. It is difficult to wish that the novenas did not exist.

Feliz navidad. 

N.N.–Sustainable Roots Volunteer        

Posted by ryanlynch