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The Chicken Church: No Photos Allowed.

church of Chamula
San Juan de Chamula

I entered through the huge wooden, bright green trimmed, doors and discovered a thousand candles, all lit and shimmering, many pencil thin and on the floor. They were held in place by a bit of dripped wax. I watched as one man reverently  melted wax onto the pine needle covered tile and then stuck the bottom of each of his candles into it and held it for a minute until it stood fast. It was like he was building a bon fire made from white, black, and green candles all dancing flames in unison responding to an unseen wind.

NOTE: Only the photo of the green and white church is the actual church. All other photos are from another similar church in the same town where we were allowed to take photos. It gives you an idea of what we saw.

I skirted the fiery blaze carefully lest my skirts be devoured by the tiny flames. (The candles in the photo here are in holders but the ones in the church were directly on the floor.)

candles on an altar.

Everywhere, on every surface, the small yellow lights danced. On low tables, high altars, in front of dolls of saints encased in ornate wooden boxes with glass panels, and of course all over the floor, leaving only a narrow path for walking. Strewn all over the floor covering a large part of the white time, was a carpet of fresh, deep green pine needles. Several men were sweeping it up and replacing it all over the room. The scent of woody, sap-rich pine filled the air.

And then there were the flowers. A multitude of fresh blossoms, a riot of colored daisies, lilies in white and orange and pink, delicate baby’s breath, rich yellow sunflowers, tiny roses in purple, orange, pink, and white, thick palm leaves, and a variety of silvery greenery that I could not identify. Never have I seen such a rich tapestry of flowers. The cascaded over tables and sacred altar spaces, wrapped around the images and figures of saints, and filled every avabile space. The surrounding countryside produces blooms in abundance and I could see the farmers must have donated whole rows of nodding blossoms. There is simply no way so many flowers could be purchased. Not even in very expensive areas in fancy high end churches have I seen a display. All other arrangements pale in comparison.

flowers in a church
Flowers around a saint

The ceiling was black with soot.

The air was smokey and sweet.

There were no chairs no pews set for weary heated seekers to sit and worship. Families sat together on the floor in the pine bows or milled around carefully avoiding fires in the same manner as me.

The ceremonies observed by these lovely, dark skinned Tzolzil people, were of origins both ancient and powerful. For on the floor, sacrifices were being offered, filled with faith, for the healing of people, mind, body, and soul.

As I witnessed the flowers, the candles, the outpouring of hope and faith, I could not help but sob, tears streaming down my cheeks. I tried to be quiet and reverent, but the power I witnessed was overwhelming. This was not your average Catholic Church, and although Catholic saints adorned the walls, the practices were much older.

You see, San Juan de Chamula is a town under its own government and traditions. It enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. The people still practice the old ways. They govern themselves and hold to ancient beliefs. And within the walls of the church, these beliefs are evident. Careful respect of visitors is required. No photos are allowed. You could easily end up in jail for disregarding this policy and most certainly would be required to pay a heavy fine.

The sacredness of practice within the walls of the holy place is not taken lightly. And I was undone by the feelings that rush through me, the privilege of being able to stand there and witness powerful, heartfelt, hopeful, desperate, perhaps even dark magic was at play. What some might see as dark, others see as powerful and healing. Be careful of the judgments you make. Power is a difficult thing to understand. It has its own way.

There is a reason I refer to this magical place as the Chicken Church. And perhaps that is an irreverent name. Most likely, yes. Nevertheless, it is descriptive and accurate. For chicken play an important role in this place. They relinquish their lives, willingly or not, so that others might find wholeness.

Yes, this is a place of animal sacrifice, offerings, and magic. And I was honored to witness it.

A man sat on his knees amidst the pine needles, a row of slender candles tenuously stuck to the floor in a line in front of him, their tiny flames flickering in the half light. An elderly woman sat with him firmly holding a brown feathered chicken in her hands. She rubbed it over his body moving from head to knees on first one side and then the other. The live bird struggled in her capable hands but was held fast.

Then in a flowing movement she pulled the neck of the chicken until it was taught and deftly took the life from the bird in exchange for the health of the young man. She then handed the bird to another woman who was sitting beside her. The other woman took the bird and held it firmly on the floor to keep it from flailing in the throes of death. All this was done amidst a flowing of prayers in the local language, Tzolzil.

After the death of the chicken had been accomplished, the older women took white rum in her mouth and spit it on the candles, causing flames to leap into the air. The praying continued as she took a small cup of Electrolit, a purchased electrolyte drink, and threw that too over the line of candles standing like soldiers at attention in their line. The rise and fall of her voice seemed to echo the rising of the flames to their liquid offerings.

When the ceremony was finished, the candles were allowed to burn completely until their wax dripped into a pool of black, green, and white on the floor. I slowly walked away and made my way in a circuitous route around the church until I circled back to them to see a man using a wooden scraper to lift the wax from the floor. He carefully cleaned the area in preparation for the next ceremony, the next offering, or perhaps just so that others like me would not slip and fall as they made their way through the flowered and forested church.

I was loathe to leave the spiritually alive and beautifully adorned building, but of course it finally was time for me to leave. As I walked back out into the sunshine, I bust into a fresh bout of tears. There are things, powerful things, we do not understand. But I saw so much love and hope in that place. I left my own candle offering and then in the square I bought beaded bracelets from local vendors as a remembrance of my time in that place. Too many bracelets perhaps, but I am happy to could carry the energy home with me. After all, love and magic work together to bring healing and it is this I brought home with me, held carefully in my heart and now also displayed with affection on my wrists.

Much love, hope, and withholding of the need for understanding,
















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