Just before the climax of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the residents of Whoville join hands in celebratory song, despite having been burgled of every trapping of Christmas.
The sight of their joy leads the pinch-faced thief to have what is arguably the most famous conversion in television history: The Grinch’s pebble-sized heart grows into a pumping red organ that literally explodes out of his chest.
I hope my heart was a bit larger than the Grinch’s before I set off for New Mexico last month, but it definitely was close to bursting after five days of fellowship with Catholic Pueblo Indians in their remote reservations along the Rio Grande. Seeing the humility and devout faith of the Pueblo, who have persevered in their Catholicism despite modest means and a history of persecution, took my breath away.
How could you help but be moved when Christ was everywhere you looked – from the tender way the Pueblo treated their children and elders, to their insistence on sharing everything they had with mere strangers?
Take the Jemez reservation, where the residents of one snug home were celebrating the late-summer harvest and preparing lunch for about a dozen visitors.
In a place where catechists struggle to afford items such as Bibles, religion workbooks and crosses for altar servers, a feast fit for 10 kings was being laid out: a dizzying spread of stews, salsas, home-baked bread, meats and fresh vegetables, much of it culled from home gardens and cooked in hornos – outdoor adobe ovens resembling beehives. In a display of unbridled hospitality, our hosts refrained from eating as their guests had their fill, hovering over the table to make sure every serving bowl remained bottomless.
When the man of the house learned one of his guests was a Catholic deacon and tribal leader in another of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, he disappeared into a back room and returned with an expertly carved hunting bow. He said he’d been waiting for the right person to whom to give it. Tears streamed down both men’s faces as they prayed over the bow, arms entwined.
Each of us left with a piece of handmade jewelry and a prayer card with the image of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, because in our hosts’ minds, it wasn’t enough to physically feed us.
“We hope you pass on these blessings when you go back to your homes,” our hosts prayed, echoing a refrain articulated by Pueblo Catholics throughout our visit: Blessings, which are from God, must be continually shared! Don’t keep them hidden away!
Earlier, during Mass at Jemez’s San Diego Mission Church, the Body and Blood of Christ was dispensed from ceramic vessels, the weight of the chalice so much greater than its metallic counterpart that it wobbled in my hands.
Sacristan Christopher Toya told us the images carved into his church’s ceiling beams – a trail of bullets leading from cross to cross – depicted “the spiritual road to heaven.”
“Those bullets represent our prayers – our help in our journey to heaven, and our hope that our prayers will be answered by our Creator,” Toya said, adding that the sun, whose image is also carved into the ceiling beams, lights the way.
“(Pueblo Catholics) have great respect for the sun that gives us light and life to the plants. Our whole seasonal calendar revolves around agriculture,” Toya said. “Our prayers and our fasting are tied to the seasons.”
In the Cochiti Pueblo, located near the rocket-shaped formations known as “Tent Rocks,” a local catechist insisted that we make an unscheduled stop at the baptismal party of a baby girl named Daniella.
“That’s her English name. She has about 15 Indian names,” Daniella’s father told me, after being served a meal featuring the same stunning variety as the one prepared for us in Jemez.
Two of Daniella’s Indian names – the Keres language words for “Corn Pollen” and “Pumpkin” – conveyed, once again, locals’ gratitude for the September harvest. That same reverence is extended to the archbishop of Santa Fe whenever he celebrates Mass at Cochiti’s St. Bonaventure Church. In a centuries-old tradition, women spread blankets from the archbishop’s car to the sanctuary, creating a seamless carpet that enables their chief shepherd to get to the altar without touching the ground.
So sacred is prayer in the lives of Cochiti Catholics, no photographs may be taken of their church or ceremonial dances, which praise and petition the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Mother and the saints.
Given such rich faith traditions, I was glad for the newly baptized Daniella, who during our entire visit was being passed around in the arms of relatives and neighbors. Daniella will grow up, happy and cared for, in a place many might find remote, barren, devoid of stimulation.
But we should envy this child. Perhaps, in a place like Cochiti, Daniella will find it easier to empty herself of the things the Grinch presumed were so important. Unfettered by trappings and guided by her gentle, close-knit faith community, she likely will grow closer and closer to Christ.
What more could a baby ask for?
Beth Donze visited New Mexico as a guest of the National Black and Indian Mission Office, whose annual collection supports evangelization efforts in African-American and Native American communities. For more information, visit www.blackandindianmission.org. Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.