Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It's The Family After All

We just returned from The Galapagos Islands, where I stumbled upon insights about religion that had eluded me for a lifetime, even though they were always in plain sight. The first occurred in places I had not intended to visit, Catholic churches in Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador.

Our friends, neighbors, and traveling companions Chris and Jan Jewell invited me to attend a Mozart evening in the cathedral near our Guayaquil hotel while Alice got a massage. We made a mistake on the time, and arrived an hour early. The bottom line was we sat through Mass, which we hadn’t intended since none of us are Catholic (I'm a weak-kneed agnostic), but it did get us good seats, because before Mass was over, the cathedral was packed.

Attending Mass, besides getting us good seats for the concert, also gave me plenty of time to observe the cathedral and the worshipers. It soon dawned on me that there were major differences between Catholic and Protestant churches and services, and those differences seemed to be in the attitudes of the worshipers. What were the differences, and why were there differences?

Over a week later, after cruising, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking The Galapagos Islands almost to exhaustion, we visited Quito for a few days. Alice wanted to visit some of the Quito cathedrals mentioned in a guide book. In one guide book, the author criticized spending money on cathedrals and parks and gardens, instead of spending it on social programs. That remark caused me much irritation, since I couldn’t see why any tourist would want to go to Ecuador to admire their social programs. In fact, as in many parts of the world, tourism is a rapidly growing source of good jobs and investment, improved environmental stewardship and conservation, and the increased economic activity eventually provides substantial funds for social programs. If you just invest in social programs, very little economic activity results and the only lasting growth is in the government bureaucracies that administer the programs and in the inevitable governmental corruption.

In Quito we visited several cathedrals, one built about 1594, another very ornate, and again I was puzzling over the impression that I was missing something. Then I realized what the something was. It was the worshipers themselves. God had been created in their images, and was accessible to them in a very personal way. Unlike the Protestant churches, with their bare crosses, there was a man suffering on this cross, and his grieving mother was nearby sharing his agony. In fact, looking around, the holy family was all about, at various stages of their lives -- Mary with baby Jesus, Jesus talking with the elders who marveled at his wisdom, Jesus driving the money changers from the temple, the crown of thorns, dragging the cross, the suffering, the suffering, the suffering – the glorious resurrection!

Here was God as man. Accessible. Suffering because he cared about the poor peasant, and the poor peasant’s family. No God did that for a poor peasant, except this one.

Allah is unknowing and uncaring. You’re here to obey him. You must obey him, because he has already decided all you will do, all you must do. No choices, no debates, no changes, no substitutions. And no pictures.

At least you could argue with the God of Moses. And argue the Jews did. It makes you feel good to know that God doesn’t always have the last word, that there is a chance you can change his mind. Still it would be nice to know him better.

But in the great Catholic cathedrals, and in the simple adobe churches, you can find Jesus Christ on a cross crucified, and his friends and family there with him, and with you, and with your family. It’s a wonderful feeling, to be a part of the family. For always, and for all time.

I think I'd sell my agnostic soul, if I had one, to have that feeling of belonging.That peasant doesn't seem so poor after all.

Finding Real Beauty In The Galapagos Islands

On our last evening on the MS Islander, we all met in the lounge and the microphone was passed around to give each of us a chance to tell our most lasting memory of our week cruising The Galapagos Islands. My turn came early, but the pattern had already been set -- animals, birds, fish – no surprises here. But I recalled our visit to the Tortoise Center, and the tortoise egg incubator.

When it had been decided that endangered tortoises would get human help to hatch eggs in the Center, the goals were to increase the percentage of hatching success and infant tortoise survival, and by incubating the eggs at a higher temperature, to increase the ratio of female to male tortoise hatchlings. More females, a few viral males to service them, a recipe for a tortoise population explosion.

To further help nature, an expensive incubator was designed and built at a stateside university, shipped to the center and installed, and immediately started failing for a variety of reasons, mostly associated with the incubator being unsuited for the primitive Center environment – frequent power outages and fluctuations, salty air, wind driven sand and dust, the long lead time to get and install spare parts – in other words, the incubator worked perfectly in an environment that did not exist within thousands of miles of the Center.

What did the Center researchers do? They took a hair dryer, a simple thermostat, and a pan of water, put it in the egg boxes, and their locally designed system worked perfectly. Making repairs and getting spare parts was easy. A triumph of the human mind!

So while my fellow passengers were impressed by the beauty of this bird, that sea lion, those fish, I was profoundly impressed once more by this display of the beauty of the human mind at work. It is still the greatest of all creations, by whatever creator you wish to credit. The human mind can both comprehend evolution, create God in its own image, and carefully hatch and raise baby tortoises. It is the most beautiful and remarkable thing on Earth, and for all I know, in the Heavens too.