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Our Lady of Guadalupe: More than an oversized truck decal

Disclaimer: The reference to the truck decal is not an admonishment of the use of the truck decal.  It is by my own personal experience that I knew of the image for many, many years because how prevalently displayed she is, like specifically on vehicles in my area.  However, I never knew the story behind the decal, so when I learned about it a couple of years ago I was simply astounded.  The title reflects my own experience in learning the great significance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

In Texas, a good portion of our culture is directly influenced by the vibrant culture to our South, that of Mexico*.  We gorge on their food, love a good margarita, and find no child’s birthday party complete without a Sponge Bob pinata.  Among all those things we find iconic of the Mexican culture, we also find that funny image of Mary in the blue blanket with yellow squiggly lines behind her.  Why are there statues of Her in random front yards, and why is the image riding around on pickup trucks?

Our Lady appears to us on our highways! Photo By Debra de la Cruz.

To a large portion of Christians today, the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s was the most defining time of Christianity since the Crucifixion.  In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.  In the 1530’s, Luther was drafting the first doctrinal statement of the Lutheran church, Ulrich Zwingli was killed and John Calvin was shepherding Christians in his church in Geneva.  Interestingly, many students of the Reformation may not be aware that the 1500’s were equally monumental in Christian history for the people of Central America.  In 1531, God sent the Blessed Virgin to a little village outside of Mexico City to introduce Himself to the Aztec people and to show them the path to Himself and His Son.  “In only eight years, nine million people converted to the Catholic Church!  That’s an average of three thousand baptisms a day.  It stands as one of history’s most radical, monumental and rapid social transformations ever.” (Ron Tesoriero, Reason to Believe, pg 156).

Please check out Reason to Believe by Ron Tesoriero for more about the Virgin!

Allow me to give a very brief summary of God’s Guadalupe miracle.  Missionaries had been in the area for a while trying to convert the Aztec peoples to the ways of Christianity, yet, saw little success.  The Aztec beliefs were particularly troubling because they practiced human sacrifice (estimates are of thousands to hundreds of thousands per year).  However, God worked with what He’d accomplished through the missionaries, choosing (in His usual fashion) to call upon a very humble man already faithful to the Lord, Juan Diego.

In early December 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to Catechism class when he heard a woman call out to him from a little barren hill named Tepeyac.  Upon investigation, Diego found a beautiful lady who appeared as an Aztec woman and spoke to him in his native tongue.  Despite her ethnicity, Diego recognized the woman as Mary, the Mother of God.  She confirmed Her identity and instructed Diego to make an appeal to the local Bishop to build a church on Tepeyac.  Juan Diego had absolutely no stature to make such a request, but did what he could.  Surprisingly, the Bishop was somewhat receptive, but asked for proof of Diego’s encounter with the Blessed Virgin.

Diego did his best to avoid running into the Lady again as he did not feel fit for the job, but she appeared to him a few days later, on December 12th.  It was then She instructed him to go to the top of Tepeyac, gather the flowers growing there and bring them back.  No flowers would be growing in December, much less on Tepeyac, which was known to be barren.  Nevertheless,  there Diego found countless Castillian roses growing.  He bundled them up in his tilma (a sort of cloak made of cactus fiber) and he hurried to the church.  Once in an audience with the bishop, Diego opened his tilma for the beautiful flowers to cascade down, and was puzzled when the Bishop was more captivated by the tilma than the amazing flowers.  On the tilma, was painted the image of Our Lady cloaked in a blue starry mantle with sun rays bursting behind her.  To a people who communicated pictographically, a clear message of salvation was spelled out in the masterpiece’s details.

In the days to come, plans to build the church were made and many, many miracles happened at the site of Tepeyac.   When a few weeks later, on December 25th, a dead man brought before the tilma regained life, news and conversions spread like wildfire.

 

The tilma hangs in Mexico at La Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Photography by Bill Bell.

Now-a-days, this incredible story can be easily dismissed as fanciful folklore.  Stories like these only happen in the Bible, or in fairytale books, not in modern day real life.  However, God didn’t just use the image to convert the people of the 1500’s, He made sure that the tilma would be a source of evangelization for generations to come.

The 500 year old tilma is made of cactus fiber that has a longevity of about 20 years (meaning, it should have perished 480 years ago).  Despite the degradability of the fabric, the tilma hung freely for over 100 years without any protection from the environment, visitors, or candles before it was finally placed behind a thin protective glass casing.  The colors have never faded, and the fabric shows no signs of decay.  For reference, the American Declaration of Independence too was exposed to the elements for over 100 years before preservation measures were thought of.  However, by then it had already suffered damage from water, sun exposure and decay.  This 200 year old man-made document resides in a bulletproof, titanium case filled with inert argon gas.  Man needs titanium to protect his treasures, meanwhile God continues to astonish us with His protection.  In 1921, a large bomb was placed in a vase of flowers below the tilma.  The dynamite destroyed the church, blew out the windows, reduced the marble altar to rubble and mangled the large iron crucifix.  The target of the blast, the tilma, survived.  Its primitive glass casing wasn’t so much as even cracked.

Over the last 100 years, experts in many fields have investigated the miraculous tilma (including NASA researchers and a Nobel prize winner).  Researchers have been unable to identify the pigment used on the canvas, as the colors do not show to be made of any coloring agent, natural or synthetic, known to man.  The image has never faded, and has never been retouched.  Furthermore, upon close inspection, the pigment of the image does not actually reside in the cactus fibers of the tilma, instead the image hovers about 0.3 mm away from it (Reason to Believe pg 162).

Visitors say that the most memorable aspect of the Virgin is Her eyes, that they are genuinely lifelike.  This type of detail should be impossible to capture on crude cactus fiber.  The ability for such precision isn’t capable by the material.  Yet, in the 1950’s, photographic enlargements of the eyes showed the reflection of people, later learned to be Juan Diego, the Bishop and his interpreter, the three men who were gathered at the presentation of the tilma in 1531.  Lastly, in the mid 90’s, examination of the Virgin’s eyes by an ophthalmologist revealed that all of the proper parts of human eyes were present, “The eyes have all the characteristics of a human eye.  It has all the parts.  Around the pupil are contraction furrows which operate to contract the pupil in front of light.  These furrows were only detected by opthalmologic science in the twentieth century.  You can see the vascular supply in the upper eyelid of the right eye” says Dr. Jorge Escalante in Reason to Believe (pg 165).  If the image on the tilma holds secrets that could only be detected by technology 400 years later, imagine what other secrets She may be harboring for the unbelievers armed with even more advanced technology in the future?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is a conversion weapon of God’s that has proven effective over many, many generations.  While the Church struggled with sin and schism in the 1500s, God brought millions of new followers to Him through the Virgin.  Today, while the Church struggles to protect an ancient faith in the midst of man’s prideful technological advancement, we find that God is still showing us who’s Boss through the same evangelization tool.

So, next time you see the image of the Woman in the starry mantle with the sun glowing behind Her, remember why our Latin American friends are so fond of Her.  Just like at the Nativity 2,000 years ago, where God used His Mother to bring forth the Word Made Flesh,  Our Lord also used His mother to bring the Word of God to millions of people (and their children for generations to come) in the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th, 1531.

“My belief in miracles cannot be considered a mystical belief: it is founded on human evidence, as is my belief in the discovery of America.  It is, indeed, a simple logical fact that hardly needs to be recognized or interpreted.  The extraordinary idea going around is that those who deny the miracle know how to consider the facts coolly and directly, while those who accept the miracle always relate the facts with the dogma previously accepted.  In fact, the opposite is the case: the believers accept the miracle (with or without reason) because the evidence compels them to do so.  The unbelievers deny it (with or without reason) because the doctrine they profess compels them to do so.” – G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

In addition to Reason to Believe, see also http://www.maryourmother.net/Guadalupe.html.

* Originally published with “Central America” instead of “Mexico”, which is incorrect as Mexico is in North America.

Categories
Shiela

The Beauty of Truth

I plucked a red pepper out of the garden yesterday.  It was well formed with rounded quadrants at the top and bottom.  The skin was soft, smooth and ruby red.  The stem was perky and green and still had a leaf attached.  It had a scent of pepper mingling with sweetness.  It was simply beautiful.  It sits on my window sill and I gaze at it when I am at the sink.  I tend to put small beautiful things on my window sill.  A small painted animal or a miniature vase of flowers from the yard.  I spend a lot of time in my kitchen and I like to surround myself with beautiful things.   Making beautiful things gives me great pleasure, too. When I cook, I am aware of the color and presentation of the food as much as the taste.  I consider the color of the platter and how it will complement my entree.  There is something about beauty, wherever it is found, that captivates us and makes us pause for a moment.  But, what is in that moment?  Why do we desire beauty in our lives?

My appreciation for beauty in art led me to Florence, Italy when I was in college. There,  I had the opportunity to explore the San Marco Monastery in Florence, a former monastery turned museum.  In the hallways and on each dormitory wall, Fra Angelico, had painted a fresco depicting moments in Christ’s life.  I stood in each nearly empty dorm and imagined what it must have been like to awaken in this spartan room to nothing but walls, the floor and a beautiful fresco.   The intent of the fresco was to put each monk into the contemplative, peaceful mindset that is required of their vocation.  These colors and lines and symbols telling the story of our Lord gave an ethereal richness to the impoverished life of these monks.  In the enclosed courtyard of the monastery, another monk was tasked with maintaining a beautiful rose garden.  Each plant was carefully tended to produce a perfect rose.  Others spent their days creating manuscripts with elegant calligraphy and illuminations.  I left the monastery thinking that it was as if they traded all the fleeting treasures of this  secular world to live amidst the beauty of  eternal truth.

The life of Christ has inspired some of the most magnificent works of beauty known to man.  A beauty that is set apart from a secular idea of beauty that only seeks to display an individual’s wealth or to celebrate the empty promise of hedonism.    During my time in Florence and Rome, I was able to experience coming face to face with transcendant beauty created by  many gifted painters.  Not just Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but their many apprentices, too.  And not just painting, but literature, architecture, and music has also been created by man over the centuries to glorify God.  We have G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and  Robert Southwell to name a few authors whose writings use the beauty of language in either its poetic or reasonable character to reveal the truth.

By stark contrast, when beauty is absent, we find darkness, confusion, destruction and despair.  When the towers fell, ten years ago on September 11, 2001, we witnessed the opposite of creation.  We witnessed destruction.  The images that emerged from that tragic day were filled with darkness, confusion, destruction and despair.  In the same way, we pause and we are captivated.  But there is something very different that moment when we behold ugliness. When something is created to glorify God, there will be transcendant beauty.  If we really believe this to be true, we must question how war and acts of war can ever be considered acts that glorify God.  In light of the recent conflicts, Pope Benedict has said that we need to be “asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war’.”  This weekend, as we revisit the tragic events of ten years ago and the attendant images,  I hope we can pause and reflect on how we can resolve the problems in the world without turning to acts of war, but rather by seeking to build up God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

When the first tower was struck ten years ago, I was eight months pregnant with my first born son.  I was also working part-time as an art therapist with children in foster care.   Art therapists use art to encourage healing from trauma.  It occurred to me at that time that we, as a country, had been traumatized.  And we have needed healing.  Since September 11, 2001, we have each done our part to restore beauty to the landscape of our life.  There are so many little ways that we can participate in God’s ongoing creation.  We can start in simple ways each day.  Plant a garden, knit a scarf, paint a picture, play a song on the piano, write a poem and take moments to experience and appreciate beauty wherever you can find it.  And create it where it is lacking.

from New Heaven, New War by Robert Southwell

With tears He fights and wins the field,

His naked breast stands for a shield,

His battering shot are babish cries,

His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,

His martial ensigns, cold and need,

And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.
Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, Ufizi Musem, Florence