Monday, June 13, 2011


In the 1690's the parish priest from the village of Patate, Ecuador used to ride a mule to the smaller village of Baños every Sunday evening to say Mass and teach catechism.  The two villages are divided by the raging Paztasa river canyon which is 70 meters deep at that point, and whose waters churn through a chasm only 10 meters wide.  The bridge had been destroyed and the workers had laid a single wooden log over the gap.  The priest was deep in prayer as his mule approached the log.  He wondered why the mule hesitated, and without thinking spurred him on.  The mule crossed the torrent on that one log and carried his charge into town.  The people had figured that without the bridge they would have to forego the minstrations of the church, so when the holy man rode into town they were all filled with surprise and astonishment!  In the morning they returned to the crossing and found the mule's shoe-prints clearly marked on the log.

The painting of the episode is one of many hanging in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Holy Waters in Baños.  It records one of the earliest miracles attributed to Our Lady, and her residence here is one reason Patate continues to be a small town and Baños is now a thriving place of pilgrimage, as well as a mecca for outdoor sports.  (You can even bungie-swing into that same canyon!)  The active volcano of Tunguragua sits just barely out of sight to the south, and many of the miracles have to do with rescues from lava and boiling waters during eruptions--about 5 major ones in 300 years including one in 2006.  Hundreds of plaques of gratitude, "milagros" and offerings of everything from wedding dresses to projection TVs, fill several rooms of a museum on the third floor of the monastery cloister next door to the church.  Thermal springs blessed by the Virgin bring healing when medical assistance fails.  A graceful and almost lacy waterfall right where town meets mountain cliff is dedicated especially to her, with a shrine and all, and outside the shrine there is a long line of gravity-fed hoses where at least 24 people can all do their lawndry in her water.

Fascinating place, this is!

Pearls of Wisdom

Rough translation of some words of wisdom from a hanging in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Waters in Baños, Ecuador:

It is not the candle you light as much as the light you shine in your world.

It is not the holy water you take home in a jug as much as the holiness of your life.

It is not the blessing you receive as much as the blessing you are.

It is not the car you have blessed as much as your responsible driving.

And I would add:  It is not so much the holy places you have been to as much as the holy places you take away within you.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

They'll Suck us Dry!

While on Puerto Rico Landon my son and I decided to visit a State Park in a dry forest area.  Dry forests are unique in a lot of ways, and being on the leeward side of an incredibly lush island they seemed somehow oddly out-of-place.  We got there with an hour to closing time, and the kind man in the shack showed us an hour's worth of trails to walk.  Landon was eager to see whatever he could see, I was eager to add some birds to my life list.  So off we went--

Right into the teeth of the biggest, baddest swarm of mosquitoes you could ever imagine.  They hounded us.  No piece of exposed skin was safe from their onslought.  At first Landon was rather pleased to see me battling more of them than he.  Yes, perhaps I've gotten a bit more sugar in my blood over the years, but I was also showing a lot more skin with my short sleeves compared to his wisely-chosen long ones.  It was almost impossible to stop to watch birds!

Stop and they swarm, clouding your vision and darkening the sky above you,
You can feel the moisure being drawn from your body,
Blood stains seem to appear through your shirt and even pants,
Are they lifting you off the ground now, to carry you away to the great Mosquito Queen?

A bird?  What bird?  Did you see a bird?

(I did add 4 new species in spite of the black horde!)

Dreams Fulfilled

Last nigh I dreamt I saw two large airliners line up on parallel landing strips, only to have one crowd the other, clip its tail with its wing, and rip open the fuselage, sending both onto the ground as they landed.  I ran to tell authorities, and saw a large military missle come over the hill in slow motion, and pop like a giant balloon against a building, causing no damage.  I woke wondering what sort of omen it carried.

At the first toll booth outside of Ponce on the way back to San Juan on the Island of Puerto Rico I found out.  The lanes were being worked on, funneling three lanes into one.  In typical Latin American style the car to my right and I played a game of chicken until his mirror hit mine--on my rental!  Seeing minimal damage and not exactly wanting to confront that kind of reckless driver, I paid my toll and drove on up the highway.  Soon the other car passed me and began to try to force me off the road.  He did that a couple of times until I finally had my son call the police, and, relieved to see one quickly appear, pulled over with the other car right behind me.  The officer heard our stories, scolded me for not stopping even though the damage seemed slight, and then mercifully wrote up a mere "accident incident" report and did not issue me a citation.  So now I've called insurances, and done all of that other stuff.  In the end the missle popped with no real damage to anything or anyone.

So I began reflecting on why I had joined in the game of chicken.  Part of my Latin American spirit c an get just as machista as the next guy, and having the right-of-way, didn't want to get shown up, even with a rental car.  Yes, I confess.

To chide myself into more careful choices is to mold my behavior with fear, something that I strongly disagree with.  What other options are there?

Community.  So here is how it goes.  Yes, I'm in the middle lane with the right-of-way, and yes, the cars beside me are being royal pains in the heine, but somehow, in the larger picture of things, everybody has to get funnelled through that one lane, pay their tolls and be on their way.  Why not help the general peace of the land and give my place to another?  Does that not take even more "" in the long run?

Lessons are usually learned the hard way, though....

Why do they come?

The Virgin appeared to a young boy and two young girls going to the spring for water for the school, so the story goes.  It was 1953 in rural southwestern Puerto Rico, and the three still live in the village of Sabana Grande.  You can go visit them if you want.

Unlike Guadalupe in Mexico, the Virgin of the Well does not enshrine national or ethnic identity, that honor goes to a pre-Christian goddess named Boricua.  Here, however, those who come in faith (from any tradition, it seems) are welcomed with calm, gracious openness.  You are invited to drink from the well that she blessed.  The water is sweet, surprisingly so.  But the sweetness that lingers is not in the mouth but the place and the people in it.  Those people come in twos and threes and small family groups, sometimes alone.  They range from young children to the elderly--I was surprised at the number of teens and young adults who seemed to be there of their own accord.  They come almost always for one thing.  They come for peace:  in their bodies, for healing; in their souls, for tranquility; in their spirits, for inspiration.

One older Episcopalian said he had been coming here since the aparition and he just can't stay away.  A 20's Something described the place as existing in another dimension.  His friend added that the troubles of the world just stay at the gate, and are often not there when you return.  Another was convinced that if everyone would follow this path the world would be at peace.  It's hard to argue with that.

Except some do.  One of the particular trials of this sort of place the world over is the Church.  The sanctuary has had its ups-and-downs with the local Roman Catholic hierarchy.  Currently the local parish priest allows rosaries to be said there on weekends but does not have permission from his bishop to celebrate mass there.

Just as indominable is the Puerto Rican spirit, so is indominable the spirit of this place.  Church or no church, it will always draw its faithful and win new ones.  How embarrassing to have the church be outperformed by the Spirit!

A Land Between the Lands

Puerto Rico is an interesting place. Christopher Columbus claimed it for Spain on his second trip to the New World, and it was a Spanish colony for 400 years.  It became a part of the United States over 100 years ago, and for more than 40 years English was taught in its schools.  Now it is in what is called a free association, which means that it is a posession of the United States, with voice and no vote in Washington.

Culturally it stands in-between as well.  The official language of the island is now Spanish, but English is a required course in every grade.  The language of the street is Spanglish.  Signs are in both languages, or either, doesn't really seem to matter.  The US mail service is the mail service of the island, and my cell phone is on the American grid.  Driving is much more like Mexico City than Killeen, Texas.  Grit, guts and certain abundance of hormones makes life full of color and drama.  And so on this island freeways with clear signage criscross banana plantations and lush, green tropical forests.

I found myself feeling strangely en casa

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Faith and Culture

Why do thousands of people flock to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City?  They were there in typical numbers today.  We saw couples flirting in the corners, we saw men and women of all ages walking across the stone courtyard (big enough to hold several football fields) and into the new Basilica on their knees. From the painfully slow progress some of them were making it would seem they had come some distance, they are reported to come this way for miles.

Why do they walk up the beautiful stone stairway to the top of Tepeyac hill, overlooking the city from a 500 ft. vantage point, and crowd into the small chapel there to say a rosary or see the life-sized pictures behind glass on the wall?  The pictures all over the campus tell the same story, the story of a poor and insignificant Indian man, Juan Diego 10 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1531), and how to him the Virgin Mary appeared on this spot and sent him on an impossible errand.  She sent him to ask the Bishop for a church on that location.  But what 16th century Spanish bishop was going to listen to a recently-conquered Indian's request?  The Catholic church of the time was hand-in-glove with the sword that had conquered these people.  They were one more way that the pagans were being subjugated and brought under the rule of Spain and the Catholic faith.  What did they know?

To cut a beatiful story short, she appears to him four times and the last time she gives him an armload of cut roses to give to the Bishop.  He wraps them in his "tilma" or shawl, and when he pours them out at the bishop's feet the image we know is emblazoned on his shawl.  The sight triggers a reversal in the bishop and the rest is history.  Well, almost.

The tilma ended up enshrined in the Basilica.  We were able to get a picture of it from 50 yards away, not nearly close enough to satisfy a cynical heart or even a critical eye.  Masses are said there on the hour every hour every Sunday.  There are a hundred ways you can give your time, talent or treasure.  (For the first time I saw a girl serving as an acolyte in a Catholic church in the old Basilica next door!)  The church is packed every time.  But people hardly hear the sermon.  They mumble the responses like automatons.  That is not why the people come.

The machinery that the Church has built up around this place sometimes helps and sometimes steps in the way of what people are really after.  They are after the Mother of God with brown skin.  They seek the divine in accessible clothing.  When she calls Juan Diego "my little one," and says she is his mother every Mexican with Indian blood hears her words as spoken to them.  By extension everyone with a mix of Spanish and Indian blood across the width and breadth of  Latin America hears her words.  This is their mother's home, and Juan Diego, the poor and insignificant Indian man, conquered and pushed brutally to the bottom of the heap like so many of them, he is their brother and their inspiration.  For anyone who does not see the world from the top of the mountain, for anyone whose history is not pure, whose tradition is a mixture of heroism and failure, that is, "mestizo," this story speaks of hope, the great hope of the reversals of which Jesus spoke when He said, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last."

For me Juan Diego is the real hero of this story.

Why the Catholic church took until 1990 to beatify him baffles me, and why our own Episcopal church has not scooped up this voice from underfoot and raised him up with the great saints of the ages, I do not know.