Ballerinas, machine guns and Corcovado––a dance with doubt in Brazil

On the heels of my dad’s death last July, a fellow pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago invited me to stay with her in the mountains outside of São Paulo.

Yes, please.

I had no expectations other than I’d spend my days writing in a charming mountain hamlet where I’d talk long into the night with people at my friend’s pousada,

hike to waterfalls, enjoying dives into unbridled beauty,

and trek a beautiful camino to La Piedra del San Francisco.

I’d effectively flown from one San Francisco to another. God has a great sense of humor. 

But my dear friend had arranged a surprise excursion for us––one of many––and soon we’d make a trip to Rio de Janeiro to see the Paralympics.

Since we had met as pilgrims, it’s no surprise that we’re drawn to great treks. Corcovado called. It took us about two hours to climb to the storied statue of Christ. With the beaches of Ipanema below and Sugarloaf in the distance, the experience at Corcovado eclipsed many I’d had in some of the world’s holy places.

Corcovado’s gigantic arms outstretched over Rio. More than breathtaking, more than life-affirming, more than anything I could have imagined. In this pinnacle moment as we ate some ice cream, machine-gun wielding Brazilian militia encircled us in military helicopters.

Flying around Corcovado.

Through the sights of my cell phone camera these machines of war seemed like errant flies swarming the statue of peace.

Around and around they went in a kind of dance. Good and evil. War and peace.

A security breach by a private helicopter in the air space close to the landmark triggered the swarm. It took time to find out why we were being circled by three military helicopters.

Grateful to have an explanation that wasn’t more serious, I began the even more serious business of hunting for the right Corcovado souvenir in every cheesy tourist store on the top of the mountain.

During my quest, I remembered that nine months earlier at year’s end I created a vision board to inspire my work and life. The vision of Corcovado had become a stunning, even dramatic reality. When I shared my realization with my friend, our experience began the turn from the exotic into the sacred.

She asked if I found the souvenir I wanted. I told her I’d struck out. Most were disturbingly awkward. Mass-made faces of Jesus looked kind of strange. All the proportions seemed off.

I wanted to remember what I felt at Corcovado. The feeling of the swarm. How there are no coincidences. What a joy it is to have a dream come true. The excitement of life unfolding in ways one never expects. The adventure of life. The good stuff. How my breath had been taken away by the fear of the helicopters and how my heart had filled with peace at the same moment.

My friend and I skipped the hike down and took the train to the bottom. I decided at the last minute to head into one more tourist-trap to see if I could find something, anything to remember the experience––a marker, so to speak. Like people made in Biblical times to commemorate the grace they’d received when God accomplished something extraordinary in their lives. My marker wouldn’t be stones on the side of the River Jordan, but a cheesy statue of Corcovado.

I looked everywhere. Still, no luck.

On my hunt I heard a small voice ask, “Are you American?”

I turned around and came toe-to-toe with a beautiful troupe of American ballerinas from Missouri. Happy to run into a fellow countrywoman, they invited my friend and I to their performance the next evening in Rio. They were sweet, well-spoken and as you can imagine very, very thin.

“What are you dancing?” My friend and I couldn’t make the performance because of our travel plans, but I was curious and wanted to make some polite conversation.

The Screwtape Letters.”

Really. How do you dance to that?

I’d only known the novel by C. S. Lewis because an acquaintance referenced the book once earlier that summer. C. S. Lewis, in addition to being the famous author of the beloved childhood series, The Chronicles of Narnia, had also converted from being an atheist to a Christian on a famous walk he took with J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford.

Lewis was a prolific writer about Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters was a body of work based on the premise that a senior demon wanted to communicate to his minions a set of instructions on how to trap humans into making life-ending, or life-altering bad choices. It is a cautionary tale about the power of choice, and a statement on the criteria humans use to make them.

Basically, these southern girls were dancing for Jesus. Really? Evangelizing through ballet in a troupe called Ballet Maganificat!

Hmmm. This, I had to see.

We attended their ballet performance in Campinas, a suburb of São Paulo. The girls danced beautifully. One of the most enchanting moments portrayed a demon of doubt inviting a beautiful girl to dance.

The enthralling, passionate dance made it clear how our dance with doubt is one we all accept. It is a choice we make to join hands with charming doubt (or any number of our other personal demons).

I watched how the ballerina danced willingly, trying to escape at first then totally losing her will to escape until she gives over to doubt totally. I thought about all the dances I’d done with doubt in my lifetime. While witnessing the dance, I received peace through wisdom and insight. All things made new. Strength for my journey.

Our greatest power is the power to choose. To dance another way. To refuse the invitation.

I hope you might be encouraged to be aware of the invitation when it comes and that you have the right to refuse, or dance another way with strength and courage.

During the performance, I discovered my friend had been a professional ballerina. The performance brought back memories she hadn’t had in years. What a joy to get to know my friend in a way I never had before.

I continually marvel at God’s humorous, extravagant ways.