My senses are completely overpowered by the mix of perfumes as I step outside the church in Arona. Incense is familiar. In the cooling evening air of Tenerife’s foothills it mixes with woody rosemary and the sharp, musky scent of wild fennel. It’s a potent combination and it attacks my eyes and nose. The altar boy was a tad over-enthusiastic in swinging the thurible.
The advantage of coming to Arona, the pretty village at the heart of the island’s third largest municipality, this Sunday evening to witness the Corpus Christi procession, as opposed to going to the more famous towns, like Orotava or La Laguna, is that it’s small and local and it feels more friendly and less spectacular….. personal opinion – big religious occasions are too much theater ….. speaking as both a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Protestant. It’s the type of Catholic festival which makes me twitchy in its reverence of ritual and dogma, as opposed to anything which Jesus Christ actually instructed his followers to do. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my childhood. I used to think about things like that a lot once. I don’t any longer. So it’s as easy to stand back and observe a Christian celebration as a cultural event now, as it is to observe something much more foreign to my personal experience.
Corpus Christi’s origins are dubious to say the least. First off, you have to believe in transubstantiation. I found that a stretch even when I was receiving instruction to become a Catholic in my late teens, but I thought the belief might come with time, so I went along with it. It didn’t. Second, even if you do believe in it, would Christ have been ok with the construction of all these elaborate and costly “homes” made for “him” (and that is not an opening for Catholic vs Protestant debate!)? Lastly, even if you can get over the first two points you have to admit that the whole notion of visions and mystics is questionable, no? A 12th century nun, Juliana of Liège claimed to have had visions for twenty years……without telling anybody!…..visions of Jesus telling her that he needed another feast day- to celebrate his body. Or could it have been that the Church needed another gimmick to bind an ignorant congregation closer?
Ah, so you see, I come to this festival skeptical – but admiring of the art work involved. The custom of creating beautiful carpets from flowers, sand, salt and plants seems to have thrived in the Canary Islands like nowhere else. There are various claims that it actually began here in Tenerife, but often those claims also say “in the Middle Ages,” and since the island wasn’t conquered until 1496 (and the other islands not that long before) that can’t be true. The festival was first celebrated in 1246 – in Belgium – so perhaps that’s where the confusion arises. There are famous versions in Sitges on the mainland, throughout South and Central America (although not always for Corpus Christi, but other religious dates) and even, I just found out, in Arundel in England, but the Canarian ones are often refered to as the originals.
Whatever the global truth, the tradition in Tenerife did begin in La Orotava, but many municipalities also decorate the streets around their parish church, notably La Laguna, the island’s original capital city, and, in the South, Arona and Adeje . They use flowers and petals bought from commercial growers, flowers and plants culled from the local countryside, and colored salts and sand. Conservation laws protect rock and sand in most places, but more of that tomorrow.
So, Sunday night, I wander Arona’s hilly streets admiring the creativity and passion which has gone into making these works of art, and there is no doubt that’s what they are. I arrive around 6pm when the work is all finished and the air scented only with the wild fennel which had been used as background in many of the displays, and so I am able to stroll peacefully. My favorite, below, is remarkable in the way it catches the light and shadow on the faces of Mary and Jesus, just as any artist using oils or watercolors would have done.
After taking dozens of snaps on the quiet streets, I meet up with my friend, Pilar, and as luck would have it, she kn0ws the artists who have made this gorgeous display, and so we are able to congratulate them in person. Stupidly I don’t write down their names, but this is the team of four it took to produce this, and, yes, those cotton-candy clouds in the background are reflecting a stunning sunset this night.
We talk about the planning of it, and they show me photos of the creation at different stages. I’m surprised that it had been only a few weeks in the planning and not months, but the thing which intrigues me most is how they feel about the ephemerality of their work. After all, it’s back-breaking, bending over a pavement for an entire day, sculpting salt and sand, and by sunset it’s destroyed, as the procession of Corpus Christi passes over it. It is, it occurred to me, the same thing Buddhists do in creating mandalas. All four of them have broad smiles when they tell me that, well, that’s the tradition, and they accept it. The enjoyment is in the creation and its longevity isn’t important.
It’s a curious thing, isn’t it? I understood that about mandalas, but never really thought about these carpets in the same way. The other difference would be that a mandala is deliberate and educational, whereas this, so far as I know, isn’t intentionally instructional. The lesson is the same though – life is transient, nothing lasts forever. We have to learn to let go, to move on, to understand impermanence. It’s a hard one, especially because most artists (whether of brush, camera, pen or whatever) are hoping to create something lasting.
We stroll back around to the church after chatting, and meet up briefly with my friend Val, who is singing in a choir which will acknowledge the return of the body to the church after the procession. Arona’s church square is a charming place even on a workday. The town hall sits at right angles to the church, and this night both are decorated befitting the celebration. Small children run around, narrowly missing spoiling the main carpets, as their parents chat in groups, waiting for the beginning of the procession. Little girls in first communion dresses emerge shyly from the church, and the town band shuffles into place, and we move over to the door to watch, and then follow its slow amble along the streets. You’ll find it odd, after all I just said, that I hesitate to take photos. No-one else is doing at that point, and whilst I don’t share the beliefs of the villagers, I do respect their right to follow whatever they believe, and extend that respect to not intruding.
And so we watch as the priest stops to pray at particular spots, as the altar boy chokes us all in his enthusiasm, as neighbors shower petals from upstairs windows, and as dozens of feet shuffle over the stunning blue and white carpet I’d admired so much.
OK I get the symbolism of this, its brief life has reached its climax and is over, but why do the brats of the village have to follow on, kicking at designs, scratching up branches and flowers and larking about? Why is no-one stopping them? I glance at the group who’d made my favorite design. They are laughing at the boys’ antics. Me, I want to cry. Their efforts seem worth so much more. Then as the sweet notes of the choir filter down from the church square I think I understand.
All that creativity, and passion, and talent isn’t ephemeral at all. All of that can be encompassed in one word – love. In making their masterpiece they launched all of that out into the universe, they didn’t hoard it selfishly, and now a little of that lives in me too, and in everyone who saw and admired their work, and perhaps even in folk who weren’t even there. We can’t see or touch these things, but we can express them in our lives and work. This is why we should do whatever we do with passion, and do the best we can do in everything, and be the best we can be.