The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

María Castro de Vásquez

.....quia fortis est ut mors dilectio

Note: The purpose of the following series of posts is twofold: on the one hand, I want to memorialize those “unimportant” people who I have touched my life and who have since returned to our Father’s house, and on the other hand, I want to write a very soft apologia for traditional Roman Catholicism. Since Christianity is first and foremost about life, it is the lives of these people who have passed the Faith onto me. And I wish to share this with you.

Some of us are fortunate enough to know those people who have taught us how to love. Our parents of course are the primary source of this knowledge, but many times this is supplemented by someone else very special whose soul is so beautiful that it covers us in its shade long after they are gone. My paternal grandmother was this for me. What she taught me, not with words or books, but rather with actions, touch, and a gaze, was (to paraphrase Newman) that to love is to suffer, and to have loved perfectly is to have suffered often.

To the eyes of that seven year old, she was the most beautiful woman in the world other than his mother. To the eyes of the world, she was balding, hunched over, wrinkled, and wracked with severe diabetes. She was the mother of five, the grandmother of countless, an abandoned wife, a single mother, a keeper of beautiful birds, and a great cook. Everyone around her was intent, however, to make her life as sad and tragic as possible.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, she was orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandmother. She met my grandfather, Salvador, at the age of twenty and had five children by him. A drunk in and out of jail for most of their marriage, he finally abandoned her in California when my father was fourteen years of age. Her children, four boys and one girl, took after their father in many ways, and family gatherings often degenerated into drunken brawls between brothers over trifles. There are other more serious things, but I have probably said more than enough. Sons should not reveal the sins of their fathers….

To say that my grandmother had a simple Faith is an understatement. To say she was superstitious is probably more accurate. She had a small altar in her room on the right side of her bed that had, along with pictures of Christ and the Virgin, a picture of a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform. This was one of the many Mexican “folk saints” who would never make it past the post office if his cause was introduced to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but this guy probably did something really nice to some poor family at some point between killing people in knife fights and fornicating, so why not have a little picture of him in your room? Grandma also had to defend me from her rather tacky plastic statues of the Holy Family that scared me so much. I tried to stay away from the room they were in.

I used to sleep in the living room adjacent to her room on the couch opposite my brother. There used to be an old clock whose ticking used to also scare me (now you know what kind of child I was). She used to stuff cotton balls in my ears so I wouldn’t hear the clock, and if that didn’t work, I would go sleep in her bed. (I was six, so what was she going to do?) My father tells me now that she never used to let him hit me, even if I did something really bad. She loved me so much that she did not want to see me suffer, even if I deserved it. Sometimes I think that is how God looks at me.

There used to be a semi-empty lot across from her house where homeless people would sleep under empty truck containers. She would take us over there in order to bring them food. They weren’t there during the day, so we would just leave the plate there. We were poor too, but at least we had a roof over our heads and Grandma always taught us to share what we had.

I think that if I had stayed with my grandmother, I would have come out more spoiled and less emotionally calloused than I am now. I know that compared to most people in the world, I had life pretty easy. But there were times when we didn’t know where we would stay the night, where the next meal would come from, and where we would be next year. That’s a tough life for a seven year old, and it makes you grow up long before your time. Life at Grandma’a house was the only real childhood I had, and it ended abruptly, but here again I am saying too much….

She died on a cold January day in 1991. I wasn’t there, but she had called for me. My parents had separated and we were living in the next town over. For reasons I can’t go into, we were not in regular contact. I didn’t cry at her funeral. It’s not that I wasn’t sad; it was more that my heart was still very calloused over all that had happened. When you see so many harsh things so young, it takes you a while to start feeling again. But I feel now. Her grave in Gilroy is a sacred site to me where I stare into the eyes of the enemy that Jesus Christ has already conquered but in whose night we are still sadly trapped.

My grandmother used to keep two peacocks, as well as ducks, geese, and chickens. (My father said that she used to kill chickens by picking them up by the neck and twirling them around a couple of times, much to the disgust of her children. My grandmother was not squeamish.) The peacocks were of course male and female, so the male would often unleash his splendorous tail for his spouse to see. Sometimes I think that Grandma had all of her beautiful birds as a way to resist the ugliness that had plagued her life and proclaim, in her simple way, that love and beauty will always win out in the end. While sitting on a swing and watching these two fowl walk by, this ideal was passed on to me as well. It is the highest form of theology, etched in the heart, that not even a St. Thomas can articulate in all of the volumes in the world.

Requiescat in pace. I love you, Grandma.


At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing!

At 12:13 AM, Blogger axegrinder said...




At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Arturo.
Requiescat in pace

“I have been taught”

I have been taught by dreams and fantasies
Learned from the friendly and the darker phantoms
And got great knowledge and courtesy from the dead
Kinsmen and kinswomen, ancestors and friends
But from two mainly
Who gave me birth.

Have learned and drunk from that unspending good
These founts whose learned windings keep
My feet from straying
To the deadly path

That leads into the sultry labyrinth
Where all is bright and the flare
Consumes and shrivels
The moist fruit.

Have drawn at last from time which takes away
And taking leaves all things in their right place
An image of forever
One and whole.

And now that time grows shorter, I perceive
That Plato’s is the truest poetry,
And that these shadows
Are cast by the true.

Edwin Muir

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, even for an godless aetheist she was a saint. She deserved better and at times I wish there was a heaven because she deserves to be there. I write this message teary eyed at work. She was the sweetest woman I have ever known, aside from Ma. Except Ma had to have a strict hand with us or we would have called Pelican Bay home. Mexican men need strong women to keep them straight or they will listen to other Mexican men and do stupid things. I ain't racist or anything like that but it is true : )
But sweetness in any form is still sweetness and that is what makes Mexican women great, I just wish Mexican men would behave themselves better and I include myself in this critique. I guess it is critism self-criticism session, although this is not motivated by the group it is motivated by myself. I guess I have been spoiled by my experience with Grandma, Ma, and we can't forget Grandma Julieta (although she has Grandpa tied around her finger and has a lot to do with keeping us from gangbanging), I have yet to find any woman that measures up to them. At times I still believe Grandma watches over me, there have been many instances where I have been in bad situations and I have been saved. I hope if she is out there she is proud of me.

P.S. Choose a better time to write things like this, because I don't want to cry in public, Mexican men don't do this :)

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A saintly grandmother watching over her atheist grandson. I imagine the story of your grandmother's life could have been written by Ignazio Silone. But such lives can never be written, of course.

Thank you Arturo.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Mexican and I am riddled with contradictions that is the way it is.


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