Learning from the Mayan peoples

By José Avilés Arriola SJ

The Mayan gods created man and woman to live in harmony with nature and everything around them. The Popol Vuh (the Mayan book of creation) says: “All was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty… Then came the word… and the creators talked among themselves, deliberating and meditating; they agreed, they conferred… Then they planned creation… the birth of life and the creation of man and woman. Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth!… How can we make sure the people, who will pray, praise and speak to us, are truly good?”

The message is similar to the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, a brief manual written by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order: “The person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.”

Today’s “anti-Gospel” world preaches values that leave the vast majority of people in poverty: individualism, consumerism, accumulation of capital and wealth for a few. The indigenous Mayan peoples show a different way. Marginalized and discriminated against, they offer us a wealth of values similar to the Gospel values, through which God is manifest. As in the Beatitudes, the “poor” Mayan people are blessed and show us the way.

Photo: Enrique Carrasco, SJ

Community prayer at Teltal de Wololchan, Sitalha, Chiapas (Photo: E. Carrasco).

We Jesuits, who have worked in the northern state of Chiapas for more than 50 years, witness daily the presence of God among the Mayan peoples of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. For the Tzeltales (the largest ethnic group in Chiapas, descendants of the Mayans), la Vida Buena, “the good life,” means creating harmony in the individual, family and community, with nature and with God. Building harmony is a core value; it is through harmony that we find reconciliation, justice, equity, love and that we build peace.

The values of the Tzeltales are not only principles; they are a way of life that lead us to the Gospel values. For example, the celebration of saints, leaders and others reflects how we relate to the divine, because celebrations unite the community, and people share what they have. Community life leads all members to live with one heart. Mutual support is a way of life, a source of unity and greater productivity. One does not sow seeds alone; rather the whole family takes part. Community service forms the basis for the resistance, defence and development of the Tzeltal and Maya communities; it is often known as tequito – an organized group working for the benefit of the community.

These principles recall the first Christian communities who “devoted themselves to… fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… they had everything in common” (Acts 2:42).

Of course we cannot mythologize the culture of the Mayan or any other people. The indigenous people of Chiapas face many obstacles to peace and justice, not least external factors like privatization, state control of the market and land interests of the rich and powerful.

However, it is thanks to their steadfast values that the communities have been able to endure material poverty and lack of services, to withstand discrimination by a dominant culture and colonialism. Their values, and the Word of God, have allowed the indigenous people to defend themselves and to be the Good News in a nonviolent way, to find paths to peace with justice and dignity.

The Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Jesuits and collaborators in the mission of Bachajón give thanks to God, to the heart of the sky, and to the heart of the Earth, for having been evangelized by the people whom we accompany.

This article by Fr José Avilés Arriola SJ originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Mexico: Learning from the Mayan peoples.” Fr José Avilés Arriola SJ served as the Vicar for Justice and Peace in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.