07 February 2016

Mexico 2016 Day 2 – Friday 05 February

Our first full day in Mexico City. We got up to be down to breakfast in the dining room for 06:30, to be at the bus by 08:00. Anne and I had breakfast with Arsenio and Gemma, another spread of a variety of foods, both familiar and unfamiliar. I had fried cactus leaf for the first and only time in my life. I also had a “tamale” that was unexpectedly filled with a sort of white cheese; it was not really to my liking either, and there was never a “real” tamale on the buffet. In fact, there was little if any of what we Americans consider “Mexican” food (of course, really “Tex-Mex”). But there were plenty of good things to eat, including abundant desserts. We did not go hungry. Some veterans of cruises likened it almost to the experience there.

In any case, once everyone assembled at the bus, we set off. I haven’t yet mentioned our other Mexican guide, Pablo, because I do not specifically remember him from the first afternoon and evening. He may well have been there; I just do not remember and cannot find him in any of the pictures I have (which includes some shared by other pilgrims in a common Dropbox folder). Just as was Roberto, Pablo was perfectly suited to his role – knowledgeable, eager to help, with a hilarious sense of humor that made him our “resident comedian.” We grew very fond of both of them very quickly. We also first met our driver, Mario, at that time. He spoke no English that we could tell, and we did not really get to know him but he grew to be a familiar face to us.

Along the way to our first destination we began the spiritual exercises that would consistently open and close our days’ excursions, praying the Angelus and Morning and Evening Prayer (in the abbreviated forms that appear along with the day’s Mass in the current issue of Magnificat, provided to us each as part of our package from 206 Tours). Most days we also prayed the Rosary.

Mexico City is a huge city, both in area and population. Regarding the latter, depending on how it’s counted, I’ve seen figures from nine million to the seventeen million quoted by Roberto; consistently it appears in lists of the five or ten most populous cities in the world; as for the area, suffice it to say you get nowhere fast! In this case, the couple of miles to the Plaza of the Three Cultures [LINK] took us twenty to thirty minutes. The “three cultures” are the Pre-Columbian Aztec, the Colonial Spanish, and the “Mestizo” nation of independent Mexico, all three being represented by buildings on the site. There can be seen the ruins of an Aztec temple complex flanked by the Church of Santiago de Tlatelolco as well as modern buildings once housing Mexican governmental offices as well as, more recently, housing. Within the church, although it was built about a century later, can be seen the massive baptismal font in which the visionary of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego, was received into the Catholic Church only a couple of years before Our Lady appeared to him and changed the world. This is also where, in earlier Church buildings thrown up hastily during the first decade after the Spanish conquest, Juan Diego met with Bishop Zumarraga and ultimately presented the friar with the miraculous sign he had requested.  More on all that momentarily….

If Roberto mentioned the most tragic event to happen on this site in recent memory, the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968 [LINK] as part of the Mexican government’s brutal suppression of political opposition on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics, I do not remember it. There was so much to take in, and at times the “Whispers” radio units by means of which the guides communicated with us did not work that well (especially before I switched out the cheap earbud they provided with my own higher-quality pair).

We walked around the plaza and the church for perhaps an hour before getting back on the bus and continuing on to our first visit to the central destination of our pilgrimage, the great Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Along the way, I believe, Taylor began the teaching that was an integral part of this pilgrimage, giving us a historical time-line of the events in and surrounding December 1531. I did not specifically take notes nor did I record his or any other presentations, which I now regret. In my smartphone I had the capability, and I’d cleared out plenty of memory for pictures,[1] video, and audio, if only I’d thought of the latter.[2] But in this case it is a well-known story that I will attempt to summarize briefly (actually based on today's and tomorrow's talks, combined):

As he had done on a recent “webinar” I logged into back around the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (12 December), Taylor began at the very beginning, with the small statue of the Blessed Virgin allegedly carved from life by St. Luke the Evangelist before the year 50, a statue which ultimately (through several intermediaries) made its way to Spain about the year 600 – only a century or so before the Muslim conquest between 711 and 719. At that time, the statue was hidden away and vanished from history … until ca. 1300, when, during the period of the Spanish Reconquista (ca. 1000-1492), a humble cowherd named Gil Cordero claimed to have been led to the site along the Guadalupe River in Extremadura by an apparition of the Virgin and ordered to have priests dig. When they did so, they found the statue, and built a shrine around it which became the focus of a great royal monastery [LINK]. It so happens that many of the conquistadores of the 16th century, including Hernan Cortes, were from Extremadura and had a great devotion to this earlier “Our Lady of Guadalupe”; Christopher Columbus had earlier received the commission of Ferdinand and Isabel at that monastery before setting out in his three ships, the Santa Maria, the Nina, and the Pinta (which may be rearranged as “pinta nina Santa Maria” or “the little painted lady holy Mary”), and subsequently made pilgrimage there to offer thanks to God for a safe voyage.

The Spanish conquest of the central part of the great New World which Columbus unwittingly discovered understandably left bitter feelings on the part of the native American Indians. When Hernan Cortes encountered the Aztecs in 1519, he found a local empire across central Mexico that was built upon brutality and human sacrifice on a scale the Spaniards could not comprehend and could only attribute to the devil himself, and which drove the Spaniards’ brutal efforts to rid the earth of the darkness. Compounded with the diseases that the so-called “Columbian Exchange” brought – by which the Indians were far more devastated by the Europeans – the Aztec Empire collapsed almost overnight. But the survivors were not very receptive to efforts by the first Franciscan missionaries accompanying Cortes, nor those of their successors, to convert them to Christianity. Only a handful had converted in the first dozen years after the conquest.

Among those who did were a fifty-odd-year-old nondescript Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, baptized Juan Diego; his wife, baptized Maria Lucia; as well as his aged uncle who was baptized Juan Bernardino. Maria Lucia had died a couple of years before her husband would become one of the most important individuals in early Spanish American history.

On Saturday 09 December 1531, Juan Diego was traveling afoot the ten or so miles from his home southward toward Tlatelolco for his customary religious instruction. Passing Tepeyac Hill just before entering the five-mile causeway from the northern shore of the great lake to the island-city of Tenochtitlan, Juan Diego heard the sound of beautiful birdsong. Climbing the hill, he encountered a young maiden who identified herself as the Ever-virgin Mother of God and requested that the Bishop erect a chapel in her honor on that spot. Continuing onward to his destination, Juan Diego requested and ultimately received a brief meeting with Fray Juan Zumarraga, who was skeptical and requested that Juan Diego return in a day or so. The next day (Sunday 10 December), encountering the Virgin again, Juan Diego reported his failure but was told that he must be the one to carry the request to the Bishop. Having had time to reflect on the tale he’d heard, the Bishop was less skeptical, but requested a sign which Juan Diego immediately requested of the Virgin. She consented to give him such a sign on the morrow.

But by Monday morning, 11 December, uncle Juan Bernardino was ill, compelling Juan Diego to care for him through the day and night as his condition worsened to the point that death was imminent. Early on Tuesday the 12th, Juan Diego set out to bring a priest to administer the Last Rites. He tried to avoid the Virgin and the delay it would entail by taking a different route around Tepeyac – but she intercepted him and asked where he was bound. Juan Diego explained and received her mild rebuke for having doubted her: “¿No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?” – “Am I not here who am your mother?” 
She assured him that his uncle was well, and directed him to go to the top of Tepeyac hill and gather the flowers he would find there – on its bare summit near mid-winter where nothing normally grew except a few cacti and shrubs. Juan Diego did indeed find an abundance of roses, which he gathered into his open tilma, a sort of poncho woven of maguey cactus fiber, two ends tied around his neck, the others gathered in each hand to make a sort of sack. The Virgin arranged the flowers in the tilma and told him to present them to the Bishop. Eventually gaining entrance to the prelate despite the efforts of minor clerics who considered the Indian’s tale a fraud, Juan Diego let drop the ends of the tilma so that the roses poured onto the floor leaving the image of the Virgin herself. The Bishop and his aides immediately venerated it.

Returning to his uncle the next day, escorted in honor by the Bishop’s men, Juan Diego found Juan Bernardino cured, just as the Virgin had said, in fact at the very instant she had said it, when she had appeared to the uncle even as she spoke with the nephew. She had, moreover, told Juan Bernardino that she wished to be known as the Lady of Guadalupe – a name that would resonate with the Spanish.

And so began a miraculously quick reconciliation of the two hostile peoples, conquered and conqueror, with the conversion of nine million Aztecs to Catholicism within seven years – less than a generation after a comparable number of northern Europeans had separated themselves from Holy Mother Church in the early years of the Protestant Reformation. The tilma became the unofficial banner uniting the new Mexican people that would evolve from the merging of the Spanish and Aztec. The tilma itself, in addition to its origin, exhibits a host of characteristics beyond human explanation. It has endured for almost 500 years, when comparable maguey-fiber cloth typically disintegrates after only a decade or so – and has survived at least two incidents that should have destroyed it outright, an accidental acid-spill in the 18th century and a deliberate attempt to obliterate it by means of a bomb during the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church in the 1920s. Maguey-fiber is the most unsuitable material imaginable for painting, and there is no evidence of brush strokes or pigments of any kind … the image just is. It remains as bright and vibrant as ever, and exhibits several characteristics in common with a living human body, including a constant temperature equivalent to that of a living person, 98.6ºF, no matter what the ambient temperoature, pupils that seem to dilate and contract in reaction to light, within which can be seen, under high magnification, what seems to be a snapshot of the instant Juan Diego revealed the image.

Of all the reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary through history, this one is unique, Taylor concluded. It is a continuing apparition; Our Lady remains present for each of us to see with our own eyes.

From Sacred Destinations [LINK]
Map posted at Guadalupe
Arriving at the Plaza of the Americas, a large complex centered around the Guadalupe event, we availed ourselves of bathrooms in the adjacent gift shop, where Roberto also showed us an example of the maguey-fiber cloth such as is the tilma. A photographer appeared out of nowhere for a pilgrimage group picture (we received our copies in the evening), then we walked to the New Basilica – one of the ugliest churches I’ve ever seen. 
It was constructed in the 1970s, which tells you all you need to know. Absolutely, diametrically in contrast to the beautiful churches that we saw otherwise, including the nearby Old Basilica. But it houses the tilma behind the altar. Masses are said there constantly, every hour on the hour. We walked around the outer periphery, then made our way from the side below the altar where a bank of parallel people-movers allow the people to view the tilma from fairly close below. 

We were within a dozen feet or so of the miraculous image of Our Lady. We each made several laps, soaking in the view of the image.

Then, once Fr. Juan Diego had vested himself, we made our way up a winding flight of stairs to a mezzanine level around the body of the Basilica where a number of chapels all face toward the high altarWe heard Mass in Chapel 8, all facing the tilma, including the celebrants ad orientem.[3] As for his order, and indeed in Mexico and Latin America in general, 05 February is a the Feast of St. Philip de Jesus, a native Mexican martyred as a missionary in Japan in the 17th century as part of the "companions" commemorated in the wider Church on 06 February as "St. Paul Miki and Companions," Fr. Juan Diego's homily was on martyrdom -- "in odium fidei" as the Japanese martyrs versus martyrdom "in odium veritatis" as was St. John the Baptist, whose death was the subject of the Gospel reading. Again, Fr. Peter concelebrated, and Taylor Marshall read; notably, his nine-year-old son Jude, one of two of his and Joy's eight children accompanying them, served at the altar for his very first time. (Their other child with them was their four-month-old daughter Margaret; the other kids were at home with grandparents but will accompany them to Italy in the summer.) After Mass, a short period of further picture-taking included a few group shots around the altar.

Then it was hurry-hurry-hurry, very reminiscent of Rome in 2014 – such is the life of a pilgrim. So much to see and do in a limited amount of time. We exited the Basilica, then worked our way around between the base of Tepeyac hill and the back of the Old Basilica, into the little Templo del Pocito where once flowed a spring, then a well which is now dry, on around to the site of Juan Diego’s latter-day home once the first chapel requested by the Virgin was built within two weeks of her appearance in December 1531. The chapel that exists there now, the Antigua Parroquia de Indios, was unfortunately closed, I believe for preparations for Pope Francis’ imminent visit (within days of our own departure). Since the museum behind the Old Basilica will not be open on Monday when we return to Guadalupe for a more extended visit, we opted to put off lunch and go through it for a rushed half-hour visit. No pictures were allowed, and frankly it’s all a blur to me now, except for the constant direction of docents “this way” up – up – up flight after flight of stairs.

Altitude started bothering me at that time. I had not really felt it yet, but the fact is that Mexico City is located at about 7300-ft. elevation and the air is thinner than our own 100-ft. at home in Natchitoches. I looked it up – each breath takes in only about 75% of the oxygen as compared to sea-level. Luckily, only that first full day did it really ever bother me significantly, but for that day it did so increasingly especially given our next excursion.

Assembling back by the statue of Pope St. John Paul the Great between the two Basilicas, we went back to our bus and headed out toward San Juan Teotihuacan, about an hour and a half northwest of the city – far enough to actually get outside the city. Along the way, Roberto expounded on the differences between the pre-Aztec people who built the pyramids we would see there – amazingly, only discovered a little more than a century ago – and the Aztecs themselves. He insisted they worshipped “good gods” who did not demand human sacrifice. That's not my understanding, but who am I to say?

Before we went to the pyramids themselves, we had lunch and a show – another excellent buffet with a mariachi band as well as a man and woman dressed up in neo-Aztec garb greeting, playing instruments (drums), and dancing. It was a very interesting experience. I had a beer. 

Then it was off to the site of the pyramids. In consideration of the sun, Roberto had passed out a “surprise” gift from 206 Tours – sombreros for the ladies, straw cowboy hats for the men. I hardly ever wore mine. It just is not me.

Although it had been my intention from the beginning I ultimately could not make the climb up the Pyramid of the Sun. It was just too high – both absolute altitude above sea level as well as relative above ground-level – too steep, with steps too large, and preceded by an even steeper drop-off that, as I told Anne, “I don’t even want to climb down this, much less up that.” 
I’m too old, too fat, and a heart patient to boot, already having shortness of breath that day from mild altitude sickness. That latter got better by a couple of days into the trip, but I don’t think the other factors, both personal and inherent in the climb, would have let me make the climb – nor do I think Anne would have let me. Many others of our group did go to the top, including Joy Marshall with baby Margaret strapped to her chest – how many other people will ever be able to say they were atop the Pyramid of the Sun when they were four months old? Fr. Juan Diego heard a number of confessions, from what I hear, and later remarked that at one pronouncement of the words of absolution a goth-looking girl within earshot gave him a look of sheer hatred that reminded him that there are indeed those who hate God, His Church, and His ministers. Anne and I opted to walk the length of the Avenue of the Dead (part of the way with an Australian named Neil who had come the furthest to join this pilgrimage) to the slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon – which I did attempt to scale at least up to the lower level. 
About half-way up I decided I really didn’t need to do even that, a conviction that was reinforced only moments later when I witnessed this young buck bounding up the steps slip – and if he’d been going down there could have been a tragedy. As it was, he just went down on all fours, got his balance, and continued on his way. I gingerly made my way back down to terra firma. But Anne and I both climbed atop a platform at the center of the plaza facing the Pyramid of the Moon, where I overheard a conversation about a cool phenomenon I was able to duplicate. If you stand at the very center of that platform and give a loud, solid CLAP, echoes will resound off the surrounding pyramid and smaller temples. How many from our group did that, huh?

We made our way back to the bus – through gauntlet of vendors hawking geegaws – and made a short trip to a souvenir shop where a lady demonstrated the various products that can be derived from the agave cactus that the Aztecs called maguey – besides the rough cloth from which the tilma was made, and even a ready-made needle-and-thread from the spines which connect directly to lengths of the fiber, those products include a mildly alcoholic drink called pulque as well as a more potent form of tequila (yes, there were samples). I’m sure there were more – it seems Roberto mentioned shampoo, but anything beyond that escapes me. We did some souvenir shopping there, then set out back to the hotel. Along the way, we prayed Evening Prayer and a Rosary.

Back at the hotel, Anne and I had supper with Fr. Juan Diego and a lady named Pat. We consciously tried to vary our table partners as much as possible. These, indeed all of the pilgrims proved to be very nice. Frankly, everyone on this pilgrimage were nice. Sure, some irritated us a bit at first, but we grew fond of them; others we grew more irritated at due to little personality quirks or mannerisms; but overall we quickly formed a group bond  that made it hard to leave them all in the end. As I would tell Anne on the way back, we knew none of them before last Thursday, but by Tuesday evening I was missing them all.

After supper, Anne and I replenished our supply of bottled water across the street, then retired to our room and vegged. Every night I downloaded the day’s pictures from my phone to my computer and thence to an external hard drive, and made some kind of notes regarding the day’s activities. The latter was a good thing, because very quickly everything started blurring together.

+ + +

More Pictures from the Day

[1] Although I ended up being somewhat disappointed by my Moto X smartphone camera this trip. It performed flawlessly a year and a half ago in Italy, but for some reason this time it would go through periods when the pictures would come out blurry or with strange auras or lens flare. It was quite frustrating. I think something may have been fogging the lens for some reason. I never determined what, but I did eventually find that if I periodically cleaned the lens gently with my shirt sleeve it would better ... until it didn't. There also seemed to be a lot more high-contrast shots this trip, which the camera did not handle very well. Luckily, Anne was taking pictures most of the time as well, and as mentioned above a common Dropbox folder has been established that other pilgrims are uploading their shots into that I am then able to download.
[2] I did, however, use the audio recorder to take summary notes at the end of almost every day which have been extremely helpful – even if the exhaustion that kept me from making written notes also made those audio notes rather frustrating to listen to given numerous pauses, “ums” and “ers,” and the like.
[3] An amusing incident from our second Mass in the Basilica, on Monday: The native sacristan setting up the altar insisted on doing so ad populum, despite Taylor’s insistence otherwise. But as soon as the sacristan left, Taylor turned it around as it should be and in accordance with our priests’ preferences.

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