Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Celebrating St. Augustine

Tomorrow, August 28, is the feast of St. Augustine. I have long been aware of the Order of St. Augustine in the Roman Catholic church, but vague on Augustine himself. I rectified this in July by inviting Lutheran theologian and scholar Mark Allen Powell to go with me to Chalma on the other side of the ridge from Cuernavaca. Chalma is Mexico’s most visited Augustinian site.

Mark deciphered the large oil paintings documenting the life of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) that decorate the courtyard of the cloister of Chalma's sanctuary. I was fascinated to hear about Augustine's influence on contemporary western thought. Mark told us that "today you study Plato in university but for considerably more than a thousand years you never would have studied Plato in a western university because Plato was a pagan.  But you would have studied Augustine.   The reason that Plato has so much effect on the western world is because of Augustine. The filter was Plato to Ambrose (bishop of Milan attributed with Augustine's conversion to Christianity) to Augustine to the western world where Platonic philosophy has been hugely influential in how people think.  Augustine has given us a Christianized version of Plato rather than the pagan version of Plato.”

Plato believed in the immortal soul that continues to live forever even after our body dies. Our soul existed even before we had a body according to Plato. There are only so many souls in the universe and they have always existed and always will exist because souls are immortal. Mark said: "This is a little hard for Christians to grasp, but before Augustine, if you asked a Christian, 'What happens to people when they die?' the answer would have been what Paul says in the Bible:  when a person dies the body, soul, and mind are all dead. When Jesus returns he will raise the dead on Judgement Day."  Augustine said that when a person died, that person's soul goes to heaven.  "Actually it was Plato that said that. Yet almost all Christians believe it--Augustine's writings about the immortality of the soul come from Plato."

Here in Mexico Augustine is not just an historical figure. He is a saint who is celebrated all year, but especially on his saint’s day, August 28th. A particularly wonderful celebration takes place each year in a private home in Vallodolid, Yucatan. Readers of Charlie’s Digs will remember artist Wilberth Azcorra who spends most of each year in Xochitepec, Morelos where he is known for his paintings of watermelons. I described his house and studio as the Watermelon House, a combination of Macondo, Wonderland, and Oz.  As to be expected the colors in the house are red, white, and green.

Wilberth spends August and September in the historic center of Valladolid, Yucatan where he constructed a house in Yucatan's Spanish style. The colors of that house are black and white -- colors of the Augustinian Order. The house is designed to carry out the nine-day celebration for St. Augustine every August, as his family has done uninterrupted for 98 years. Wilberth houses the 16th century wooden image from Guatemala of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family.

Wilberth told me that as the youngest of nine siblings, he was put in charge of the first of the nine evenings. As siblings moved away or died Wilbert 'climbed' to higher novenas until attaining the last one. "I inherited it from my mother and have been responsible for the novenas for 17 years." 

On the last day, August 28th, the saint is taken in procession to the church for a 7 a.m. Mass followed by breakfast, and a Balche (fermented drink of prehispanic origin) ceremony in the Maya style, then dinner for over a hundred guests. "The menu is the same as the one my parents prepared.  We can't change it.  It's the dinner for the Saint -- relleno negro (a Yucatecan specialty). Everyone that arrives is welcome."

To my "is there room for that many people?" Wilberth replied, "I designed the house for this event as if it is a chapel.  The ground floor opens up completely onto a terrace and patio.  When the novena is over we move my mother's furniture back and it becomes a home again.  The saint has a room upstairs where it spends the rest of the year."

Wiberth has graciously invited readers of Charlie’s Digs who are in Yucatan to attend.
The relleno negro is going into a pit this evening in Wilberth's backyard to be cooked underground as best of Yucatecan cuisine dictates.  It will be dug up tomorrow at 11:00.  You're invited to celebrate St. Augustine at Calle 39 #196 in Valladolid.  If you go, please give Wilberth a copy of this issue of The News as you tell him "Charlie told me I'd be welcome."

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