June 21, 2024
Our Religious Experience

Not long after eight Austrian Muslims were arrested for noisily praying in Córdoba’s famous “Mosque-Cathedral,” my mother tried the same thing

By Symonne Torpy

Attending church can be a religious experience. Bound to the pew, even the most zealous Christian will escape into passages of glassy-eyed, frankincense-induced delirium. It’s a place for people-watching, where the women in mink coats are as weathered as the flooring, and it’s easy to spot the young — conspicuously
in bloom, and invariably shackled to infirm relatives. Reading and rereading gospels induces divine syncope.

The art, and the extravagant grilles and monstrances, continue to bewitch, long after the fantasies of written Edens, Immaculate Conception and resurrection have lost their luster.

Cathedrals litter Spain. Once envisioned as synagogues or raised as mosques, they were conquered by the Catholics and converted into sites of Christian worship.

At the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba, the three monotheistic faiths found peace, for a time, and worshiped together. Still intact, it’s a relic of that lost era of concord.

The head of security at the Mezquita could have been handsome, but there was something incongruous about his assembly. It was as if his face had fallen, perfect and complete, through the floor of one designer’s sluice box, and been stitched to a body that had sprouted from a more practical vision of humanity. The Italian chisel had met the German production line. Deo Design and Construction: under new management. Fuck aestheticism, we’re building human Volvos to get you through an age of terrorism.

And terrorism was indeed what this man was fighting. More specifically, he was fighting my mother the jihadist — all five foot two inches of her, clad in brown boots and corduroys, toting a hot pink beret. So moved had she been by the emotional tenor of the place that she had decided to perform a full Islamic prostration, kneeling to the ground and bowing her head to the stone floor in the direction of Mecca.

The head of security’s reaction to this display could have come from a dramatic reading of the “Da Vinci Code.” Crossing himself and rushing to mother’s side, he urgently whispered into his walkie-talkie. The word “Musulmán” was launched into the dusty, silent space, amid a rapid patter of Spanish.

“No hablo español,” my mother interjected.

“This forbidden in Spain. No Musulmán. This forbidden. You cannot do this!”

Mother’s expression changed from fear to indignation.

Ever the star of international diplomacy, I scanned my limited Spanish vocabulary for helpful phrases:

Cuanta cuesta? How much?
Poquito Little
Rápido Fast
Caliente Hot
Muchas gracias Many thanks

Listing them here makes me realize that I am ridiculously well prepared for a sexual encounter in a Spanish-tongued city. But for a run-in with an authority of the conservative Catholic Spanish church? Not so much.

“Musulmán, Musulmán!” the guard repeated, and we were soon surrounded by five other guards, large rifles slung conspicuously over their thickset shoulders. French, English and limited Spanish
melted awkwardly together as mother accepted her God-appointed duty to educate the guards in the singular root of monotheistic faith. She was back at St. Leos Catholic College, before her classroom of teenage boys. She would get through to them. She would singlehandedly herald a renewed world order of religious harmony!

After a long struggle with her increasingly impatient audience, she realize she was failing. In a desperate attempt to avoid being expelled from the cathedral, she pointed to her ring, rosary-beaded and purchased in Rome. It was a symbol, she argued, of her Christian devotion.

Security guard defensive mode evolved into deep confusion. Mother was begrudgingly restored to the status of odd tourist. We walked around for a time, then exited into the sun.

We Crash a Mass
The next morning brought a new resolve to the heart of my implacable parent. She would not depart from the land of the Mezquita without partaking of the Blessed Sacrament at the Bishop’s New Year’s Day mass. She wished to enter the center of worship, which had been cordoned off and secured for the midday

Sashaying up to our best friend, the head of security, she raised her voice an octave:

“Je suis proffessorio! I am proffessorio de religion!” She pointed to her rosary ring.

“I am the same as you. Same Christian.” By this stage he had realized, like most people who try to argue with my mother, that his only real option was to acquiesce. His team would maintain maximum readiness –alert, and most importantly, heavily armed.

“No bow,” he repeated. “Musulmán forbidden. It is wrong here.”

We quietly passed through the barrier, and mother dropped to her knees in solemn prayer. She prayed for the miraculous healing of his intellectual hebetude.

Symonne Torpy lives and writes in Sydney, Australia.

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