When in Rome

They brought this statue to my husband’s plaster molding company to be repaired and of course it was immediately handed to the family artist (me). Painting fake blood and gore onto a gently smiling statue is truly surreal.

It was a particularly nasty work-related accident. One of our best friends had cut himself on both his arm and his belly with a granite sander. We were all worried, and glad to hear that he was Ok. This was the text I sent to his wife: “That goodness he’s Ok. God bless. You two have been in our thoughts and prayers.” Pretty nondescript… except that I’m not religious. Not one bit. Left to my own devices I don’t go to church; I haven’t got a holy book of any sort.

The little ones greet us elders daily:

“Bênção, tía.” (A blessing, auntie.)

“Deus te abençoe hoje.” (May God bless you today.)

Really? Did I just say that? Who is this person, speaking religious words with my mouth?

As the saying goes: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Oh my goodness gracious, this country is religious. Not in a “you must be brainwashed this instant or be kicked off the island” sort of way, but in a “this is central to our daily lives” manner.

The United States was founded on the separation of Church and State. I never realized how seriously we take that until I got here where they don’t have that tradition. Almost every business has a poster on its wall about God. The government shuts down for various saints’ days and parades and celebrations happen nationwide. I can’t quite wrap my brain around it all.

Here people make pilgrimages to sacred sites around the country to heal loved ones or pray that their soccer team wins the national championship finals (which to a Brazilian is almost equivalent in importance, mind you). People actually pray on Easter and Christmas. A lot. For days. At church the Father hands out honey that has been blessed and people take it home to use in home remedies. Most homes have a few pictures of Jesus. Not everyone is Catholic. Our little town has over ten (10!) different flavors of churches. There’s lots of Baptists of various colors and Pentecostals. Basically, they’re content as long as you’ve got God of some sort.

Which I don’t have. God, I mean. I have spirituality and a sense that there is something larger than us or at least that we are all connected in some way that we can’t see or completely understand right now. I believe that what you put out into the world comes back atcha—but that’s just basic physics, not religion. The Law of Thermodynamics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Positive out, positive in. But God? That there’s someone out there judging our every action, someone that decides that this person gets cancer and this person gets in a car accident? That there’s a being that even cares whether or not this ant dies or that leaf falls from the tree? That actually is listening to my prayers and giving them precedence? Not so much. We’re just little specks, and in the big scheme of things our daily lives can’t matter much to some supreme being. That’s fine. I’m Ok with being a very infinitesimal piece of a larger thing, one note in an entire symphony. I’ll play my one little note for all it’s worth.

Which all brings me back to the original question. Why all the religious talk? As an interpreter, I realize that sometimes the way you say something in one language isn’t exactly the same words you would say in the other. The children’s greeting for example. The call-and-reply is tradition, and translated into British English I think it probably would be along the lines of: “Top of the morning to you.” Also as an interpreter I know to frame the words in the context that makes sense for the person receiving the message. I send prayers to friends because that’s their language, even if it isn’t mine. The sentiment, the positive energy, is the same regardless of the words used to describe it.

One of my favorites: “House Blessing. In this house there may there be no sadness. In this residence may there be no suffering. May fear not cross this doorstep. In this home may there be no discord. In this place, may we only know blessings and peace.”

I do believe in the power of prayer. Not the “Dear God, please make my business successful” sort, but definitely that enough people sending good energy in a concerted direction can make a difference. I felt the peace from prayers of loved ones half a world away while my husband was undergoing kidney surgery. I know that massive group prayers for peace have been documented to coincide with drops in violent crime rates. Positive in, positive out.

I also believe in being aware of and thankful for the lucky things that life has given us. If you have a roof, food, clothing, loved ones, and health, well then you’re doing much better than many people in this world. It’s worth stopping for a moment to appreciate that happy fact and let all the other noise fade into the background.

So here in this religious land I like to say grace (or more simply put, “thank you”) before eating and I send texts with prayers to friends. Same meaning, different language.

Deus lhes abençoe hoje.


  1. Boy, do I “like” this post. Malvina writes fearlessly of exactly the way I’ve been feeling for years but hesitate to state publicly. I mention, however, that the US’s separation of state and church is not as great as it has been in, say, mid-century 20th-century America. In fact I read an interesting op-ed piece recently by a Brit who has spent a good deal of time in the US for several decades. He states that compared to Europe, the US has hardly any separation of state and church. Very few people go to church in Europe, even in the heavily Catholic countries and in his own country. It is true, however, that church attendance has been dropping in the US in the past few decades. Nevertheless, I know what Malvina is saying about living in a heavily religious country. Even I find myself telling religious friends in trouble that I will pray for them–and I actually do, hoping my thoughts will do some good.

    • elizabeth said. He states that compared to Europe, the US has hardly any separation of state and church. Very few people go to church in Europe, even in the heavily Catholic countries and in his own country.

      how many people go to go church has nothing to do with separation of state and church.

      btw: brazil also has a separation of state and church by law.

      • That’s a good point Anna. Church attendance doesn’t related to how closely the church and state are connected. I guess the fact that many businesses post signs about religious themes doesn’t relate either (since private businesses are also not connected to the State).

        I think that Elizabeth’s right in that in the USA it’s much more likely these days (compared to just a few decades ago) for a religion to be mentioned in a political forum. Our last political election was rampant with it–on both sides. Nevertheless, both Brazil and the USA are still far away from a true merging of church & state.

        In some states in the USA it’s illegal to either sell alcohol on Sundays or in others even be open for business. It seems my brain is used to seeing some points where church and state intersect and it gets surprised by new ones (closing offices for saints’ days, for example).

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