opinions about life, work, and spirituality

Travel Highlights 12: San Ignacio Mini (Guarani Missions)

October 17th, 2007

It’s cold, incredibly cold in this tiny rundown town. But the sky is cloudless, with the most intense light filled blue I can ever recall seeing. We bundle up, tread over to the former Guarani Missions, the reason for our visit in this is poor, run down town. We stop on our way to the missions at a grocery store, which is barely stocked. The wooden floor wilts, and the concrete walls are gouged and pockmarked. The only produce here is green tinged bananas, hardy apples and long, thick carrots displayed on a dilapidated wooden shelf. Mostly there are bags of prepackaged buns and crackers, cookies and pasta. Children with grubby, patched sweatpants and frayed, holey sweaters play a game on the edge of the dirt road beside us that involves tossing and collecting coins. Nothing much seems to happen in this town.

With biscuits in hand, we make our way to the Missions. In the early 1600’s, Spanish Jesuit priests came to the “new world” of South America and sought to win souls for Jesus. The Spanish crown hoped to use the Jesuits to keep the natives under control in their imperial bounty. The Jesuits refused to be a political ploy, however. They built “missions”, little villages in which the native Guarani peoples sought protection from the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who would blithely force them into slavery. The Jesuits formed a kind of monastic community within these missions, while still allowing the Guarani to maintain their culture.

The Guarani people were deeply artistic and nature-oriented. Thus, the missions became places of unique artistic productivity, with work that reflected both the Guarani nature-culture and the more “sophisticated” European sensibilities the Jesuits imported. The missions are a fascinating piece of history in which community, art and worship coincide. They were by no means perfect; by post-modern standards, imperialistic towards the Guarani people. And yet the missions maintained the integrity of both the Jesuit priests, who sought to bring people to Christ, and the Guarani, who wanted simply to live as they had for years; artistically and naturally. If anything, the missions were pragmatic – the Jesuits found their souls to save and the Guarani were protected from invasive colonists and able to live as close to their traditional ways as possible.

Yet, to see the magnificent genre-defying sculpture and to listen to the pure, rythmic music, and to know that there was dancing and performances that came from this blending of two cultures is to know that something else was at work; something beautiful, in which there is conversation rather than dictation, choice rather than oppression, and art rather than war. In short, something Godly.

The missions themselves are now nothing more than crumbling walls with glorious facades and appealing tile-work. They are a place for contemplation. Set among leafy trees, sweetly pipping birds, jewel green grass and vivid robin’s egg blue sky, the broken missions are fully peaceful. As we stroll through the grass, we step upon crunchy leaves, left over from autumn, and the smell of things both growing and rotting is a wonderfully satisfying perfume. Everything is fresh, still, and yet there is movement. Some of the former homes of the Guarani people are full of velvety light green clover which forms a carpet where once there were stone floors. Birds make their nests in the wrinkling orifices of the mission church, and fleet in and out.

We leave the missions tranquil. As we walk the dirt streets and kick up stones in our pathway, I imagine this town as it might have been years ago; a place to meet friends, a place to make art and, in doing so, a place to worship God.