A Meditation on Progress

Trapani, Sicili

Trapani, Sicili

When my friend told me that we were going to watch a Good Friday procession in her hometown, Trapani, in Sicily, I had expected a small-town, Christian version of the Macy's parade. The procession did, from a distance, look deceivingly familiar. Crowds lining the streets; flower-decked floats moving to the beat of trumpet-pumping bands. It felt like a quaint parade from Gilmore Girls, until a friend reminded me that this procession, dating back to at least five hundred years, was older than America itself.  

As I got closer, I realized that those were not people on top of the floats, but sculptures. In fact, the situation was reversed: people were actually carrying the floats. And it would be too celebratory to call them floats; they were more like hearses, as each "hearse" was a platform supporting sculptures who were re-enacting the last hours of Christ. There was Christ with a crown of thorns, mocked by Roman soldiers; there was Christ carrying the cross; there were twenty in total, each building off the next scene. And while, yes, there were local bands, the music was not peppy, but hauntingly plaintive. We were here to mourn.

What was most striking about the whole procession were not the sculptures themselves, as twisted and as beautiful as they were, but the sweating men. Dressed in suits and grunting with each lift, they would be carrying the hearses for twenty-four hours around the whole city. They were almost all men, as the hearses were extremely heavy; there were at least fifteen men to a hearse. Unlike the ancient monuments of Rome, where I had just traveled from, these hearses were living memorials. It felt like the sweaty devotion of the men were sustaining and giving life to the dead sculptures on their shoulders, particularly to the limp, dying figure of Christ.

Their walk was the most spellbinding thing about them. They swayed exaggeratedly side to side to the beat of the music, first with their left foot, then their right, then their left, as if they were buckling and tottering not just under the weight of the hearse, but also the weight of grief.

Their walk puzzled me, for I concluded that they would gain much faster ground if they straightened out their walk instead of moving so much side to side. Instead, they were roughly approximating a straight line through a series of alternating, diagonal lefts and rights, progressing only inches at a time. It was slow, it was long, and, above all, as someone coming from New York City, it was painfully inefficient.

It got worse as the men started to march the hearses, twenty-four hours later, back into the church from where they came. Each group of men would walk backwards, make it about halfway through the door of the church, only to walk back out again, repeating this back-and-forth movement multiple times before finally entering the church.

Their movements did not make much sense to me, until a few days later, when my friend’s family and I were picking our way around a fairly well-preserved Greek temple on a hill, a half-an-hour drive from their home.

"What is it like to be surrounded by all this magnificent and beautiful history? I relate to it more as an outsider, but for you guys, all of this is a part of your heritage, right?" I asked my friend’s brother.  

"Well, there can be a sense we Italians have that what is great has already been done," he says. 

"Oh, that's a bit sad. Why doesn't your heritage inspire people towards the future? To do similarly grand things?"

"Ah,” he quietly said, “but that is an American view of the future: as something controllable and within our grasp. For us, the future has always been less certain.”

 We Italians know, my friend explained later to me in the airport, of glory and decline, greatness and falling; we are well-acquainted with impermanence (Sicily has been the site of many historical invasions due to its prime location). 

It dawned on me then that the movements I witnessed on Good Friday -- the side-to-side, the back-and-forth – were perhaps a visual metaphor for the movement of progress: it inefficiently zig-zags, gains a bit of ground only to take some steps back, and mostly just takes a long time. 

It is not how we Americans like to think about progress. Progress, for us, has to be linear; this is the only narrative we know. It is how we share our testimonies in church and sing our songs: I was once lost, but now I’m found. Any dip in the line of progress sends a nervous jolt up our spines.

When I landed in New York City, a few weeks later, my phone lit up with blogs and articles by Christians wringing their hands over the future of their faith, locally after the public reaction to Indiana's RFRA act, and globally with news of the beheadings of Christians by ISIS. What will it look like to be a Christian fifty years from now? Will we become, in America, a marginalized minority within a nation that was once shaped by our beliefs? These are questions that grip us with no small amount of anxiety.  

Amidst the media hubbub, I couldn't help but thinking of the swaying men at the Good Friday procession (which is aptly named "misterios," or "mysteries"). Because they, in their inefficient and dragging motions, underscored that Good Friday and Easter forever change the way in which we conceptualize progress. If you were to graph the line of "progress" from Palm Sunday to Easter, you will see that it is not linear: it takes a major fall on Good Friday, declining steadily on Holy Saturday, before picking back up on Easter Sunday.

So, who knows what the future will hold for us Christians. But more than anyone else, we should be the most comfortable with inexplicable uncertainty and irrational curvilinearity, and thus the most free to extend charity, understanding and forgiveness. This, after all, is the storyline of our faith.