Monday, 15 April 2013

Ajayu in Aymara Spirituality

Catholicism was thrust upon the Aymara and Quechua of modern-day Bolivia, and fused with their existing Andean belief system.  Evangelicals are, rightly, critical of the syncretism that has resulted.  But did Evangelicalism in Latin America make more of a clean break with paganism, or are Protestants just less able to see the more insipid remnants of a pre-Christian worldview?

In Aymara anthropology, all humans have ajayu.  It's an aura or spiritual well-being.  And it's very, very fragile.  Ajayu can be lost when a child falls over, or when we receive a shock.  Fear of losing ajayu can lead to overprotection and obsession about what might happen.  The treatment, as far as I observed, is lots of kisses and hugs and stacks of blankets, warm drinks and more hugs and kisses.

In an attempt to preserve ajayu, pagos are offered to Pachamama and the myriad apus, or mountain spirits.  These might be sweets, amulets, confetti or the first sips of a beer poured onto the ground.  While Pachamama works through nature to nourish and maintain balance, the apus are mischievous and capricious.  So, Aymara spirituality is essentially pessimistic: pagos don't so much bring good luck as, hopefully, avert bad luck by appeasing malevolent spiritual forces who are all too ready to mess with your ajayu.

(From here on, I promise not to introduce any more Aymara words.)

Western visitors are often confused by Andean culture, close in many ways to the fun-loving stereotype of Latin America, yet imbued with a disarming pathos just under the surface. 

Fiesta-filled it might be, care-free it's not: there's a palpable sense of worry.  Worry of catching an illness via bare feet, worry that a change in weather will bring on a cold, worry that you'll get an infection from eating raw fruit or salad, and worry about travel to the next city.

If you saw the roads, you'd worry too, and in many ways it's no bad thing to think twice about eating lettuce from a street cart vendor.  But when worry takes over, it can become an immobilizing force, we get overprotective and give ourselves ulcers.

Fear can be as devastating to our ajayu as anything an apu could do to us. 

In rural Potosí, I once met a man about 35 who looked about 60.  He was depressed, gaunt, with no appetite or energy.  This Christian man from a local Protestant church was brought for prayer by his family, all convinced that the apus had cursed him and weakened his ajayu.  Now this is the thing, maybe that was the case, I don't know.  But the fear looked to me to be what was crippling him and them.

Everyone prayed, including the man's family.  And the prayer went something like, 'Papito bendito celestial - blessed heavenly daddy - hold him, and keep him, and guard him, and protect him ... from all harm, and all injury, all assaults of the devil, all attacks by demons, ...'.  Synonyms piled high.  No eventuality left out that could be thought of.

Because if God is like the apus, he might take delight in spotting a hole in the prayer.  Aha, you prayed that you'd arrive at your destination, but you didn't say alive!  Or well!  

Folk religion seems to develop everywhere, not just the Bolivian Highlands.  I didn't publish this blog before because I didn't want to be critical of the Bolivian church.  But it's common to the worldwide church; it's just more exotic to me as a European that this one incident happened in Potosí.

I suppose you don't have to travel to the Andes to find pagan influence on Christian thought.

And I suppose, too, that just as the Catholic Church is still hard at the job they started following the Conquista, Anglican and other Protestant churches have to learn patience on the mission field.  These things don't change overnight.

But what a job for the missionary in highland Bolivia.  To foster trust in God, unlike the capricious apus, and to toil in prayer unlike the pagan pagos.  To teach, and learn, to be optimistic.  To deliver from fear.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"
(Matt. 7, 7ff)

The wasps are angry. They know they're dying.

I lifted my coffee and put the small change in a tip jar.  Held by one hand, the cup rattled nervously on the saucer.  Better use two.  Coffee swirled across the lip as I turned around. 

Behind me, a woman in an electric wheelchair had just come in.  Her torso was upright and her arms only just mobile, a finger poised over a toggle button.  I felt embarrassed.  I clasped my arms to my body, coffee cup right by my chest, and pressed myself against chairs behind me to let her past.  Damn it, the chairs scraped the floor.

"Go on ahead," she said warmly, in a raspy voice.  "You'll get through easier than me."  Her neck didn't move as she looked up at me, and I saw lots of white in her eyes.  She had a slight frame and fine features, her hair long and straight and blonde.  The corners of her mouth flickered into a smile.

"Oh thanks," I said, and went to sit down.

This woman manoeuvred herself neatly to a table near mine, facing the wall where I saw her clearly.

"Usual is it, Heather?"  

The waitress walked over, put a hand on Heather's shoulder, turned and softened her knees to see her customer's face.  Heather nodded, barely perceptibly.  The waitress was off, busied herself behind the counter, foamed milk, cut a slice of pie, wrapped a fork in a paper napkin.

"Now.  There you are, love."  She took Heather's hand and set it around the napkin-clad fork.  "Two sugars, isn't it?"  She knew really, she didn't wait for an answer before tearing a sachet and tipping in the contents.  Heather's eyes strained over her shoulder in recognition.

I set my own cup down into its saucer.

Heather looked at hers.

"And there you go, pet," said the waitress, and popped a straw into the frothy cup, giving it a stir.  "Watch, now, it's hot."

With her wrist, Heather pushed the fork forward.  She concentrated on opening up the napkin with a forefinger.  Third time, it worked.  Then, she grabbed at the fork several times before she managed to clutch it up with all five fingers.

And so, slowly, she transported a piece of pie, just a few crumbs really, to her mouth and ate it.  She sucked as much as she chewed, obviously concentrating on the motion all the while.  When she stopped, she leaned forward for a sip of coffee through the straw.

A man walked in, late forties maybe, shiny shoes and a purple V-neck.  He was waving a newspaper all around him.

"Latte, please love, when you get a wee minute."  And he sat down by the window and opened his paper.  I noticed now why he's been waving it, a wasp had followed him in and was buzzing about his head.  Now reading, he flailed his arms.  The wasp careened past his ear and made him flinch.

Now it swooped past me and towards Heather.  It flew once around her head and landed in her long hair.  I noticed now it was greying blonde.  She put down her fork gently and took a sip of coffee.  The wasp flew off, circled her once, and landed back in the same spot, like it wanted the recognition it didn't get the first time.  It flew down onto the pie, danced about a bit, and flew across the room and out of sight.

Heather just sat there, and I didn't know if I should say anything.

The waitress appeared our side of the counter again, and carried a latte to the man who'd brought the wasp in.  It followed in her wake.

"There's that wee bugger after you again, love.  This place is wild for wasps, isn't it?"  He went to roll up his paper.

"End of the warm weather," replied the waitress.  "They're angry this time of year."

He slowly rolled up the sports section and raised it above his head.  He sat motionless, only his pupils moving right and left, tracking the wasp as it teased him.  It flew right past his ear.  He winced.  It flew round a single white flower on the table.  It skimmed right across the top of his latte, centimetres from it.

It landed on the table.


He missed, the flower and vase fell over.  He started waving his paper again like mad.  The wasp went wild.

He got up stealthily, ready to strike.  He raised the paper slowly.  Slowly.

Slam.  He hit the wall.  I couldn't see the wasp now, but I could hear it, all over the place, one end of the cafe to the next in a second.  He couldn't see it either - he cocked his head, motionless but for eyes flitting here and there.

"Shit!" he yelled.  "The bugger stung me!"

And it flew straight out the door.  The man's face was puce, he was holding the back of his hand tight, his cheeks swelled like balloons and neck veins bulged with him trying to keep further curses in.  He released his breath roughly and the redness calmed.

He sat down again.  He looked at the waitress, then at Heather, and at me.  He unrolled his sport section and started to read.

"Mister, do you want some lemon juice?  Or is it baking soda?  I can never remember which is for bees and which is for wasps."

"Leave it, darling, it'll be OK."

He read the sport.  The waitress wiped the counter with a cloth.  I looked at Heather.

She took another bite of pie.  It took her a long time to swallow it.  She sucked some coffee through a straw,  and she choked a little.

Heather saw me staring and smiled warmly.  I tried to look away, I felt my cheeks burn.

"It's the end of September," she said softly.  "The wasps are angry.  They know they're dying."

Her hand trembled a little as she put down the fork.

Easter baking

Sarah was really good all Lent and didn't eat any chocolate, so we needed a chocolate-free Easter treat for Saturday and a chocolately reward for Sunday.  So here are the results ...

Christus Victor Cake
I love simnel cake but nobody else I know seems to.  So here's a compromise between simnel cake's lovely marzipan top and a traditional Victoria sponge.  Watch you don't overdo the raspberry jam.  A Victoria sponge isn't the most macho of things to make, so I decided to butch it up and call it a Christus Victor cake ... but then I added some marzipan flowers.

I'm not going to claim credit for the basic recipe, it's Mary Berry's which you can find at  However, I prefer to cream the sugar and butter, and then add the eggs, and then the dry ingredients, for a nice smooth mixture.  Sandwich together with whipped cream and raspberry jam.

On top, spread a little warmed apricot jam, and place a circle rolled out marzipan - as thick as you like!

Chocolately Hot Cross Buns
We made these gluten free, using Dove's Farm gf self-raising flour and adding a teaspoonful of xanthan gum for good measure.  They are not as hard to make as you might think.  I'd need to experiment with some vitamin C powder to try and improve the structure, as the gf version came out a bit dense.

2 x 7g sachets dried yeast
3½ cups plain flour (if gluen-free, add 1 tsp xantham gum)
½ cup cocoa powder
½ tsp mized spice
1/4 cup caster sugar
350ml lukewarm milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sultanas
¾ cup good quality chocolate chips
½ cup currants

Crosses and glaze:
½ cup plain flour, extra
1/3-½ cup water, extra
apricot jam, strained and warmed

  1. Combine the sifted flour, cocoa and mixed spice with the yeast and sugar in a large bowl. Add warm milk and eggs to flour mixture. Use a flat-bladed knife to mix until dough almost comes together. Add fruit and chocolate. Use clean hands to finish mixing to form soft dough.
  2. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Return to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave in warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
  3. Punch down dough to its original size. Knead until smooth then divide into 12, shape each portion into a ball, then place onto a greased tray about 1 cm apart. Cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until buns double in size.
  4. For the crosses: Mix extra flour and water together in a small bowl until smooth, adding a little more water if paste is too thick. Spoon into a small resealable bag. Snip off 1 corner of bag. Pipe flour paste over tops of buns to form crosses. Bake in a moderately hot oven 190°C for 20-25 minutes or until cooked when tested. Glaze with strained apricot jam.  Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Door Marked 'Yes'

So, for a few years now I've been wondering what to do next.  In my twenties, there seemed to be no limits - I could be a teacher, and a missionary, and be involved in politics, and write, and do a PhD, and and and and

but.  Then I was around the 30 mark, when we realize maybe every door opened means another several doors are closed.  Because we have finite time and energy.

And all the time there was this little voice niggling.  Train as a priest.  Or presbyter, pastor, whatever you want to call it.

'But I don't really know what ordination is for!'  I protested.  I can do all the things I enjoy without being ordained.

And ordained people have to kind of toe the church line - theologians can get away with more, they have more freedom to say what they want!

It's too hard, too expensive to go back to study, too big a commitment ...

My motives aren't completely clear.  I think I want to study theology full-time, I'm not sure it's entirely unselfish ...

There were a million reasons not to.  And yet here I am.  The Bishop has given the green light for me to train towards ordained ministry in the Church of Ireland.

It has been a long process.  First, I had to take the brave step of telling another human being - how do you tell someone you feel called to ordained ministry?  What if they laugh, what if they tell others?  What if they burst out, 'what you?!'.

Then there were the initial chats, with clergy and others, about motivation - why? why now? why me? why this?

And then the Foundation Course, the gist of a theology degree by distance learning over a year.  Church and Ministry; Biblical Studies; and perhaps scariest off all, Matrix of Christian Theology.  At some points I expected men in black coats (or indeed white coats) to offer me the red pill if I wanted out, to wake up and remember nothing.

And more recently, the Bishops' Selection Conference.  Two days at the beautiful Dromantine, where it really is pitch black when you switch the lights out, in the middle of rural County Down, with 16 other hopefuls, three bishops, and panels of other clergy and lay people.  Lots of personal questions and a few curve balls, and unhealthy consumption of coffee as we all waited to hear from others as they emerged from interviews.

Ordination is one of those things I don't think I'll ever understand.  It's enigmatic: as soon as you think you have it figured out, what it is and why, it eludes you again.  But after all these years, after all the recent study and discernment, man did I want it!

The process has been a great one.  By this point, if it had been a 'no' I'd have been gutted.  Which says a lot really.