Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week. My little sister had Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off from school. My host parents went to mass at night during the week instead of just on Sunday morning. On Thursday, after coming home from the tia’s (aunt’s) house at around 9:30, my whole host family (except my older sister with her infant daughter and myself) gathered in my host parent’s bedroom to pray. I sat in my room on my bed, trying quietly to put my ear to the thin wall and listen.

In my host parent’s room, they prayed for nearly a half hour. In their room, they have a framed picture of Mary on the wall, and in the evenings before bed, they usually have a long white candle burning on the table below Mary’s picture.

My host dad first led the prayers for about 10 minutes. Then I heard my host mother’s voice. Then my host brother’s. I don’t think I heard my little host sister’s voice ever, but I can’t be sure since I was straining to listen through my bedroom wall.

Over and over and over, and over, I heard “Santa Maria, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen”. In English: “Saint Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. Amen”. Maybe 20 or 25 times.

Now, it wasn’t that I’d never heard my family pray before. We pray once or twice a week after dinner for a couple minutes. And, every month or so the whole extended family gathers at someone’s house and we pray for a half hour, standing up, listening to different members of the family say prayers, and saying and repeating them all out loud together as well. I’m not Catholic nor Christian, nor believer-in-God, so I always just stand and listen, not saying prayers or repeating them. Sometimes I try to pray in my own head to the same God the whole family is praying to, just so see how it feels.

Interestingly, for some reason that night, I was peculiarly intent on listening quietly to my family while they prayed. On that Holy Thursday as I sat in my room, isolated from them by my bedroom wall, I began to think and reflect a little bit, and I began to feel not only physically isolated but somewhat emotionally as well, for those 30 minutes.

My ear hovering close to the blond wooden wall of my room, I imagined the scene on the other side: My 4 family members, sitting on my parents bed, surrounded by the soft yellow light of the candle, illuminating Mary’s motherly, innocent face. I imagined my host family’s faces and eyes tilted down as one does when they pray.

I thought about how I celebrate Easter every year in the United States, only with some extremely vague knowledge that Jesus has some kind of significance in the holiday. For me, Holy Week is colored eggs, jelly beans, and the week off from school. Contrasting that with the Ecuadorian Holy Week: It’s entirely about remembering and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. It’s about going to mass and praying with one’s family. It’s interesting how many people can celebrate the same exact holiday in such drastically different ways.

Continuing to listen to my family gathered together and praying, I began to miss my own religion and way of celebrating Holy Week/Easter in the United States. Hearing for the umpteenth time “Santa Maria, madre de Dios”, I felt this hard to ignore twinge inside of me, a realization that I will never fully be able to understand the force that compels my family to be so devoted to their religion, and to have their religion play such an integral role in their lives.

At that moment, I my specific frustration was with why they needed to recite the same prayer over and over and over and over. That led my mind to a more generalized one of realizing something: that after spending nearly 6 months with them, having prayed with them many times before, I don’t think I’ll ever understand what makes them so devout to their religion. It’s not their Catholicism that I’m trying to understand, its how one religion can be so important and integral to an entire population and family’s life. I think at a certain point you can’t understand unless you are actually the person you are trying to understand, and that I won’t ever be.  

There in that moment, I teared up a little, missing my own family and religion who I understand so well, and who both understand me so well. I love my familia ecuatoriana. They are so kind and they understand me, and I do understand them. There’s cracks and pieces missing from the understanding, that I don’t think will ever be gone. But, that’s not bad or wrong or a problem. That’s how this all works. I try and understand, do all that I can to understand, continue understanding, and never stopping trying to understand. At the end of day or at the end of the 6 months and I still don’t understand its okay. As long as I opened my mind, saw, and heard (or quietly listened through my bedroom wall) with the intention of trying to understand, that is all one can do.