The link between elders and religion may seem obvious, but there might be more than meets the eye: something as atavistic as wanting to belong once again. Join E&M editor Alberto in finding out why.
Right in the heart of the Las Planas neighbourhood, on the outskirts of Barcelona, the bells of the Church of Carmen (full name in Catalan: “Parroquia de la Mare de Déu del Carme”) are heard on a daily. With a generational history of several decades, it is a place of humble nature where the working class of the Bajo Llobregat gathers.
For many young people from Catholic families, it was the place to celebrate baptisms, catechism classes, communions and regular masses. Accompanied by their families and usually reluctantly (as the masses took time away from games) the children, including me, were introduced to new authority figures: the priest, connoisseur of God’s legacy, and the bad conscience as a vehicle for guilt.
My eleven-year-old self sensed a heavy atmosphere in there. This was not because of the overwhelming aesthetics inside, but rather because of the silent judgement that took place, both from an omnipotent deity (Christ) and the other believers present in that room. The chamber contained contrasts: murals of religious grandeur with rococo frames clashed with the simple benches and cheap fans that, instead of fulfilling their function of preventing unnecessary fainting, emitted a shrill humming noise that numbed the few remaining healthy individuals in the room. I remember being uncomfortable: too much repentance, disproportionate redemption, the ritualisation of the act of forgiveness… Of course the analytical capacity of a pre-adolescent is not the best, but the naturalness with which he observes is worthy of consideration.
I was bored at mass, so I would evade myself by reflecting on what I was witnessing: I couldn’t help but think that the church reminded me of a theatre. I didn’t think the priest was faking his faith, far from it, but I did think the discourse felt artificial and constructed.
The parallelism did not seem so crazy, after all, the space was divided into the same areas: on one side, several one-way rows of wood (always reserved for the punctual ones who enjoyed the fervour of the stalls), and on the other, an elevated stage with decorative figures hanging from its walls. And it was precisely under the contemplation of these that the ritual in which I had lost track of time was progressing.
Suddenly, I was struck by a particular thought. Most of the people in the room were old people. People of frail physique but immovable psyche, who advanced in procession towards the hands of the priest to receive a piece of the “sacred host” with their mouths open. Precisely at that moment I was overcome by a wave of compassion, unease and regret, as I began to discern another reality of that scene.
“…as they walked in sequential order to the sacred altar, the scene increasingly resembled an elephants’ graveyard“.
They were in one of the few places where they still belonged. In a world that only has eyes for the young, these elders were victims of oblivion, and as they walked in sequential order to the sacred altar, the scene increasingly resembled an elephants’ graveyard.
That is the name given to a place where, according to legend, older elephants instinctively go when they reach a certain age. According to the myth, they die there surrounded by the skeletal remains of other elephants who also went there to die.
In our society, advertisements are not aimed at the elderly. Neither are the new clothing collections, nor the songs that are written, nor the films that are released, nor the investments that are approved. A kind of illusion is generated in the collective imagination where the “present” no longer belongs to the elderly, as if their presence had been detached from the “here and now”. In other words, as if they had already died and now only bodies would remain, holding to an invisible countdown.
In a European reality where one in three elderly people live alone and contemporary culture makes them feel forgotten (since invisibilisation is another form of exclusion), the urge to seek a shelter and a herd is natural. That is to say, a place where interaction with others confirms one’s existence.
It was there, where I understood the value of the Iglesia del Carmen in the Las Planas neighbourhood. For many of them, the content of the prayers and the supposedly consequent exercise of judgement were secondary. What really mattered was to have an excuse to leave the loneliness of home, to return to a familiar place where they could share similarities and reminisce. If someone is missing, they notice their absence. If someone gets a haircut, the others notice the change, and if they look into each other’s eyes, they exchange compliments with humour. By doing so, they participate in the purest act of communion that can exist: reminding each other that they are still alive.
Picture by Brett Sayles on Pexels