From the cross, Jesus gave us his Mother as our own; the beloved disciple John, by the design of providence, was not to be her only son. On December 12, 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe – the “merciful Mother of all mankind” as she identified herself – spoke in the tenderest of terms to another one of her sons, Juan Diego:
Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son. Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? . . .Is there anything else that you need?
One would be hard pressed to find more comforting words; they are positively riveting given their intimate connection with the miraculous image of Mary imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma. How to explain, among many other things, the reflection, verified with modern technological equipment unavailable in earlier centuries, of Juan Diego (and others in the room when he unraveled his tilma) in the eyes of the Blessed Mother? And all beautifully depicted on coarse fabric that, unlike others of its kind, which last a couple decades at the very most, has not appreciably deteriorated in 479 years, despite over a century of exposure to the elements?
The extravagance of Mary’s reassuring words is magnified by the fact that they came the day after Juan Diego did not follow through with his promise to meet Mary again at the appointed time and place. He had spent that day tending to his gravely sick uncle. Knowing that he just went AWOL on the Queen of Heaven, though, he decided to take a shortcut to his destination the next day in order to avoid her. Haven’t we all, knowing our own shortcomings, or facing the hardships and counter-cultural demands that come with faith in Christ, taken shortcuts in one form or another? He was nonetheless greeted by Our Lady and heard these soothing words – even after she had explicitly told him earlier: “Do not forget me.”
Does this hold some significance today – as large numbers of people with at least some exposure to the Church are choosing to take other paths? Ex-Catholics, it is said, comprise the largest religious affiliation in our country today after Catholics themselves. For some, a painful personal experience led them away. For others, a particular doctrine is discomfiting. I’ve always wondered, though, what those consumed with the demand for women’s ordination, for example, make of the fact that Mary is exalted above all other creatures. L.A. is not the “City of the Angels” but of their Queen: Our Lady of the Angels. (Dude, you have to admit: that is mind-boggling!).
Juan Diego’s tilma: a gift from our mother
Many adopt a secular perspective chiefly to evade Catholicism’s moral code – even though peace depends on it; violating what’s stamped on the heart ensures disquietude that no amount of protest or self-styled spirituality can quell. Still others in the West today turn to the East (or some New Age amalgamation that leaves out the demanding asceticism and morality of Eastern religion, too) for the same reason, or simply because it is the in-thing to do, though some are also genuinely seeking meaning, truth, and spirituality. Even if the reasons ex-Catholics have for avoiding the Church do not quite resemble how Juan Diego sought to avoid Mary that one day – still, the Blessed Mother understands our humanity and stands ready to shower us with her maternal love.
While Yoga has been in vogue here in the affluent West, National Geographic reports that some Mexicans, particularly those surrounded by the plague of drug-cartel related violence and “the prospect of such a terrible death”, are turning “to death itself for protection”; the cult of La Santa Muerte (Holy Death) has, curiously, become the “guardian of the most defenseless and worst of sinners.”
Is not a certain forgetfulness – of Our Lady, of the Church – at work under such duress here as well? (There can be no doubt that vicious persecution, not just forgetfulness, officially characterized the Mexican government’s relations with the Church for much of the last century). Drugs today, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “point to an interior longing in man which breaks out in perverted form if it does not find its true satisfaction.” Such perversion comes full circle when this unholy image is held up as a means of coping with the chaotic fallout of drugs, which “reveal the vacuum in our society” in the first place.
Shortly after Our Lady’s appearance, the Aztec peoples of the region converted by the millions – and as a result, abandoned their practice of human sacrifice. How could we, with our state-sanctioned toleration of the taking of innocent human life in the womb, have forgotten about such basic injunctions? Our modern-day barbarity not only far exceeds in scale the Aztecs rituals; it has flourished in a culture that, unlike the Aztecs, was formed by Christian sensibility. Their gods ceased having power to make exacting claims upon human life; the idol of absolute individual autonomy – “choice” and the “right to privacy” – still demands its pound of flesh.
Our Lady said she came to give all her love and protection to the people, to hear their weeping, and “alleviate all their multiple sufferings.” There could scarcely be a more inviting and urgent message for an anxious, secular age – particularly one that has forgotten what matters most.