National Geographic : 2004 Nov
darkness. The cliff was not limestone but a prickly basalt. The "cave" was little more than an alcove, but in the light of my headlamp, I could see that a level tunnel stretched a remarkable 40 or 50 feet back into the hillside, culminating in what looked like a natural altar. The ajq'ij asked us not to penetrate to that inner sanctum. I waited for Juan to begin some sort of cere mony, but apparently none was needed. We had completed the propitiatory rites the day before, in that patch of cloud-shrouded ridgeline in the middle of nowhere. Christenson's face was aglow. After all, he had waited 15 years for this moment. Now he said softly to Stephen and me, "Do you realize that we are the first Anglos ever to visit this place?" The ajq'ij spoke to the anthropologist in Tz'utujil. Christenson translated: "He says his heart feels happy when he's close to the nuwals. And the nuwals are happy that he brought strangers here who have come here to honor Paq'alibal." I felt my disenchantment slip away. All my own notions of the sacred, I realized, were based on Christian models-the sermon, the hymnal, the prayer on bended knee. Here in highland Guatemala I had been plunged into the midst of an altogether different conception of the sacred. Without the cave, the hike through the forest, and the days among the Maya, it was a revelation I could never have received. 5 LISTEN UP Hear the 1959 recording of the Maya purifica tion rite-"The Reverent Message to the Lords"Then witness the Sights & Sounds of the Maya underworld's creation myth at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0411.