Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Re-Entry All Over Again

The American Friends of the Camino just accepted a piece I did on "Re-Entry" for its January newsletter. I wrote the piece months ago and barely remember what it's about.

The news prompted an even more urgent question: What is re-entry like this time, after our immersion in Mexico City?

The airports in both San Francisco and Mexico City are very much alike: sleek, steel, and impenetrable. The lines of SFO's new International Terminal, pictured above, look like an architect's drawing of galley ships, inverted over the passengers, counters, and shops. A week ago I stepped from the terminal onto BART. Within the hour, I left the platform for the upscale elegance of Rockridge's Market Hall, where the shops were sparkling and everyone was buying buying buying. It was a seamless transition from the world inside the airport to the world beyond. I relaxed immediately.

In Mexico City, there's more dissonance between the world inside the terminal and the world outside. Outside, a fortress mentality holds sway, with stucco walls on one side of a sidewalk and frantic traffic on the other. The stucco is pocked and faded; concertina wire curls around the tops of walls -- or broken shards of glass pressed into fresh concrete. Iron grills shield windows and doors from possible entry. Don't even think about re-entry.

We passed through miles and miles of this Riot Renaissance architecture, interrupted only by the occasional WalMart or OfficeMax. I remember thinking that these corporate imports from El Norte were the true home invaders. When we got to our residence, we entered a gated compound which required keys, codes, and phone numbers for access. All my defenses were on high alert. I started noticing everything: my life might depend on it.

Immersion is like that: all antennae are out, because your disorienation is so acute and your surroundings are so different -- and sometimes dangerous. In contrast, with pilgrimage, the monotony of walking for hours on end invites a different kind of attention. The outer landscape doesn't change much, because you're not moving that fast. Out of sheer boredom, you attend to an inner landscape. It's as if the antennae retract, focusing instead on the soul.

Yet, despite the difference, both pilgrimage and immersion pare things down to the essentials. On the Camino, we literally shed stuff, partly because we'd brought too much and partly because we discovered only by walking what we really needed. I returned to a house that seemed cluttered, a life that seemed unnecessarily complicated. I've been simplifying.

On immersion, we lived lower on the food chain that we'd been used to in the States. Juana, our dear cook, was a genius at figuring out exactly how much to prepare for us. Any leftovers appeared in puddings and soups. We always took public transportation, not wishing to add any more diesel fumes to the already polluted atmosphere.

Most impressive: we enjoyed the lavish hospitality of people who lived with a lot less than we did. We visited homes in the settlement community of La Estacion in Cuernavaca. For us, plastic chairs had been borrowed, cleaned, and arranged in a living room with a corrugated roof and wooden doors for walls. For us, dirt floors had been swept clean. We visited a campesino movement headquarters in downtown Mexico City. For us, there was free trade coffee, purified water, and all the sugar we could possibly want. Even at the compound in Mexico City, we ran into an unseasonably cold spell, chilling the unheated concrete block structures. For us, there were blankets -- and we were allowed to wear them everywhere to keep warm, at meals, listening to presentations, watching documentaries. Such rich generosity from people who had so much less: it marked all of us deeply.

I simplify, hoping that such generosity will fill the emptiness.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Walking the Camino in Mexico City

Every morning we wake early to walk. We always hope to beat traffic, but that has proved a vain hope. A government that promotes car ownership has not built the highways they need to go on, and traffic is Mexico City is among the world´s worst.

Nonetheless, the wide boulevards of Avenida Insurgentes have become our urban Camino. We walk and talk, vigilant for turning cars, but happy simply to be moving around.

We notice things on these early morning walks. Street vendors, members of the informal economy, are setting up curbside braziers to heat coffee, tea, and atole, a sweet cornmilk drink, which I smuggled into Office Max this morning. Shopkeepers take advantage of a lull in sidewalk traffic to sweep, and they are busy dispensing with a night´s worth of leaves, trash, and cigarette butts. Clubs are just closing, and tired partygoers spill onto the streets in search of coffee and cabs.

We have gotten to know some of the people we regularly pass, the vendor of atole outside the monument to Obregon in one of the city's parks, the shopkeeper where I always buy gum, and cops regulating traffic at one of the more horrific intersections.

Part of the intentional learning in this trip has been to give us ample opportunity to look, nothing more and nothing less. Then, armed with new information, we go out and look again. Because we walk every morning, I am aware of how much more I am noticing.

After an introductory lecture on the Mexican labor force, I become adept at converting the minimum wage for a day´s work (55 pesos) into the prices I see in shopwindows. After information on the "informal economy," I pay particular attention to the street vendors, who they are, how they work, what they sell, and how they get here. After hearing about social situation among mestizas and indigenous peoples, I notice the color of the faces passing by me. I have spent a lot of time looking -- and then looking again.

Looking has been a huge part of this Camino. Along with listening, we have done little else -- and we really can do little else. We haven´t built schools; we can´t revoke NAFTA, the agreement that displaced so many people from farms into the city; we can´t end racism in Mexico any more than we can end it in our own country. But we look -- and look again.

My fervent prayer is that all this looking will lead to something, for in great ways and small, this Camino, like the one we made in September, is transformative. My deep conviction is that authentic action begins with looking and listening, then asking -- as Chris Street reminded us -- "What do you want me to do for you?" It is the question Jesus asked people before he healed them. He didn´t assume anything. He didn't presume that the blind man wanted to see or that the lame man wanted to walk again. He asked first: "What do you want me to do for you?" But he asked only because he first noticed. He looked first, then listened.

This has been the shape of our Camino in Mexico City, and it's a road every bit as sacred as the road to Santiago de Compostela we hiked in September. Consider this:
we finally learned the name of the barista at the neighborhood Starbuck´s every morning, as we load up on caffeine for the morning hike. His name is Santiago.

Not a coincidence!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pilgrimage vs. Immersion 2

I said in an earlier post that the differences between pilgrimage and immersion can be thought of as analogous to the difference between substance and accident in Aristotelian metaphysics. (I’d thought for a while that pilgrimage might be the apophatic form of what immersion does in a cataphatic mode, but I decided that wasn’t strong enough.) What is substantial to one is accidental to the other. The substantive change in pilgrimage is, I think, about a kind of self-understanding, usually of finitude and limits. Therefore, we come to value the others on the trail, those who feed us, those who shelter us, those who encourage us. Immersion is substantially about those connections—we are seeking true human empathetic solidarity with specific people. We don’t learn about a given culture merely to become better at being away from home, though that happens, or at dealing with discomfort or unease, though that can happen, too. We are dropped into a culture different from our own but that’s merely the circumstance of the offered grace. I am reminded of a prison chaplain who once described some volunteers as those who “get it” and those who don’t. Those who get it are those who engage the residents on a true human-human basis, as fellow travelers on the same road.

But that doesn’t mean that showing up is unimportant. In fact, it’s irreplaceable both to pilgrimage and immersion. More is going on than a mere change of venue. Partly, I think, this is because few of us are self-aware enough to know what our emotional and ethical reflexes will be in a given situation. To stay with the prison example, we don’t know how we will react to the razor wire, what we’ll feel when the door slams behind us locking us in. We don’t know how we’ll be able to be present to someone who’s been deemed dangerous enough to need to be locked away until we show up and try. On immersion, it’s important to show up to feel the air pollution causing your own cough, to smell the grossly polluted river where children play, to see the omnipresence of American big business. McDonald’s is the most effective new American missionary, spreading the good news of the Big Mac to all corners of the globe. It’s funny until you realize how the less visible presence of American trade policies cripple local farmers’ ability to compete. It’s crucial also to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, the joy of those you meet, to hear their anger at situations where it’s impossible to get ahead, even if you work 24 hours a day. To see everywhere people sweeping the streets in the morning, despite the air pollution and the graffiti.

Showing up doesn’t mean you’ll get it. The human heart can be tough enough (or fearful enough, or scarred enough) to no longer be moved by tenderness, by compassion, or even by pity, which can be the start of empathy (but often isn’t.) But showing up means that the opportunity that we will receive the grace offered to us is all around us, in the air we breathe, in the faces we see, in our own struggles with language where we are strangers, in the welcome we receive despite our verbal and social clumsiness, in the beauty of the land, in the richness of their own cultural heritage savaged by the Spaniards. It’s all around us, just as is the grace we seek.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Dreaming and Waking....

Altitude enhances the imagination: we have all been having vivid dreams. Mexico City is higher than Denver, the "Mile High" city, by about 2000 feet. You feel the altitude going up stairs; you notice it dodging traffic; you register it in dreams.

We take to comparing dreams at breakfast, vying with each other for the most fantastic plot. Lisa laments that her dreams don´t have plots, while for others sleep delivers whole epics. We tell our dreams, noticing how experiences from the day before have imprinted the unconscious.

The Achuar peoples, an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, take dreams seriously. They are expert in discerning their meaning. The Pachamama Alliance ( grew out of a persistent dream among the Achuar elders that revealed the modern world to be caught up in a trance -- with nightmarish consequences for all the world´s peoples. They interpreted the dream to mean that the way of the eagle and the way of the condor should merge, more specifically, more consumerist/materialist cultures like those of the North, should work with more spiritual cultures like theirs toward the common dream of a more sustainable way of life for all the world´s children. The fruit of this dreaming was a global movement dedicated to a world that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling.

So here´s the question: how do we make our way into this world? What is the Camino we are looking for? Where are its markers? On the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, there were clear signs pointing the way ahead: yellow arrows decorated corners, telephone poles, fences. Just when we needed one, a yellow arrow would appear. The yellow arrows guided us to Santiago.

What -- and who -- will guide us to the world we seek, where the way of the eagle and the way of the condor meet?

I don't think there is a map out there waiting to be discovered. We will find the path in the walking, guided by our fellow travelers. That´s why it is important to be here.

Or, in the words of Australian aborginal elder Lila Watson:
"If you are coming to help us,
you are wasting your time;
If you are coming because your liberation is bound up with our own,
then let us walk together."

Thinking Pilgrimage in the Midst of Immersion: Part II

Bodies matter -- even and especially on immersion.

I appreciate Lisa for inviting Aristotle along, but his categories miss what is really going on here.

Sure, we have learned about the history of Mexico, the impact of globalization, the forced march from an agrarian to an industrialized society by transnational corporations and a government that courts them. We have learned these ideas in the faces of people we´ve met in shanty settlements, campesino organizations, and community centers. We have learned their vibrant spirituality of resistance in signs and slogans that proclaim: Zapata vive! Romero vive! A proclamation that deliberately echoes the Easter proclamation: Christ is living! And we have responded in kind: He is living indeed!

Yes, we have learned about this spirituality. But we also live it.

We live it when we refrain from using tap water to brush our teeth, using bottled water instead. We don´t want to suffer the low-grade intenstinal discomfort that affects most of the people living here.

We live it when we succumb to the popular turista, suffering a few days of diarrhea or the rumbly gut, as our group has come to call it. The people who live here simply get used to it.

We live it when we cough, our lungs protesting the diesel fumes that add to pollution throughout the urban areas. As he hacked his way through his talk, UNAM sociologist Ross Gandy told us last week: the air in Mexico City will kill you. We live it when we sit in traffic in a nation that adores cars, but hasn´t developed the infrastructure for everyone who owns one to drive it.

We live it when we take in the sickly sweet smell of sewage in the Cuernavaca neighborhood of San Anton, where activists had to form a coalition of federal, university, and municipal forces to get a sewage line built. The line will carry waste that had been dumped directly into the stream at the bottom of the ravine. San Anton still smells, because there are no activists upstream, and the neighborhoods there are still dumping.

Immersion forces us to live the spirituality of the people -- if only temporarily -- in hopes that that experience will be transformative. Immersion etches the realities of poverty on our bodies. In pilgrimage, our feet taught us the spirituality of the Camino. Immersion is a full-body experience. Once again, the body mentors the soul.

For the sad fact is this: we haven´t learned much we didn´t already know. We haven´t learned much we couldn´t have read at home drinking clean (relatively at least) tap water, using flush toilets that run into a city sewer main, and leaping into our cars for a long ride on the freeway when we couldn´t handle any more knowledge.

Information does not transform people. It is not the case that if we just knew what was going on, we would do something to change it. That was Plato´s conviction: if you know the good, you will do it. Plato was wrong. We know the good; we just look the other way.

It´s Paul who was right: "...for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19)

The only way toward change is to rub people´s face in reality. The only way toward transformation is to tattoo reality to their bodies. That´s what immersion does. It etches life on people´s bodies, indelible markings, so that they will never forget.

I´m glad Aristotle is with us: he might learn something.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pilgrimage and Immersion, Substance and Accidents

I am beginning to think of the differences between pilgrimage and immersion in terms of Aristotelian epistemology, specifically, in terms of substance and accidents. While there are broad parallels between the two, what is substantial to one is merely accidental to the other, and vice versa.

On the camino, we were engaged in an opportunity for self-transformation through the difficulties of the trail. We came face to face with finitude, we wrestled with fatigue and pain, (I recall again Joan Baez’ lovely lyric about the “huddled hikers…and their personal acquaintance with pain,”) and we came to understand the power and the challenge of “step, then take another step, then step again,” to get further on the trail. The transformation can be expressed best, I think, in terms of self-knowledge, which included the knowledge that we needed others, especially those Spaniards who cared for us in hostels and restaurants, and our companions on the trail.

The center, though, the substance, was that self-transformation. It was profoundly spiritual, and for those of us of religious bent, our religion provided stories and frameworks in which to connect our new selves with the new selves of anyone meeting up with the living God. Pilgrims are useless people, really not offering much to the places we travel, except, perhaps, the witness of people looking steady-eyed (or bleary-eyed,) at our own finitude, our need for others, our dependence on the graces of body, companions, and surroundings. Our shared weaknesses, we discovered, became a foundation for community of a kind, though there were others who walked essentially solo. We all needed others, but the particulars of who and what we needed, was less significant. It was much more an individual transformation, though we learned about our need for others.

Finitude is accidental to immersion. It is no less true—we have (most of us,) limited language skills, we depend on those who care for us with food and shelter, we may experience some degree of physical struggle (though we haven’t, with the exception of those of us suffering from Montezuma’s revenge…) No, the substance of immersion is empathy, a holistic solidarity with a specific situation or group. If we leave Mexico without both an intellectual and a visceral care for those we’ve met, the genius of the culture and the struggles they face, and a sense of the role—too often shameful—of our nation and the Catholic Church in making those struggles more difficult, then we have failed to be open to the substantial grace of immersion.

I had a pretty clear grasp of how a pilgrim should return before I headed out on the camino. Returning from immersion is more difficult, less clear. That’s part of what an immersion should do, perhaps, is to call forth further discernment on the fundamental question of Christian faith—now what? Pilgrims come back more solid, immersion-experience people come back disturbed, less stable than before, since our friends are in radically unstable, dangerous places, which our own institutions have too often served to make worse.

Ray Plankey and God in All Things

Ray Plankey is the founder of CCIDD, where we now have landed these past few days. Ray began his career as a rocket scientist, literally, working on the first ICBM’s back in the 1960’s. Responding to Pope John XXIII’s call for North Americans to be missionaries to Latin America, he decamped for Chile. Over time, he began to realize that the important dynamic of reverse mission was not being attended to. The standard (and spiritually dangerous!) notion that the norteamericanos “bring God” to the pagan masses in the south is simply not true. While the northerners may bring valuable education and insight, they also receive valuable education and insight—at least if they are paying attention.
This is a central dynamic in Ignatian spirituality, to “seek God in all things.” As a pilgrim spirituality, people of Ignatian bent continually look for what God has already been up to, especially in situations we might not have thought to check out before. When we’re doing this well, it makes us profoundly humble, as we perceive the vast variety of ways humanity has perceived and responded to the Holy One. God does play in 10,000 places.
But sometimes our religious formation militates against this insight. While people who experience themselves as forgiven, redeemed, and transformed in Christ rightly seek to share this experience with others, the older missionary tendency is to think that unless “God plays in 10,000 places, always exactly the same way,” that we betray our call. We then ignore our own blindnesses, and, historically and still, this is where Christians turn from the path of Christ to the path of the Conquistador. Not only might we not see what God is up to in a new place (or newly in a familiar place,) we might well destroy God’s handiwork in God’s own name. I cannot imagine that God looks benignly on such atrocity.
So Ray founded the CCIDD in the 1970's to foster experiential learning in the service of reverse mission, that the people who come here are open to the possibility of growing in empathy by meeting people, pay attention to what is happening within themselves as they encounter God in a new place, and be enabled to communicate this experience (along with knowledge of a more academic kind they also get here,) to others when they get home. Good system. I wonder how our churches would change if we thought of this as the norm for training clergy?
Ray says the Latin American Church has a prophetic message for the norteamericano Church. A prophet, by definition, is a person who communcates what's on God's mind to the people. First, of course, a prophet has to have some grasp of what God's up to. A humble prophet still speaks clearly and with conviction, but doesn't claim to possess the totality of God's self-communication. Yup--that's what the Church could use more of now. Humble prophets.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Finding Guadalupe in Cuernavaca

We left Mexico City on Wednesday and head for Cuernavaca, a beautiful colonial city about 90 minutes away. Cuernavaca functions as a kind of escape valve for the City, and anyone who can afford to get away does. With some regularity.

Cortez had a palace here, a veritable fortress. His mistress, La Malinche, has a house here, expressing her own indigenous roots. But Cuernavaca is also home to 10,000 displaced campesinos, who squat on a piece of land that used to be a stop on the Union Pacific line, until cars and busses supplanted trains as the major transportation between Mexico City and Cuernavaca.

La Estacion is now their home, as they left the countryside they had farmed for generations. Crops that fed their families for generations no longer brought in enough to support their families. These family farms were bought up by corporations claiming to be the supermarkets of the world. The people who worked the land moved to the city trying to scrape together enough to feed their families. These are the families we visited in La Estacion.

In preparation for our visits to homes in the settlement, we were told simply to do nothing more -- and nothing less -- than listen. And the stories we heard. My family had come from Taxco, where they had farmed. When farming could no longer support the family, they came to La Estacion, following other members of their family. The father of the family worked in a mercado, and his hours were long. The mother worked in the home. Instead of raising her food, she struggled to buy rice, beans, and tortillas to keep the family fed.

As we talked with her, two children floated in and out of a living room covered with a corrugated tin roof. We asked what they wanted to be when they grew up: the girls was going to be a lawyer, her brother a fireman. We asked their mother what her hopes were: health and a good future for her children.

I looked around the living room as she spoke. There was a bed behind where we were sitting; behind a piece of cloth with Batman flying all over it was another bed. Behind a cardboard wall was the children`s room, and I could see toys on the dirt floor.

There was a crucifix in the living with a corpus on it, a magazine photo of an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The family was clearly Catholic; I tried to find the Guadalupe shrine, a customary presence.

I realize I was looking into her face.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Remembering Pilgrimage in the Midst of an Immersion....

This afternoon, I rent computer time from the Office Max near the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, contributing to the transnational corporations that the leader of a campesino movement we met with this morning charged with exploitation. Next to me are three other members of our delegation. And across the street sits Lisa at a Starbucks, where there is free WiFi. We stop here every morning on one of our early morning hikes up Avenida Insurgentes into the heart of the city.

I am noticing....

On the first day of our program, Director of the ELCA Lutheran Center Kim Erno gave us the most important conversion rate. It wasn´t from dollars into pesos. It was from pesos to pesos, converting the required daily wage $55 (here the $ sign is used to signify pesos)/day into the prices of the goods we see in shop windows, the food we see in grocery stores. In the Office Max where I sit on the computer, there would not be much that $55 will buy. Maybe the box of rubber bands in the photo, but little else. Indeed, it would cost half a day´s wages to pay for the hour I will be on this computer.

I am noticing....

I am also trying to parse the similarities and differences between pilgrimage and immersion. This immersion in Mexico City is the follow-up to our pilgrimage to Santiago in September. We hypothesized that immersion is the post-modern version of the ancient practice of pilgrimage.

How does that hypothesis look now?

I have to say that pilgrimage is much more individual, immersion more communal. While I learned a lot about myself on pilgrimage, immersion makes me look long and hard at my country and its complicity in a global economy that has had devastating impact on Mexico. In language dear to my tradition, I have to ask how well we serve this place, our nearest neighbor? The answer is shockingly clear: not well at all.

At the campesino organization we visited this morning, leaders spelled out the consequences of trade agreements and privatization on a country that used to be able to feed its own people, but now cannot compete in a world market. Unemployment spikes, land is wrested from the people and put into corporate hands, fields that used to support a way of life become a tourist corridor. Mexico risks becoming a theme park that its own people will not be able to afford to visit.

That´s one difference: pilgrimage probes the individual soul, immersion exposes a more corporate or national psyche.

This leads to another comparison. In an earlier post, I examined how pilgrimage -- and any religious practice -- uses the body to mentor the soul. All of our best spiritual insights on pilgrimage came from our feet. One of the more humble body parts turns out to have lots to say about spirituality.

Immersion may be similar -- only the body part changes. Instead of registering insight through our feet, we are taking things in with the eyes. Moving around the city, we simply look. It looks pretty much like any bustling metropolis in the United States: Wall-Mart, 7-11, Office Max are here too. That´s part of the problem. Other international corporations masquerade under a Spanish name. And everywhere, even in the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Angel or Coyoacan, are the street vendors, representatives of an informal economy that is run by campesinos run off their land.

Of course, we talk about what we see, but looking comes first. After the lectures, we head back into the City, literally for a second look. We see more the second time around. Even more on the third.

We are all deeply moved, and the question haunts us: what will we do with all this new knowledge? What will change?

Immersion dumps you into another culture, demanding that you do nothing more -- and nothing less! -- than notice.

I am noticing....

Monday, January 11, 2010

Snapshots from a Sunday: Mexico City

On Sunday we broke from a few days of intense presentation and reflection to see the City. When we surfaced from the Metro, we were right in front of the Palacio Nacional at the City´s Center. The fabled Zocalo of Mexico City, once a place for public gathering, is now occupied by a large ice-skating rink. I read about it in the New York Times, as a ´human interest´story, which largely recounted the rise in ER visits with broken bones docs had never seen before and the delight of citizens in this almost tropical clime to be able to ice-skate.

The article didn´t mention the fact that the skating rink took up all available space for public protest and organizing.

Not a coincidence.

We began the day with a detailed tour of Diego Rivera´s murals depicting the history of the Mexican peoples, from its pre-Hispanic origins to the mid-1950s, when Rivera became too ill to finish painting. Rivera was both artist and political activist -- and he let no ice-skating rinks get in his way. With passionate energy, he painted the life of the pre-Conquest peoples in Central America,the impact of the Conquest and subsequent colonialization. It´s a history told in images both vibrant and brutal, and it communicated that story to people who may not have been able to read. But could certainly look. By looking, they could see beyond the skating rinks.

And on Sunday, a lot of people were looking.

We finished the day at a small Catholic parish halfway up one of the surrounding mountains. The Parish of St. Peter the Martyr has been outspoken in support of campesino rights, so much so that the Lady of Guadalupe there could have been wearing a black ski mask like Sub-Commandante Marcos.

We were warmly welcomed to the Mass, on a day that commemorated the Feast Day of the Baptism of Jesus. The priest highlighted the divine words from heaven: you are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased. And the sermon -- as much as I could understand of it --was all about love and water, both increasingly scarce resources in this benighted planet.

The waters of baptism were our common bond with these Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We were invited to celebrate the meal of Jesus our Brother. In response, we sang for the congregation. In Lutheran style, four-part harmony.

We left in the gathering darkness of an unseasonably cold night. But before we left, the parish assistant, a woman who had led the singing, asked if we would oblige her with yet another song, Amazing Grace. She said it had been sung at her sister´s funeral in Texas -- and she loved the music. We sang our hearts out.

As we left, she thanked us with the following words:

You have come to us like the Wise Men from the East, and you have come to see the Christ child in the manger of Latin America. Take what you have seen back with you.

We will, we will.

And we will keep looking into that manger.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Guadalupe: A Virgen de la O

I found another Virgen de la O: Our Lady of Guadalupe. The belt she wears signals this. Anyone indigenous would have understood this immediately. I, however, had to be told. The belt ties above her expanding waist, rather than around it. She is a Virgen de la O, her pregnancy hidden by a cloth that is filled with floral images.

As I mentioned earlier, we found her scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. She can't be colonized by churches and structures; she won't submit to boundaries. She's as at home in a shoe store as on a street corner. She's wherever the people are; she gravitates to the periphery. In short, our Lady of Guadalupe has a great centrifugal force. She scatters well.

But she also has great centripetal pull as well. She draws people to places they would not otherwise inhabit. Earlier this week, on the feast day of the Epiphany, we found ourselves at the Basilica in Tepeyac, where Juan Diego encountered this Virgen de la O. The plaza in front of the basilica was huge -- and it was full of people. Some walked on their knees to see the Lupita; others were out for a family holiday, pushing grandmothers in wheelchairs and pulling tired kids. Photographs with the Guadalupe were available (for a modest fee). People in one of the adjoining chapels said a perpetual rosary. It was a place of enormous energy.

In the center of the square was a large manger scene -- Mexican style. Jesus rested on a pallet in the middle of a barnyard, complete with hens, roosters, and turkeys. Of course the obligatory lambs and shepherds were present, even a few angels, but inexplicably there was an elephant come to visit the Christ Child. Who knew?!

My favorite figure was one of the Magi, nearer the fence surrounding the entire scene. At his feet were pieces of paper, folded prayers thrown at his feet. There were about twenty of them around this single figure in the scene.

Two other images struck me. One was a rough wooden figure of a man, arms stretched out in blessing, next to a side door of the main cathedral. This simple piece stood out in the midst of more elaborate processional figures in baroque cases with gilt frames. A rack of ribbons fluttered in the breeze beside him. On one side of these brightly colored ribbons was the stamped name of one of the city parishes -- and more written prayers.

Close by was a painting of two men sitting with a blue ball at their feet. As I moved in on the piece, I realized the blue ball was the earth. A bird hovered above the men, and the figure on the left had both feet planted firmly on the earth, while the right had one foot on the earth, the other in the air. An image of the Trinity! Jesus was the one with his feet planted firmly on the ground.

And who presided over all of this? The beautiful Guadalupe, another image of the Virgen de la O.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mexico City -- and Epiphany´s Gifts

I think this is my fifth trip to Mexico City, so I´ve been here quite literally a handful of times. Once was for an academic conference in 1985 on Justice and justification, held at the Lutheran Center. The second and third times bookended language school in Cuernavaca, and we stayed on the edge of Chapultepec Park, where we braved both altitude and pollution and went running every morning. Then I made a trip with another Diego Rivera afficionado, and we moved around the City to find all the murals we could find. By definition, this is art that doesn´t travel, and ours was a great way to focus travel in this bustling, world-class city. Now I´m here on an immersion trip.

I´ve been here as an academic, a tourist, and a culturalista. Now, I´m here as a pilgrim. Is there a difference?

I´m not presenting a paper, and I´m not consuming the sights, cultural, touristic, or gastronomic. I notice that I´ve slid into receptive mode. I´m simply letting this experience wash over me. After all, this isn´t a service learning trip, and we´re not building schools or working in an orphanage. We´re here to listen, to learn, and maybe above all, to look.

Here´s what I´ve seen, three vivid images.

We flew out on Mexicana, and I was seated next to a Mexican grandmother who was heading home to visit family. Like most academics, Lisa and I travel with books, articles, words of all kinds, and before the plane took off we were buried in them.

Yet of all the words we had spread out on the tray tables, the ones that caught my seatmate´s eye were the words in the painting above, which were on the cover of one of my books. Rogier van der Weyden´s painting of the baptism of Jesus features the painted words of God the Father as his Son was baptized: This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.

As we were served breakfast, she pointed to the painting. She knew what it was. But she couldn´t read the words. And she said to me in Spanish: I don´t know how to read. Unfortunately, I didn´t know how to translate them into Spanish very well. But we smiled in mutual recognition of an icon that transcended the language barrier.

Breakfast came: omelettes and refried beans. I ordered water; she washed hers down with a Tecate and promptly fell asleep.

Then this morning Lisa and I were up at dawn for an early morning walk before breakfast. It was about 45 degrees, and everyone was bundled up like it was below zero. It was chilly. But clearly for the Mexicanos, it was downright cold. Scarves covered the mouths of many people we passed -- which might have been protection against both the pollution and the cold.

Finally, this afternoon we walked around the neighboring San Angel area. Kim Erno, director of the Lutheran Center, pointed out a shrine to the Virgin at a gas station at the end of our street. Nuestra Señora de la Benzin! He got me looking, and I found shrines to the Virgin everywhere. There were three in a shrine on a street corner -- Nuestra Señora de la Esquina! One was the Guadalupe, the other was a Spanish virgin with light blue robes, a muted version of her Mexican sister. And the third was wearing bright indigenous traje, maybe recalling the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, who was the origin of the iconography of the Guadalupe.

Starting to count, we stopped when we reached 28. All of these shrines had been carefully tended and recently adorned for Christmas.

I find these shrines consoling: when you being to notice the Virgin, you realize she´s everywhere!

Keep your eyes open.

p.s. if you double click on the photo, you will see the whole photo. Sorry I couldn´t shrink it.