Holy Week in Antigua, Guatemala (and My Body, Breaking)

It’s Good Friday, and something painful is happening in our world. I’m reminded of a different Good Friday, when something painful happened in my own private world… seared into my memory alongside a gorgeously mystical manifestation of the Easter story.

Our friend Mark Reimer was the first to tell us about Holy Week in Antigua, Guatemala. Mayan and Catholic beliefs meld into an astounding, otherworldly event. Andrew and I were intrigued. We waited for a time when Holy Week would fall nicely in line with spring break, so we could go too. 2018 was our year.

2018 was also the year of my 40th birthday: the point at which my body turned against me. My mysteriously occasional, now-frequent limp was joined by a choir of painful eruptions throughout my feet, shoulders, and wrists. I was terrified and exhausted. A specialist appointment had been made. In the meantime, Andrew and I flew to Guatemala for spring break.

We settled into our room in a hotel in the midst of this very old UNESCO World Heritage city, then set out to explore.

We encountered preparations underway, even into the deep dark night.

getting ready2

In the middle of every street, we found people carefully creating alfombras — “carpets” of brightly coloured sawdust and intricate patterns.

Every day the crowds grew in size, the processions in frequency, the colours in vibrancy. And every day, against my will, my pace was slowed. Now moving as if through thick, waist-high mud, I became one with the contented, methodical pace of those around me.

I found myself able to take in tiny details of my stunning surroundings, including the colourful alfombras — each like brilliant jewel, its patterns carefully crafted on hands and knees for days, nights, and hours.

In every procession, hundreds of people would put their collective shoulders together to carry agonizingly heavy platforms holding elaborate statues of saints and scenes of crucifixion.

Lurching forward as one, they’d first lift the right foot, then the left. Their faces exhibited intense concentration, effort, and pain. Ever-so-slowly, they’d approach each alfombra… and completely destroy it.

At night, from a distance, the processions made a bizarre sight. We’d stop, transfixed. The platform hovered at a strangely ominous angle, plodding along in time to the booming drums and forlorn brass.

With its smoky incense, each procession exuded a mystical atmosphere of lumbering lament leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Over the course of its 500-year history, Antigua has been hit by several earthquakes. Many of its magnificent structures are completely broken, yet still stand.

Whatever was happening to me, was maybe happening to us all. Broken, but still here. In the presence of something greater…

This is one of my favourite pictures of myself. Terrified, sad, aging, in pain… yet grateful to be in the midst of astounding beauty, and a collective acknowledgement of the fact that nothing lasts forever. Not temples and churches, not alfombras… and maybe not even brokenness.

I was, and continue to be, especially thankful to have Andrew by my side in the midst of both good times, and trouble.

(Three weeks later, I completely lost my ability to walk, met my specialist for the first time, and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis. I’m grateful for doctors and meds that have allowed me to return to life as normal. I realize this is an incredible gift.)