Saul of T.’s City: São Paolo, Brazil, January, 2007


São Bento Monastery offers old-time Catholicism, monks singing and incense burners swinging. My husband and I went to hear the Gregorian chant that opens the 10 a.m. Sunday mass. We wound up staying for the whole thing. Too many people were standing behind us by the time mass began. It would have been awkward to leave.

Sunday at São Bento shows you that Sao Paulo has one of the largest Japanese communities in the world. There were many people of Japanese descent, along with those with ancestors from Portugal, Africa, Germany and all of the other places that contributed to São Paulo.
My husband and I first visited São Paolo’s Japanese center, Liberdade, a few days earlier. Near the Liberdade subway station is a shop catering to Brazil’s homegrown religions. These mix Catholicism with Africa’s Yoruban gods, and add in homage paid to Brazil’s native tribes and slaves. David encouraged me to look in the shop, knowing how these things interest me. He also pointed out that the clerk at the counter was wrapping purchases with the newspaper of the Japanese-Brazilian community.

There were statues of Yoruban gods and their Catholic counterparts. Oshun, the lady of the rivers, is allied with a version of the Virgin Mary, known as the lady of Caridad del Cobre. Associated with love and beauty, she’s always seemed a bit like the Roman Venus and Greek Aphrodite to me. The religion of the Egyptian pharaohs had a goddess of luxury and beauty, Hathor. In Hinduism, there is the goddess Laxmi. You can find the same overlap with gods and saints intended to look after mothers, warriors and poets. There are certain things humans pay attention to across cultures and time.

At São Bento, the mass turned from the rote sections that are the same each time, to the readings from the Bible, which change. With hundreds of Sunday masses logged in my childhood, I’d followed much of the service from memory. Not the readings. It frustrated me to catch some words with my very limited Portuguese, while missing the gist of the reading.
The young woman standing next to me had a bulletin with the reading printed out in Portuguese. I tried to follow along, looking over her shoulder from a distance. She noticed and held up the bulletin so that I, about half a foot taller, could read along.
It was St. Paul was writing to the Corinthians. It struck me that São Paolo is named for this man, born Saul of Tarsus, who lived about the time of Christ. I hadn’t thought about that anymore on this visit anymore than I had when connecting through Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on flights in recent years.
This was St. Paul who wrote in a letter to the Corinthians that love is patient, love is kind. That reading never fails to move me at weddings. It was the only reading I included in our own, performed by a Presbyterian preacher wearing a guayabera on a Yucatan beach.
I’d never considered before that someone sat down and wrote these lines. Paul was a man, trained as a rabbi who later worked as a tentmaker to earn a living. He is credited with helping making Christianity a worldwide religion. He lobbied for widening participation in the new religion, opening it up to people outside of Judaism.
I’m not a practicing Catholic, partly because I can’t accept that there is just one right way of looking for God. Yet, that Sunday, it amazed me to think of millions of people all over the world hearing and reflecting on the same teaching of Paul. The Catholic mass follow a set list of readings, so people around the world were thinking of Paul this Sunday. Add to that all of the other Christian services where his writing might me mentioned. Imagine what that would be in terms of something like an Amazon ranking, 2,000 years on the most read list.
The mass reached the point where the people greet each other. At mass in the U.S., people shake hands. In Brazil, they hug.
I turned first to the girl who shared her bulletin with me. I greeted her with my poor Portuguese, saying probably the equivalent of how “Thank you for to share” would sound in English.
“Nada,” she said, the Portuguese word for nothing, which is used as “you’re welcome.” She patted my arm. “‘Nada.”
I felt as though I’d just heard my favorite lines from Corinthians.

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