Sunday, May 07, 2006
Mexico City: Standing on Holy Ground 7/2003
She’d always been something of a mystery to me, I thought to myself as I rode in the mini-van. My limited knowledge of her was based on some vague stories I’d heard about her in Los Angeles. All I wanted to do now as to spend a little time with her. I don’t know how long I’d mused about this meeting, but then breaking out of my mental reverie, I found myself walking along the sidewalk that would take me directly to her.
The sidewalk leading to her wa filled with people. I looked out at the deeply tanned and tired looking faces that glanced hopefully up at me. Their clothing was thread bear and worn. Years, if not lifetimes of poverty etched on their brows. There they sat, directly on the cement, seeking alms from those who passed by. A Holy Site, I thought to myself? The area seemed to be totally surrounded by the endless poverty ridden urban sprall which is so much part of Mexico City.
Hawkers of religious artifacts pushed forward, and with hand held racks of wooden and stone crosses, amulets, necklaces, and rosaries, tried vainly to make a sale. Given these surroundings I found it hard to believe that I, like thousands, if not millions before me, was entering Mexico’s Holiest Site. As the people moved forward along the sidewalk, I looked up and there were the guards smartly dressed in their perfectly pressed military uniforms. It’s hard to remember,now if they were armed, since I was so busy trying to figure out where I was going. But the eyes of those guards were very alert and vigilant as they visually scanned everyone entering the site.
The day of pilgrimage was absolutely beautiful, with huge white clouds floating slowly against a perfectly robin’s egg blue sky. The light rain the night before had not only cleaned the seemingly ever present chocking smog, something this world’s largest city is famous for, but it has also removed the ash that Popocateptl had rained down on the city the previous day, following what must have been a very mighty volcanic eruption! Mindlessly I followed the throng of people as they weaved their way past the guards and into the very simple entrance, through the main door and on into the long dimly light hallway.... the crowd pressed forward into a small basement like corridor ....and then all of a sudden, the crowd fell totally silent, some dropping instantly to their knees.
All eyes looking upwards There she was.... Her complexion was dark, her face serene. Her standing figure, with its turned down head, was dressed in an off white, almost sepia colored robe, over which she wore a full length deep blue hooded cape. Her hands, held over her bosom, upright, palm-to-palm in prayer. Her face seemed to embody the eternal peace of God as a bright yellowish red glow surrounded her figure and seemingly radiated outwards from her. I could only see her from a distance as I looked up into her downcast eyes.... eyes filled with compassion.... eyes that silently searched every soul in the small room.
Like the rest of the people, I was speechless as I stared at her in silent adoration. Her peaceful presence surrounded me and seemingly lifted me upwards. In one of those life changing moments, I realized I was standing on holy ground, for I was in the presence of Our Lady of Guadeloupe .... the very same image of the Virgin Mary, miraculously imprinted on the cloak of an illiterate Indian peasant some 500 years ago, hung on the wall before me.
The holy image I was now looking at, had, for centuries been housed in Mexico City’s Roman Catholic Basilica within whose walls I now stood. The image of The Virgin captured my heart, mind and spirit, as it has millions of Mexicans ever since the miracle first took place on that cold December day back in the 16th century. Intrigued, I stood silently in Her presence as the sounds of the choir, the rich chords of the massive organ and the sweet smell of incense from the morning mass underway in the Basilica, all reached out and touched and hightened my senses.
Nearby, a teenage Mexican boy knelt in silent prayer, his eyes fixed on the Virgin. Still others, Mexican families, nuns, tourists, pilgrims, all visitors, stepped forward to catch a short ride on one of the two slow moving trams or walkways which passed directly beneath the Virgin.
As I stood there, taking all this in.... the history of this miracle passed through my mind.... December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego was walking in this same area, located about 12 miles from downtown Mexico City. It ws here the Virgin Mary first appeared to Juan Diego and asked that a church be built on this spot.
Historically, this appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, was very early on in the Spanish conversion of the local indigenous people to Christianity. Hernan Courtes had only begun his conquest of Mexico in 1519, aided to a large degree by the Atec believe that he was the far skinned god Quetzalcoatl, whom myth had decreed would return one day to conquer Mexico. Of course Spanish armor, guns and horses which were unknown in Mexico at that time, also greatly helped the Spanish quickly advance and take over the country. Juan Diego, a simple uneducated Indian peasant told the Bishop of his encounter with the Virgin Mary. The Bishop however, did not believe Juan and demanded proof that the message was indeed from the Virgin Mary.
On December 10th and 11th, the Virgin Mary again appeared to Juan as he walked in the same area. On one of these days, a couple of men had followed Juan as he walked. When the two men lost track of Juan, they returned to the Bishop only to tell the Bishop lies about Juan of how Juan was not only a liar but a drunkard who could not be trusted.
Then on December 12th, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared before Juan, now for the 4th time. Juan explained the Bishop’s demand for some proof to which the Virgin asked Juan to go out and collect roses. This being December, winter in Mexico, roses were not in bloom. Juan went out, picked the roses and brought them back to the Virgin. The Virgin touched the roses and told Juan to take them to the Bishop. Juan gathered the roses up in his cloak and set off to see the Bishop. Having heard the stories of Juan being a liar and drunkard, the Bishop kept Juan waiting for most of the day. In addition to the rumors, the fact that Juan was just a simple Indian peasant might have played a part in the Bishop not wanting to meet again with Juan.
All the while as he waited to meet with the Bishop, Juan held the roses chose to his chest. Eventually that same day, the Bishop gave Juan an audience. Juan explained to the Bishop that the Virgin had appeared to him again that day and as proof of Her appearance, the Virgin had requested that he pick roses for the Bishop. However, when Juan let his cloak fall to show the Bishop the roses he’d collected, the cloak was empty, they were all gone.... replaced instead by the dark faced image of the Virgin.... Our Lady of Guadeloupe.... imprinted on the fabric of his simple cloak.
Now in July, 2003 I was looking at the same image the Bishop first saw on the folds of Juan’s cloak some 5 centuries earlier. Immediately, the indigenous population was able to relate to this Mother of God, who, color wise, looked like them. Historically, Her appearance on Juan’s robe proved to be a major turning point in the conversation of the Mexico’s population to Catholicism. Prior to this event, the Aztecs had had a very difficult time relating to a mild, meek God figure. To the Aztec mind and culture, their gods were violent warriors which demanded the same of them.
Their sun god set daily in the west to do battle all night and every night with the gods of the underworld.... only to rise the next morning, bright red.... bloody from the battle. The sun god rose not only bloody, but thirsty and hungry. Only human sacrifices with the blood and hearts would satisfy their god. Likewise, the Aztecs immatated the violent nature of their gods in their daily lives by killing who knows how many captives on a daily basis. In addition to their holding high to their hungry god the still beating hearts, freshly ripped from the chest of captives, Aztec warriors participated in gladiator type games. Standing fully armed on a large rock slap, about a foot thick and 8 feet in diameter, three Aztec warriors would fight an unarmed captive, who might also be in chains. If the captive was able to kill all three Atec warriors, he would gain his freedom. If not, the captive would die. A hole in the middle of the rock with a drainage canal leading out to the edge made me to believe these gladiator type battles were brutal and very bloody. With such a violence permeating the Aztec society, the concept of a peace loving God was totally foreign.
The appearance of Our Lady of Guadaloupe was to become a major milestone in Mexico’s history. The significance of the Virgin’s appearance in 1531 was further underscored during the Pope's visit to Mexico in 2002, when he elevated the status of Juan Diego to Sainthood.
Breaking out of my silent, almost trance like state.... I looked up for one last time at the sacred image, then slowly walked up the stairs into the main part of the Basilica and observed the mass that was in progress. Built to hold over 10,000 worshippers, the huge structure is daringly modern in design with what for me was a sweeping, uplifting feel to the whole building. From there in the center of the Basilica, the golden framed image of the Virgin was clearly visible.... just to the right of the foot of the massive cross that was suspended from the ceiling over the alter. Mass ended and I watched as people left the Basilica, stopping to touch a glass case near the exit. The case I was to find out, held a badly bent two and a half foot gold cross.
In the 1970s’s, a religious fanatic placed a bomb on the alter of the old Basilica which at that time housed the sacred cloth image of the Virgin. The bomb exploded, but the cross took the brunt of the explosion, leaving it severely damaged. The cloth, with the image of the Virgin was left untouched. The old Basilica was built in 1709 to house the sacred image.
The new Basilica was opened in 1976, next to the old Basilica, to house Juan Diego’s cloak with its image of the Virgin Mary. Rather fascinating architecture in the new Basilican, incorporates the moving trams directly beneath the main alter allowing people to pass by the cloth image without distrubing mass which is going on directly over head.
Side note on the old Basilica: it is a very ornate structure which has been slowly sinking into the soil of the Tuxcoco lake bed, causing the building the shift and tilt. Present day Mexico City sits in a large valley surrounded by mountains. The valley on which Mexico City rests is a shallow lake bed, which means the whole city is slowing sinking.
Knowing my time at this holy site was quickly drawing to a close, I took one last look at the Lady I’d come here to see, and walked out of the new building and over to the old Basilica. Near the entrance was a life size bronze statue of Juan Diego. I watched as people slowly filed by the statue, stopping to touch the statue, to say a prayer, and to request of miracle. Juan’s hands and feet were bright and shiny from the many people who, over the years, had gently touched him, hoping for a miracle in their lives.
Behind and to the right of Juan Diego’s statue, was a large board covered with red cloth. The board was about 10 feet high and probably 4 feet side. This was the board where people had attached small amulets, requesting a miracle. The amulets were thin, maybe a quarter inch long, and represented different parts of the human body.... an arm, a leg, eyes, the head, etc. Each amulet a request for healing of that part of the body. So many amulets are hung on this cloth daily that, as I understand, the cloth must be replaced every six months or so, allowing room for new amulets.... allowing for more request of miracles to be placed on the board behind Juan Diego.
Leaving the old Basilica, I knew I had just enough time to visit the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego. The site, now an enclosed garden was filled with manicured trees and...... hundreds of roses. Tranquility filled my soul as I mentally prepared myself to leave this holy site. The Basilica and grounds which is now home to Our Lady of Guadaloupe.... a powerfull site with a powerfull story... one which seems to be as much alive today as it was when it took place, so many centuries ago.