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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Roses of Guadalupe

Last Sunday before the service, Mark Peterson told me he didn’t have my sermon titles to post on the board outside, so for December twelfth he put up “Guadalupe” because he saw it on a calendar. I had been thinking of sermon topics, something related to the season, so when Mark mentioned Guadalupe, what came to mind was the week I spent in January 2001 in Cuernavava, Mexico with a side trip to Mexico City to see the Basílica of Guadalupe. Continuing in a theme of important dates in the Mexican calendar, today I bring you The Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, December twelfth, a day when thousands of Mexican pilgrims make their way to the Basilica, many traveling by bicycle and some arriving on their knees to pay homage to the Virgin.

The day I visited the basilica fell about a month after the feast day, but still hundreds of pilgrims filed by me on their knees. Thousands gathered to view the displayed piece of fabric bearing the image of Mary found by a peasant named Juan Diego this day in 1531.

The Benedictine nuns who took me and six other North American visitors to the shrine told us the miraculous origin of the cloth.

A peasant named Juan Diego was traveling from his home village to Mexico City when he came upon a young woman surrounded in light who instructed him in the local language of Nahuatl to build a church in her honor. Juan Diego recognized the woman as the Virgin Mother. He hurried to tell the Bishop who instructed him to return to site and ask the woman for a sign proving her identity. So off Juan went and when he found her, he asked for a sign and she told him to go up the rocky hill and gather flowers. And though it was winter he found roses everywhere. Guadalupe herself arranged the flowers in his cloak and bade him not to move them until he reached the Bishop. Juan Diego returned to the Bishop and when he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and in their place a glowing figure of her appeared on the cloth where the petals had been.

It is that image on Juan Diego’s cloak that hangs in the basilica.
The nuns explain Guadalupe’s name really means “the one who protects us from the ones who eat us,” undoubtedly a reference to the Spanish conquistadors Indians like Juan Diego faced. “She is mestizo,” says Sister Fatima. “She welcomes the children of Spanish fathers and indigenous mothers,” inviting the blended into her maternal embrace.

On my winter visit, roses bloomed in the gardens of the nuns just as they bloomed before Juan Diego.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, this is the third Sunday of Advent, Any of you who grew up in or near the tradition may remember the colors that correspond with each of the four Sundays. Because Advent begins like Lent as a time of penitence and fasting, altars first feature purple, a color associated with both penitence and royalty, but by the third week they shift to bright blue to signify the night sky that will herald the rising star or the waters of life associated with creation, or they feature rose to reflect the joy inherent in the coming birth.

This year the third Sunday of Advent falls on December twelfth, the day Mexicans honor Guadalupe who chose as a sign of her authenticity roses abloom out of season on a rocky hillside.

There is a way the Spirit alights today no less wondrously or mysteriously than it appeared before Juan Diego. No less wondrously or mysteriously than it appeared to Mary herself when the angel Gabriel announced to her she would carry a son.
It is easy for folks like us who prefer a more rational approach to life than religious miracles portend, to dismiss the relevance of such stories, but the nine days I spent in Mexico a decade ago with the nuns taught me otherwise and summon me to heed the message of this time of year. So on this Mexican high holy day, it feels fitting to recount my experience, not with an apparition of Guadalupe, but an incarnation of her that appeared in the form of Benedictine sisters in their modest blue skirts and white blouses, cinnamon skin and dark eyes closer to the color of a Middle Eastern Mary than the paler versions we know.

Benedictines, whether monks or nuns, follow the Rule of Benedict, a set of directions for monastic life written in the 6th century by Benedict of Nursia whose wisdom shaped Western monasticism. Ten months a year, the good sisters at Las Misioneras Guadalupanas de Cristo Rey welcome visitors from the United States for a program called "Faith/Hospitality Experience in Latin America." For nine days, people like me are given the chance to experience Benedictine hospitality. For Benedictines, each guest is a representative of Christ.

Upon our arrival at the retreat center, several nuns rush out to greet us. Each one offers a big hug and says in English, "Welcome Home." In our rooms, much more spacious than the ones the nuns live in, we each find a vase of flowers next to a hand-lettered card with our name and another "welcome." In each bathroom is a bottle of purified water. In our three daily chapel services, the nuns provide readings in English and play tapes of U.S. monks singing. In the dining room there are Oreos, and mashed potatoes. Hot dogs and grilled cheese. Evidence abounds of their effort to make us feel at home.

Year-round the nuns work with the poor of Cuernavaca. Part of their mission is to educate us about that reality. Eighty percent of Mexico’s people live in poverty. Illiteracy and malnutrition contribute to vast underemployment. We listen to guest speakers and watch a twenty-year-old video about the hidden Holocaust of Guatemala—a civil war where 135,000 people died. We meet survivors of that war who have settled in Mexico. Every day, we visit children and adults who labor to subsist. On a dirt walkway just over the hill from the retreat center, we chat with four women, shovels in hand, creating a road from a heap of gravel. Another day, we visit four families in The Station, a cramped, non-arable swath of government land where 30,000 squatters live in dwellings constructed from scraps. In the homes we enter, little light shines in. There are no windows amidst the corrugated metal and stone. Dust. Rats. Bare light bulbs. Outhouses. Strips of cloth functioning as doors. Conditions that mirror the encampments of poor blacks who lived a mile from my childhood home in Tennessee, reminiscent of lives lived in cardboard box villages and in subway tunnels. Each foray led by the nuns a billboard for the prophet Jeremiah who wrote: Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; that makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.

The good sisters aim to churn our consciousness by exposing us to harsh realities. They want us to consider the ways we spend our disposable income and think twice before supporting NAFTA; but it is the nuns themselves, voices soft and laughter keen, who stir my soul beyond measure. It is their oft-repeated melodies sung on or off key, in praise of a god that restores their hope daily and calls them to serve by accompanying them as they do.

In Cuernavaca as I read aloud the poetry of Mary Oliver each day as part of my morning meditation, sitting outside among lavish winter roses, apricot and ivory, I realize why the people I meet there need the Lady of Guadalupe, a mestizo incarnation of Mary who fuses indigenous religion with Christianity in a way that makes sense to conquered people. As I walk to 7a.m. chapel, marveling at the roses and hibiscus, the palette of sky as the sun transforms it, I experience the divine in Mary Oliver’s images and the scent of flora, in the colors and texture and infinite wisdom of the universe. And as soon as I sit down in the chapel, careful to select a seat that permits me to gaze out the picture window at the rising sun and the reflection of the candle in the foliage on the hill so that I peer into a burning bush, the nuns sing praises to El Senor, to a human incarnation of God who suffers with the poor. As the sound of the nuns singing psalms in Spanish fills my ear, I feel the presence of the God they invoke.

Up until that moment, I have experienced a sense of the divine through poetry. My realm of the sacred: magnificent trees, Not surprising for a person who lives in a wooded landscape where the trees have room to grow like spires. But there in the small room filled with the good sisters of Guadalupe, my horizon of the sacred expands.

The sisters faithfully bow to the consecrated host in a glass box that hangs from the chapel ceiling, wafers made holy they tell me by blessings of the priest. And at that moment, I see as clearly as Juan Diego did, the presence of holiness. Not in the host consecrated by the priest, but in the welcome consecrated by nuns who embody the risen spirit in their radical hospitality, their tireless pursuit of justice, their unsung labor—they emanate a god that before, I would have only seen present in the petals of rose light that bloom on the chapel wall at evening prayer.
It is the nuns who instruct me why it is that as lovely as their flowers are, what ultimately stirs Juan Diego, and centuries of his descendents is the image of a mestizo Mary welcoming them as graciously as the Virgin accepts the fullness of her womb, a pregnancy she does not choose. The message Mary imparts is that within each of us the divine gestates and comes to light when we, as courageously as she does, welcome the unbidden. When we heed the great Sufi poet Rumi, who writes: “Be grateful for whoever comes/ because each has been sent /as a guide from beyond.”
The morning of our departure, I am the only guest who shows up for 7 a.m. prayer. I peer in the doorway of the chapel where five nuns pray. No guitars or singing, just the quiet murmurs of Spanish. An amber hand beckons me in. The mother superior offers me an English Bible and indicates a passage to read. After I finish, she reads the same passage in Spanish. A moment later, the nuns rise and move toward center. We all join hands. They begin the Lord’s Prayer in English. I wave my hand to indicate no, no, please say it in Spanish. But daily they embroider the Rule of Benedict on their hearts. Of course they will pray in English for the sake of their lone North American guest.

The words catch in my throat, blocked by welling tears. I struggle to make them audible, to give voice to my gratitude for their kindness, for the gift of their prayer.

I keep replaying the words of sister Ramona telling me that after we depart, they will clean our rooms, launder the linens, re-make the beds. "This is our work," she says.

I think of Glenda telling me our job is to stay in our joy. And I think of Guadalupe telling a peasant to gather flowers where you least expect them. I recall gazing up at that cloth, centuries old, beholding the image of a woman radiating light, arms extended in welcome. I recall the sight of men and women walking on their knees across an acre of concrete in humility and praise, traveling like the legendary wise men to pay homage to “the one who protects them from the ones who will eat [them].”
We rarely believe it is the unknown that will protect us. We don’t associate the unbidden or unexpected with what saves us. Usually, we meet the unknown with apprehension or run the other way. But on the feast day of Guadalupe, the third Sunday of Advent, may the color of roses, the color of joy, remind us of flowers that bloom when and where we least expect. May we, like Juan Diego, see holiness on the hillside, and like Mary, feel it stirring within.


Closing words: Helen Keller wrote, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Adventure begins with Advent. Pregnant with risk and possibility, it invites us to participate in birth of what we cannot imagine but nevertheless can come to know.