Monday, December 12, 2005

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I apologize that this is not one of my more "polished" entries, but I'm feeling under the weather at the moment. Yet I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of the story of the Our Lady's appearance to Juan Diego in 1531, and I could not let the day pass without comment.

I readily admit that one thing I miss about the Catholic church--having been received into the Episcopal church a year and a half ago--is Mary. The Blessed Mother has been an important figure to me ever since my youth, although I am not sure I can easily articulate why. As I grew to adulthood, I became more troubled at the notion that a "virgin mother" should a role model for me in any sense, but a couple years ago I discovered the book Meditations on Mary and read Kathleen Norris' thoughts on the matter...

I used to feel the dissonance whenever I heard Mary described as both Virgin and Mother; she seemed to set an impossible standard for any woman. But this was narrow-minded on my part. What Mary does is to show me how I indeed can be both virgin and mother. Virgin to the extent that I remain "one-in-myself," able to come to things with newness of heart; mother to the extent that I forget myself in the nurture and service of others, embracing the ripeness of maturity that this requires. This Mary is a gender-bender; she could do the same for any man.

I owe my reconciliation of the Virgin and the Mother to the Black Madonna. Late one night at the abbey I sat before her statue, not consciously praying, but simply tired. Suddenly words welled up from deep inside me, words I did not intend to say - I want to know motherhood. Stunned by my boldness and the impossibility of the request - I have known since adolescence that motherhood was beyond my capacities - I began to weep. This remains my only experience of prayer as defined by St. Anthony of the Desert; he called a true prayer one you don't understand. When, a few months later, through an improbable set of circumstances, I found myslef caring for a seventeen-month-old niece with a bad case of the chicken pox, I was amazed to realize that my prayer was being answered in a most concrete, exhausting and rewarding way. I also sensed that the prayer would continue to be answered in many other ways throughout my life.

And it was this same chapter by Kathleen Norris that first introduced me to the Virgin of Guadalupe in a way I found compelling, meaningful, even powerful...
Mary's love and pity for her children seems to be what people treasure most about her, and what helps her to serve as a bridge between cultures. One great example of this took place in 1531, when the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego on the mountain of Tepayac, in Mexico, leaving behind a cloak, a tilma, imprinted with her image. The image has been immortalized as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Mexican-American theologian Virgilio Elizondo argues, in The Future is Mestizo, that the significance of this image today is that Mary appeared as a "mestiza," or person of mixed race, a symbol of the union of the indigenous Aztec and Spanish invader. What was, and still is, the scandal of miscegenation was given a holy face and name.

To be honest, Our Lady of Guadalupe was never one of my favorite images of Mary. There are probably a couple of reasons for this--we are most comfortable with the images we were exposed to in childhood, and we are drawn to images of the divine that look like us or people we know. I'm sure there's something Jungian about that. But I like Guadalupe a lot more now that I think of her with new layers of meaning.
Richard Rodriguez concludes his essay in the anthology by describing his attempts to convey the prophetic power of Guadalupe to a skeptical feminist who can see in this image of a barefoot and pregnant Mary nothing but imperialist oppression and the subjugation of women. You don't understand, Rodriguez says, that the joke is on the living. What joke? the woman responds, and Rodriguez explains:

"The joke is that Spain arrived with missionary zeal at the shores of contemplation. But Spain had no idea of the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality. By the waters of baptism, the active European was entirely absorbed within the contemplation of the Indian. The faith that Europe imposed in the sixteenth century was, by virtue of the Guadalupe, embraced by the Indian. Catholicism has become an Indian religion. By the twenty-first century, the locus of the Catholic church, by virtue of numbers, will be Latin America, by which time Catholicism itself will have assumed the aspect of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Brown skin."

Last year when I was reading about the Virgin of Guadalupe I started collecting the some of the different artists' renditions that have been done, from the traditional to the scandalous. You can see them here. And there are more details about the story of Juan Diego and its meaning here.