Saturday, 24 March 2018

A story for Semana Santa - Holy Week

Daybreak. Sevilla.

The noise of a door slamming woke me. I had fallen into a deep sleep having tossed and turned all night. I am leaving to walk the Camino to Santiago today and every time my eyes had closed either anxiety or excitement prodded me awake. My rucksack stood against the wall. I looked at it wondering if I should unpack and repack it again to see if there was anything I had missed or anything that could be left out. I laughed to myself. I’d done that a dozen times already. As I reached into the wardrobe to get the clothes I would wear I caught sight of the black robe hanging there. Memories.

This was what I wore as a Nazareno in one of the many processions in Seville during Holy Week. I had worn it proudly even although some of my friends taunted me that the tall hat made me look like a member of the Klu Klux Klan. I was proud to belong to the Hermandad de la Macarena, the brotherhood or confraternity which each year prepares and then carries the statue of the Virgin Mary called the Macarena through the crowded streets of Seville. There are 55 brotherhoods in the city and they carry over 100 pasos which are platforms with statues or scenes from Holy Week. This is the week when the Church remembers the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Some of the brotherhoods date as far back as the 13th Century. The processions of Holy Week are a long held tradition. It starts today.  Excited as I am about my Camino I have also felt the build up in the town over the last few days. Over 1 million visitors occupy every available bed and cram the streets. Every day there are processions leading up to Holy Thursday when La Madrugá begins. This is 24 hours of continuous processions to mark Good Friday the day of Christ’s death.

I was born into the Hermandad de la Macarena. It is the most important of all of them. The image of the Macarena is famous throughout Spain. My father, his father and grandfather before him were all involved in the brotherhood. People looked up to them. My dad had been the Capataz, the one who directs the paso and gives orders to the costaleros, the dozens of fit young men who carry the float on their shoulders. Often they are hidden underneath. I also performed various roles myself as I was growing up. When I was learning the trumpet in school I was in the band which plays la marcha procesiónal as the paso moves on. I have also been a monaguillo, an altar boy, and also a penitente. Penitentes wear somber robes to symbolize that they are atoning for their sins. In some brotherhoods they walk with their feet bare. Some others wear chains and manacles on their ankles.

The brotherhood meets during the year. The membership is only men. From time to time girls, usually students, have tried to join or even start their own sisterhood. They got nowhere. People just laughed.
Belonging to a brotherhood means learning the traditions. How things are done. There is a pecking order and families like ours who have been involved for generations are the most senior. Members of the brotherhoods each have a heavily embossed metal keyring which they hook over their trouser pockets. It is like a membership badge. Members drink together after meetings when the selection of who will do what next year is planned in meticulous detail.

The churches with pasos have a brotherhood and the local priest is the chaplain. I remember when I was very young the priest came to speak to us about our responsibility to keep the tradition of the brotherhood going. He said we were especially blessed to be brothers together and that what we did was important to God. My chest swelled with pride that year when I was chosen to carry one of the incensarios which sent billows of incense into the air. There were magical moments. We were processing through the narrow streets of the barrio when there was a strange whispering through the crowd. Then they fell to complete silence. From a balcony a man started singing a saeta, a soulful ballad about the Vigin Mary’s suffering as she saw her son put to death. Everyone was transfixed as his voice soared through the narrow streets. As we set off again the capataz whispered in my ear that one day I would be the Presidente of the Hermandad. I was happier than I ever remembered.

I don’t know when the change started to happen. I began to find brotherhood meetings boring. The arguments were petty. Debates about the colour of the ropes holding the canopy over the statue went on for weeks. The election of a new Presidente was like a general election. People took sides. There were rumours about the private lives of the likely candidates. Three of the older and most senior members approached me and asked if I would stand for election. I was flattered and I thought about it seriously. So seriously I decided to speak to a priest.

I hadn’t been to confession for many years. In fact apart from the one or two occasions when the Brotherhood went as a group I didn’t even go to church. In truth I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in God anymore and there were certainly things about the church I didn’t accept. As I waited at the door of the Cathedral for it to open a figure approached wearing a hat, a rucksack and carrying a stick. This was one of the pilgrims we see in Seville from time to time. He looked at the ground and I followed his gaze. There was an arrow inset into to pavement. It pointed across the road. I looked and there on the wall opposite was another arrow pointing right. I watched as the pilgrim followed the arrows until he was out of sight. I decided what to do there and then.
I told everyone that before I agreed to stand for election I would make the pilgrimage to Santiago. To a man they said they thought I was crazy. But I set out.

36 days later I sat in the Cathedral of Santiago surrounded by other people I had met on the way. With some I had formed life long bonds. These were my fellow pilgrims. Along the way I had realized that I wouldn’t find the God I had lost in a theatrical tourist attraction carried through the streets of Seville but in the kindness of strangers and the tenderness of new friendships.

I never did stand for election. When I got back everything seemed different and I felt I wanted other things, including walking another Camino. You see I’ve joined another fellowship now. I have no idea who the other members are that I have yet to meet but I know they will be there along the way.

This morning as the drum sounds and the processions start I wish them well. I have to go by a different road.

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