By Darby A. Tevlin
Surrounded by churches and cathedrals, blue domed, white trim, ornate gold detailing, pastel colored statues of the saints, in Cuenca you can’t help but think of God. Whoever or whatever that may be. A man? A woman? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think I ever have been. I know what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been told. But I don’t know what I believe.
I was baptized as a Christian before I could speak or even think and a confirmed Catholic since 2014. However, in recent years I’ve been distancing myself from the Church and its potentially dangerous rhetoric regarding the rights of women and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Arriving in Cuenca reminded me why I felt called to Catholicism in the first place.
It was our first day here. A Monday. A few of us decided to leave the hostel to get some fresh air when we stumbled across the many churches, essentially one on every corner, that Cuenca has to offer. But we only actually stepped foot inside the last church we saw, Santuario Mariano del Carmen de la Asunción. It’s situated in La Plaza de las Flores, across the street and overshadowed by La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.
On that slow and hazy Monday morning, as I was kneeling below the pew, I could hear the faint sound of the parishioners singing, praising. Maybe it was a choir? I was very far back in the church, not wanting to disturb what was happening before my eyes, almost like a museum exhibit or ballet performance, taking it all in as quietly as possible. I could feel the the powerful, looming notes and phrases bouncing, vibrating, echoing off the walls. I made the sign of the cross, the father, the son, the holy spirit and prayed.
I prayed mostly for myself, as selfish as that seems. The exact opposite of what God calls us, encourages us to do. And as much as I hate to admit it, I needed help and I didn’t know who else to ask. Since landing in Quito, my first time out of the United States, I felt like my world had been turned upside down and I couldn’t get a grip. I prayed for the ability to make it through the next second, minute, hour, day, week, month. To have patience with myself and with others. To have courage and be kind.
Right as I said, “Amen,” under my breath, an elderly woman approached me. She gingerly reached out her hand to me, sliding it softly against the wooden church bench. Still kneeling, in her short stature, she was eye level with me. I was hesitant to embrace her. Possibly a larger metaphor for my apprehension about living in a foreign city, miles away from all I’ve ever known.
Her hands were wrinkled and peppered with age spots. Signs of her life lived. She wore a gold ring, a plain wedding band of sorts. And she had something covering her hair. A short black veil? She said something to me in Spanish that I couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of, but be assured that I was hanging onto every word. She was beaming with a maternal pride. I knew she was glad I was here. It was the first time I felt welcomed in Cuenca.
It was our religion, albeit varying in degrees of commitment and devotion, that united us. The motion of my kneeling, praying, signing the cross, it said more to her than I could ever convey in a sentence, let alone in Spanish. Maybe it’s by the grace of God, my strength and determination, or sheer luck. Who knows? All I know is that so far my prayers have been answered. And that is the most comforting fact of all. That someone or something is listening and for the first time in a long time, I am being heard.