I Had a Chapel Burn Down Once

courtesy of Wiki Commons

courtesy of Wiki Commons

I had a chapel burn down once.

I don’t describe myself as a particularly religious person, but I would go there sometimes when my chest felt tight and the world seemed small and the hands on my watch refused to budge. I usually made the trip after closing, when I knew all the tourists had taken their grainy pictures and the locals had bought their overpriced souvenirs.

I didn’t like going to places like these when they were filled with people; each self-proclaimed believer looking up from their prayers every once in a while just to make sure their neighbor wasn't getting enlightened before they were.

I didn't care for hymns or robes or sermons. That never resonated with me anyway. I didn’t want to ask for forgiveness and I certainly didn’t want to talk to some man in the sky who seemed intent on actively ignoring me for the past several years. I just wanted quiet and beauty and time in a place that was only mine and no one else’s.

courtesy of Wiki Commons: The interior of the chapel by Ettore "Ted" Degrazia finished in 1952

courtesy of Wiki Commons: The interior of the chapel by Ettore "Ted" Degrazia finished in 1952

They say he built this chapel with his own two hands, sombrero pulled low over his creased face, his skin thick and weathered like the cacti he loved to paint. He started with scrap metal and wood and finished with the murals that leapt out at you in a series of bright, pigmented colors. I loved to trace those images with my fingertips, imagining how he must’ve felt as he painted the walls of his own building, slowly filling them with his energy even after he was gone.

Back in his day he must have seemed invincible, swinging his brush around the canvas with wild abandon, laughing at the critics who labeled his work as kitsch. Yet, there were still people that tried to prey upon his success, following him like vultures, waiting to pick at the bones of his legacy. They told his family that they would have to pay taxes on his paintings long after he passed, but to these villains he merely grinned, riding on horseback to the top of a mountain to burn millions of his best work in protest. There were paintings that survived his massacre, but they were trapped behind thick panels of glass, available only to donors with extravagant amounts of dollars to free them.

The chapel was different.

It was kind of a haphazard building, made entirely out of the kind of adobe that shines golden in the sun and turns cloudy in the rain. The door was made up of coarse driftwood adorned with delicate metal flowers, and each petal was handcrafted as if every detail had been pulled directly out of a child’s most whimsical daydream.

When I walked in, it never felt like church. It was just a gorgeous space, lit only by the warm light of cheap candles left at the altar and a few heavy ropes of string lights. The artist had also decided to remove a huge panel of wood from the ceiling so that you could always see the stars above your head. Besides me, the only other things in that chapel were a couple of scrappy pews, a huge painting of the Lady Guadalupe, and a pile of picture frames, letters, and mementos left for people’s angels. Everything sort of makeshift and delightfully ordinary.

*******

My mother put a picture on that altar once.

A small image showing two of her students, aged eight and five years old, dressed in lamb ears, practicing for the school play. Two days before Christmas, they had been shot and killed in cold blood by their own father. My mother cried about it for days, but when she could finally see through her tears, she took them right to the chapel. I think she thought her lambs would be safe there.

I’m not sure why I connected so strongly with the chapel, but I felt safe there too. It was a sanctuary where no one could contact or touch or hurt me until I decided to leave. Everything was on my terms. So I would sit there-- not praying, because I never learned how-- but thinking and breathing and crying until I felt infinite. Until it was almost as if I could hear whispers. The ones I had given up on a long time ago.

I don’t know what I believe in anymore, but I do know that the love and comfort and warmth I felt in that chapel was real. The pain I endured when it went up in flames was real too.

I read in the newspaper that the fire burned the murals right off the walls: every color, every line, every lingering fingermark. And from the altar, every picture frame, every note, every lamb.

Losing places like these hurts. Not just the beautiful places with the history and the artwork and the grandiosity (although those are precious too), but the ones with the misshapen walls and the cobblestone floors and the scrap-metal flowers. The ones where we laugh and cry, where we dare to be lost, where we get to ask questions, where we can finally take some time.

These places are special and it’s important to mourn their loss.

Sometimes I wonder if the fire was just some sort of sick hallucination. I wonder if once city officials open those charred doors, I’ll see my sweet chapel again, warm and glowing as always. I wonder if just beyond those doors my beautiful painted murals stay shining in the sun the way he had intended, begging for the familiar touch of my fingers. I wonder if one day I’ll be able to wander in again, take my seat on the tiny makeshift pews that I loved so much, and try my hardest to listen.

I don’t hear much anymore.