Kathleen S. Burgess
According to Lonely Planet
neither tourists nor local laity may ascend the staircase
to the doors of Iglesia de Santo Tomás. Eighteen steps
represent the number of months in a Mayan calendar,
and they function much as the steep, sacred stairway
to the pyramid that is no longer pointing skyward, but
symbolically underlies this Catholic-Maya church.
Market day buses fill Chichicastenango’s cobbled
streets with farmers, vendors, artisans, and tourists.
Before the church, air smolders and billows with copal
resin holy brothers burn and swing in tin-can censers.
From fragrant clouds comes an old man in a gray suit.
He greets us politely. Speaking English, he ushers us
into the sanctuary’s small side door. Now we stumble
from sunshine to cool dark and pass small candles
flaming, quivering in the deconstructed Roman
Catholic church. It lacks a lectern, pews, altar,
electricity. All the shamans kneel by the side
of parishioners to bless children, harvest,
market, travel, and health. Tapers set in wax
stand paired to the radiant faces for weddings.
For divorce, the flames are pinched, candles over-
turned so to mark the division. Christ on the cross
seems to witness in silence, perhaps even to judge—
until He, too, in His love for the people, steps down.
Kathleen S. Burgess is a senior editor at Pudding Magazine: The Journal of Applied Poetry, editor of Reeds and Rushes—Pitch, Buzz, and Hum (Pudding House), and author of Shaping What Was Left (Pudding House), Gardening with Wallace Stevens (Moria Books), The Wonder Cupboard (NightBallet Press, 2019), and the October, 2018 poetry memoir of a year hitchhiking to South America, What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away (Bottom Dog Press).
Editor’s Note: The image is of Iglesia de Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango Guatemala with a Jesus Christ silhouette. According to Wikipedia, the church was built around 1545 on a Pre-Columbian temple platform, and the steps originally leading to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization remain venerated. K’iche’ Maya priests still use the church for their rituals, burning incense and candles. Each of the 18 stairs that lead up to the church stands for one month of the Maya calendar year.