¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?
Our Lady of Guadalupe is an image you will find all over the SW. In that sense, she has been near me ever since moving to New Mexico. At Mass on Sunday, the priest, who is Polish — as in, from Poland, not born in America — spoke of the Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sunday. That’s the reach this particular Marian vision has had; she’s connected to the giving of life here and abroad.
Nevertheless, she uniquely belongs to Mexican identity, dating from the 16th C when the native Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, experienced four visions of her. She spoke to him in the Nahuatl language of his people, and identified herself as Mary the mother of Jesus. Her message to him was simple: build a shrine at the location of the first vision. Further visions were necessary because the local bishop didn’t believe Juan’s story — the last vision of which was stamped on Juan’s cloak. The image on the cloak has become the template for the Our Lady of Guadalupe we see depicted today: pregnant with head bowed, indicating she wasn’t the goddess Juan’s people revered, but a worshiper of God and a bearer of the Christ child.
Mexico’s history of Christianity isn’t perfect by any measure. The Spaniards conquered and colonized a land belonging to others. At the same time, they were Catholics, following a religion that was intermixed with their monarchical government. So the results of the Spanish-Catholic mission was mixed at best — mixed up with military power and greed. Hence, the vast spread of the gospel was brought to the native Mexicans, not through the domineering Spanish-Catholic government, but through a native son and his humble vision of a maiden. And through this vision, the practice of human sacrifice was eventually eradicated from the land of Mexico.
Make no mistake: the Aztecs weren’t a simply a peaceful nation overtaken by the brutal Spanish. They were themselves a brutal people, both as a military force and in their practice of regular human sacrifice. In some estimations (scholarly estimations differ), they were sacrificing 20% of their population. The gods they worshiped were cults of death. This is why Our Lady of Guadalupe is associated with a life-giving message. The visions of her subverted the death and destruction of both worlds, Aztec and Spanish, and brought peace among the nativos, criollos, and mestizos.
I found myself thinking of St. Patrick of Ireland — my native culture, somewhere back there — when the priest spoke of Juan Diego and his visions. In both cases, Christianity was already present to some extent in these lands of pagan worship; yet, in both cases, these men are credited with the wide-spread belief in Christianity. In addition, they have both become the very identity of their respective nations, albeit Juan Diego’s vision is larger than he is. And, in both cases, legends have sprung up around them, such that it’s difficult to determine what is factual and what is mythical about their stories.
Apart from these obvious similarities, I recognize a twin soul in Mexico and Ireland. The term soul is slippery in this context. What do I mean exactly? I don’t know, but the San Patricios recognized it when they defected from the United States and joined the Mexicanos during the Mexican War. Although there are a number of theories as to why these men defected, simply put, the soul here is most likely that of Catholicism. Those heady days when Catholicism was used for political purposes had given way to Protestantism’s unholy marriage with the state. This marriage caused suffering in Ireland, and was now encroaching on the Mexican border.
On a more spiritual note, like other Catholic nations, Ireland has had its share of Marian visions. A mother is very important to the human soul and apparently very important to the Catholic soul. In essence, it’s related to the very idea of a motherland, something which many Irish have lost, and which the Aztecs were busy losing in the days of Spanish conquest. A mother brings forth life that leads to connections among humans, just as the earth brings forth food that binds a society together. However, in worshiping a goddess, the people are worshipping something they long for but don’t understand: a culture of life. Ultimately, the life people long for is the Christ child, and this is why Mary is the ultimate woman. She isn’t a goddess, but a bearer of God.
More specifically, I see these two nations as clinging to a culture of life through their religious faith and being attacked at the very heart of that culture of life. Their strength becomes their weakness. Mexico is in the grip of violence, as Ireland has been for centuries.* That’s what my mind was reaching for when I suddenly thought of St. Patrick while listening to a homily on Our Lady of Guadalupe. That’s always what my mind reaches for, in every story I write, and the manner in which I live. I’m reaching for a culture of life and having to fight against the inevitable attacks from the culture of death that surrounds me.
It’s my prayer today and always that the culture of life wins. Of course it wins. What would the gospel mean if death prevailed instead of life? Yet, it’s up to us as humans to be bearers of that life that Jesus gave us. That’s the great commission from beginning to end: be fruitful and multiply, bringing the gospel to all nations just as Mary brought forth Jesus.
*There are some ironies that have occurred in Ireland since the settling of peace in the 1990s, but it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into that. Human societies and their evolution–>devolution processes are consistent and ironic at the same time.