The Cathedral in Cuenca is one of my favorite places in the world. It's enormous and archaic; entirely obsolete yet overwhelmingly beautiful. It's become more of tourist attraction than a place of worship, evidenced by the fact that whenever I am in the Cathedral, there are significantly more tourists than worshipers. Outside of the main entrance are several booths set up, selling candles and rosaries and velour portraits of Jesus looking white as hell. Every time I walk into the Cathedral, I feel a hint of frustration at the culture of Catholicism here. It's a culture that takes sacred things and misappropriates them, robbing their inherent sacredness. Granted, there are plenty of strong-hearted, well-intentioned Catholics that are committed to truth and fight to bring about God's kingdom here on earth. But, the majority of Catholics that I've come into contact with here in Cuenca live out their supposed faith in a less inspiring way. People making a living off of selling kitschy Catholic junk outside of a Cathedral is one example. Everywhere I look, there is some painting of Mary or some statuette of Jesus hanging from a taxi driver's rearview mirror. There are stickers of any given saint, embellished with an exaggerated title or a cliche non-biblical assertion of faith. The icons that nominal Catholics plaster on the sides of their busses and ball caps are not used as an expression of where there hope lies, or the truth that has entered into their very souls and totally reoriented the way they see themselves, God, and the people around them. No, they're good luck charms. That picture of Jesus or that statuette of Mary are supposed to keep them safe, to protect them from the inherent dangers of being human. My Jesus, the bringer of life, becomes a circus clown; no more sacred than the statue of Abraham whose nose has been rubbed raw or the 3rd base line that ball players jump over. It's a parody.
I was reminded today, walking past the Cathedral doors, of the story in Matthew 21 et. al. about when Jesus went to the temple, only to find the courtyard full of vendors trying to make a living off of the incoming pilgrims who had come to worship in Jerusalem. It seems justified at first glance; this temple that is sacred and holy was being taken advantage of. However, The people selling their animals (and probably trinkets and souvenirs) most likely didn't mean any harm. There were strict guidelines that God himself had outlined as far as what animals were required to make sacrifices at the temple. The vendors were providing a necessary service that resulted in proper worship of the God that created them. Plus, I'd imagine that their culture had slowly begun to accept this type of commerce more and more over the centuries, to the point where it probably wasn't seen as malicious or wrong to set up shop just outside of the temple doors. But still, Jesus goes nuts on these people, flipping over their tables and shouting at them. He's enraged,"'My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” That's a harsh accusation. I was confounded by the scenario; why would Jesus be so angry?
But, after some deliberation, I realized something. It's clear that Jesus is upset not because of what they're doing, but where they are doing it. The temple is sacred, it is the very house of the living God. The vendors in the courtyard were taking advantage of the commercial opportunity that it presented. They were using it for something other than what it was intended for. More so, they were using it for their own financial gain. That made me think about the things in my daily life that Jesus would consider sacred. My family, friends, food, writing, reading, poetry, beer, nature, mountains, etc. all came to mind. Here's why: just like the Temple, these and the other gifts that God blesses us with have an intended purpose. They are meant to be experienced as they are, for no other purpose than their inherent goodness. This is what I've come to understand sacredness to mean: a thing that is good, in and of itself. I feel like we are very bad, as a culture and society, at enjoying things for what they are. I'm guilty of this as well. We use beer for the alcohol; nature for the Facebook profile picture, reading for the admiration of other people. We take a thing that is good and we take advantage of the opportunity it presents. This, above all, is why I understand Jesus to have flipped those tables. Not admiring and appreciating the inherent goodness of something that God has called "good" is a travesty, it cheapens it until it has no value at all. Our Cathedrals become tourist attractions, our mountains become overrun and littered, our music becomes contrived, uninspired jingles. We lose our culture, our values, our ability to appreciate and recognize truth and beauty. It's happened here, in the convoluted and corrupted practice of cultural Catholicism, and it breaks my heart. My heart craves silence, to sit and enjoy God's blessings for their inherent beauty, and to abandon my expectation of personal, financial, or social gain for which I pursue these things. I'm willing to try. Who's with me?