There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
High up in those ancient trees
Lord, I've given up without a fight
Another blind fool on his knees…
And all the Gods that I've abandoned
Begin to speak in simple tongue….
The shrine sits on the outskirts of Mexico City, beneath a low mountain where two older versions of the church are settling into the Mexican earth. Sinking into the primeval Aztecan mud. This is the spot where the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a poor Nahuatl Indian named Juan Diego. On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking near the Hill of Tepeyac and encountered a vision of a young girl. The girl was surrounded in light and spoke to Juan in his native language, asking that a church be built in her honor on this site. He recognized the vision as the Virgin Mary and went to tell the Bishop, Juan de Zumaraga. The Bishop asked Juan to return and seek a miraculous sign of proof. Back on the hill, the Virgin told Juan Diego to pick a bouquet of flowers and these turned out to be Castilian Roses which only grew near Bishop's home territory in Spain - they didn’t grow in Mexico. The Juan Diego opened his cape and the apparition of Guadalupe appeared there like an ancient votive painting…the same image which now hangs in the church. Let me tell you a little story….
I had flown to Mexico City six years ago during Christmas season. I was in between relationships; aching to escape self pity and the pressures of the holiday season. Craving escape in a city I now consider the Rome of Western Civilization. I hooked up with Taxi driving guide named Caesar who was a bit of a self-made historian. We drove to the pyramids, Frida Kahlo's house, the wondrous Dolores Olmedo Museum, all the great eateries near the square; we wandered the maze in the flea market of antiquities and I spent Sunday in the largest bull ring in the world.
Christmas eve I attended Midnight mass in the great central cathedral where Indian women carried their baby Jesus statues to the archbishop to be blessed with holy water. My heart pounded along with the 200 year old pump organ; sadness, doubt, self -pity and fear drained from my body with every hair raising crescendo of the ancient Latin hymns. I was not rediscovering religion so much as digging deeper into an understanding of the raw face of passionate belief - even if it wasn't my own personal belief. It was their belief and their story. Passion is passion. It counteracts the poison.
There are times when zealous rituals of other cultures open portals in your soul. A glimpse. Inward comes a light. This feeling does not lead to acceptance of church dogma or re-conversion or an overwhelming acceptance of Jesus, Mohammed, Jehovah or Buddha. Not every time. But I heard whispers and I was lead to the hill of Tepeyac. The shrine of Guadalupe. And I sat there for hours on a winter afternoon with thousands of Mexicans and Indians, and an odd assortment of German tourists who kept leafing through guide books. And that image was up on the altar in a golden frame, and the poor and spiritually crippled and dumbstruck and all of us… were staring at her. Guadalupe.
We're talking of an image that is tattooed on the backs of Mexican men on death row. An image from a million roadside shrines. The Mother of the Americas. The talisman carried in the pocket of the poor and the Indian and the lawyer the thief and the bullfighter and the used car salesman. The belief in Guadalupe transcends normal Catholicism. It is a story, much like an old folk song or a votive painting, which has endured. As Carlos Fuentes wrote: "One may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in Guadalupe. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz stated: "The Mexican people, after nearly two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery."
And I sat there that long winter afternoon and it didn’t lead to my talking in tongues or getting baptized again or riding through Mexico City on a horse behind Zaptata or sub-commandante Marcos. And they both rode under her banner. It lead to a lingering chill and a knowledge that I was not alone in my yearning. There was a new light in my eyes, reflected from a thousand candle flames. And it finally lead to a song.
Who am I to doubt these mysteries?
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke
I am the least of all your pilgrims here
But I am most in need of hope.
(Guadalupe is song # 10 in a series of song sketches off the coming album: "Blood and Candle Smoke." It has also been recorded by Gretchen Peters on "One to the Heart, One to the Head"; available from www.tomrussell.com.)