I am lucky in that, when I was a child, my mother read me a story every night before I went to sleep until the golden day finally came when I was deemed old enough to read by myself. She took me to the library and let me choose two books. I left with Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure and an illustrated book of children’s Bible stories. My mother took one look at the latter, raised her eyebrows and said: “You’re not going to be religious are you?” I doubt I was any older than six.
My parents, although I would never admit this to them, are practically pagan. The major milestones – marriages and funerals – are all passed in Protestant churches and family members are buried there too, but the traditional God never received the slightest affection nor interest in my house. Drive a green car, walk in with lavender, open an umbrella inside and put new shoes on the table, on the other hand and it’s a whole different story.
A few years later, when I was the proud owner of a fully-stocked bookcase, my mother caught me standing on a large Children’s Bible (presumably given to me by a non-family member) in an effort to reach a book on the top shelf. “What are you doing?” she yelped. “You never, ever mistreat a Bible. Do you hear me?” She grabbed the Holy Book in panic, dusted it and placed it back on the shelf. (Is it any wonder I am confused? My boyfriend, who is on excellent terms with God and sometimes reads the Bible before he sleeps, walked into the bedroom the other day and threw his Bible casually onto the bed. “What are you doing?” I yelped. “You never, ever mistreat a Bible. Do you hear me?” which is proof if not of God, but that we all turn into our parents)
The Man Upstairs was not mentioned again in our house until several years later when a beloved great aunt of mine, who had no children, died and my mother found an old piece of paper amongst her possessions. It was a page ripped from a book, dated Thursday, October 21 (which happens to be the day and date I was born) and it contained this small, suspiciously colonial, story:
A Hindu once asked a native Christian: “What medicine do you put on your face to make it shine so?” “I don’t put anything on it,” answered the Christian. “Yes, you do,” the other persisted, “All you Christians do; I’ve seen it wherever I have met Christians,” The native Christian thought a moment then smilingly said: “Yes, I will tell you the medicine that makes our faces shine, it is happiness of heart.”
It’s the kind of thing you remember (especially if you collect stories) and I’ve been left with a childlike fascination with Christians and their faces ever since. Of course, the most devoutly Christian Colombian I know also happens to have the most ridiculously smooth, youthful skin. When I asked his secret he said: “Everyone in the family thinks it’s genetic, but actually I just wear sunscreen every day and get a lot of facials.” I didn’t dare tell him he should probably save on his spending at the spa – and trust that his clear pores were less aloe vera and more ‘allelujah.
But, having lived in Colombia for four years now, I am starting to see other benefits of religious faith, even though I am as ambivalent as ever. Religion really does take a bloody great weight off your shoulders, doesn’t it? Especially if you live in a country with no safety nets, where 45% of people live below the poverty line and the conflict has been stealing lives for more than 50. It all becomes a little easier when you put yourself in the hands of a higher being and trust that, no matter what happens, it’s all part of some greater plan. Of course you still have to work and do your best but somehow that extra 10% people like me fret about – the great unknown – becomes a lot less troublesome.
Faith is a different beast for everyone but there is definitely a sense in Colombia that, with God on your side, nothing is ever too depressing nor too daunting. As one Colombian commented to me after Colombia lost that scrappy, aggressive World Cup match against Brazil: “People were very excited before the game and perhaps terrible things would have happened if we had won. Yes, that must be the reason we lost. God really does love Colombians.”
That is the sort of faith I wish I had and it’s true, the most devout Colombians I know – both Catholic and Protestant – do seem happier and more peaceful than the rest of us. They find meaning in the worst aspects of life because, even if they can’t see it, they are convinced there is always a good reason why such-and-such a thing happened – a “bigger picture”. I can’t help being envious of their peace, their trust, their shiny faces and their happiness of heart – but I am not sure it is something you can fake. So in the meantime there is always the spa. And a daily splash of sunscreen.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.