Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Santa María: A December 12th reminiscence

Other than Easter and Christmas, today is, hands down, the most significant day of the year for Catholics in this hemisphere . . . yet, if you're not Hispanic, you most likely don't know that. The feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, is an extraordinary day anywhere in Mexico that there is a shrine to her, but never more than in Mexico City's Tepeyac, the hill where the virgin appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego and where the basilica dedicated to her stands. Over at Whispers in the Loggia, Rocco Palmo has a well-written and appreciative post, with pictures (Hat-tip (though he's since taken the post down, for some reason): Andrew Sullivan).

The Wikipedia article does a good job of relating the story of the Virgin's appearance and notes her just-as-significant national and cultural significance for Mexicans and, by extension, Hispanic Americans. Especially for Mexicans, "significant" is an understatement: to meditate on the Virgin as a religious, historical and cultural icon is to gain insight into Mexican identity itself that no other can give one. We Americans have no equivalent, and I admit to being more than a little envious of that fact.

Below the fold is a (long) narrative of my visit to the basilica on December 12, 1985.

A few days before, I decided to take a trip down to Mexico City: On the 11th, catch the night bus from Durango that left at 10:00 p.m., ride for 10 hours, take the subway from the bus terminal to the basilica, see what there was to see, then stay in the city for a day or two before returning to Durango (that year, the 12th, a national holiday, fell on a Thursday, and it's the custom when holidays fall on Tuesdays or Thursdays to also declare the days intervening between those days and weekends as holidays, too. In those years that May 1 (Labor Day) and May 5 (Cinco de Mayo, por supuesto) fall just so, most people get 5-day weekends. Qué padre!). I had been to the basilica many times before, but never on the feast day. Growing up in Texas, though, I'd heard stories of the crowds, of people showing their devotion to the Virgin for her intercession on their behalf by walking on their knees. To these Lutheran ears, such things sounded not at all Protestant and not even terribly Catholic. Maybe not even Christian. But I didn't know, and I wanted to.

The bus arrived in the city on time; I took the subway, jammed with quiet, politely-pushing and -shoving people all heading in the same direction, to the basilica. The streets around the basilica are usually crowded anyway with food vendors, souvenier sellers hawking, in some cases, retablos of the Virgin and soft-porn magazines in the same booth, pilgrims fulfilling their promises to the Virgin to travel to the city in honor of answered prayers, and vehicles of various sorts attempting to navigate through that sea of humanity. But I had never before seen the streets blocked off to traffic for blocks around, much less filled as they were with thousands and thousands more of the same quiet, polite people I'd seen on the subway. I think the mood could best be described as a happy solemnity. People smiled and talked, but it was amazingly quiet, for all their number. They were there with other people, but they weren't there to be with those other people. They had come to see the image of the Virgin and to pay homage to the Lady whose image was preserved on cloth made of a material that, I was once told, usually has disintegrated after a few decades.

The basilica itself came into view. It's hard to get a sense of the size of this structure, but I'll just say that it puts that of your typical mega-church to shame. The plaza that appears in the right of this picture is, if I had to guess, over 10 acres in size, and on that day it was filled with yet more people from throughout Mexico and Central America (many were in groups that carried signs announcing where they'd come from). Some were Indians wearing feathers and bells and rattles who danced to the beat of drums and the whistles of bone-flutes. Over all this on loudspeakers we could head Mass being said inside the basilica. And, coming up the steps to that plaza from street level and across the plaza to the doors of the basilica, were people walking on their knees: scores, certainly, perhaps hundreds. Kids--a couple could not have been older than 6. Very, very old people. Men. Women. Some being helped a bit, but most unaided. Some put cardboard in front of them to keep the knees in their pants from wearing out. Most, though, used no padding at all.

I was staring. I couldn't help it. I felt like a little child must feel when confronted with a person who is disabled in some way, except that these people weren't disabled. Something was, though, something I had thought I understood so clearly before and now felt as though I was in a space where that earlier understanding quite clearly didn't apply. I knew this to be the case when I found myself thinking, "Grandma and Grandpa [devout Southern Baptists] would run screaming from this place." But I wasn't laughing; I was too much in awe of what I was seeing to laugh.

I decided to try to go inside the basilica itself. I say "try" because, at each of its 4 enormous entrances stood a crowd of at least a hundred people, all slowly, politely, quietly working their way toward and into the entrances, taking the places of people who were leaving. Finally, I made it inside.

The interior of the basilica is laid out like an ampitheatre's floorplan, with the altarspace forming a half-circle that extends into the congregation's seating. High above the altar is the framed image of the Virgin. It has a seating capacity of several thousand. All those seats were filled. So were all the aisles, with people standing. So was the considerable floorspace between the last row of pews and the wall of the basilica. There were probably twice as many people in that space as it was designed to hold. The bishop of the city was giving the homily; he said how the the people, united by and devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, were more powerful than the government, than anything--it was as though he were channeling Miguel Hidalgo (and perhaps that was his intention). And it was inside that I really noticed the flowers.

Outside, I had of course seen people carrying flowers with them but hadn't really taken note of that. Inside, though, I saw that each of the basilica's aisles in the nave had a column of people, mostly women, bearing flowers, mostly roses (the Virgin had made roses bloom in mid-December there on Tepeyac; Juan Diego had thought THAT was the miracle) and gladiolas, toward the altar. Where the aisles met the altar area, altarboys took the flowers from the people and laid them wherever there was space to do so: behind the altar, around the sides . . . just ever-increasing walls of flowers. The air was thick with their scent. I had gotten inside a little before 10 in the morning, and it appeared to me, even at that hour, that there'd soon arise the question of where to put more flowers. Such a profusion of smell and color and sound . . . it made every church service I'd ever attended before, even Easter and Christmas services, look like business meetings.

Such devotion. I thought I'd known what that word meant. This is what I found myself thinking about as I left the basilica after Mass was completed, lingered to watch yet more people walking on their knees across the plaza, then went in search of lunch. Whatever you thought of the specific acts of devotion, you couldn't question the impetus behind them: these people's need to make their faith visible, tangible. It was a profoundly moving day for me; even now, recalling it here, that feeling returns.

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R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the story.


Camille said...

Fantastic, I want to go to Mexico City now.

The County Clerk said...

I had no idea.

Growing in San Antonio, Texas, I should have known this. THANK YOU.

And of coyrse, well done.