Monday, June 1, 2009

A River Named Gracias

I was my mother's caregiver for four years before she died. A little over a month after she died I went to the office of the Sixteen to One Mine to ask for a job. Mike Miller and Elyse Ludian his assistant, were talking as I walked in. I stated what I was looking for and both of their jaws dropped. “We literally were just saying we needed to find another person for the office! Can you type?” I was hired on the spot. I started work the next week on January 3, 1996.

One of my early tasks as Office Assistant was to take down the Christmas cards. One card struck me as unique and I couldn’t toss it in the trash. There was a framed picture near my desk that I didn’t like and it happened to be the same size as the card. I stuck the card in the frame, admired it, and then gradually forgot all about it. The picture remained there even after I moved to a different space. Something happened years later that made me pull the card from the frame to learn more about it.

It started with a vivid dream: I was in Mexico standing on the bank of a river. A Mexican man stood on the bank of the river next to me. He was explaining to me that the name of the River was a word that meant “gratitude as abundant as the grass on the earth.” I remember thinking to myself in the dream that the word sounded like “Grass” and that this would help me remember the name of the river. I dove into the water and I was swimming down stream gracefully. I was swept along filled with joy and gratitude. I awoke feeling very happy.

That morning at work, I was surprised when a Mexican man who looked and spoke exactly like the man in my dream came to meet Mike. His name was Francisco Lovato. Mike and Francisco went up to Mike’s office to talk; then left to go down to the mine. That afternoon I went to the museum to do some work.

I’d been working at the museum for about an hour when Francisco walked in. He said “I have to ask you something. Did you paint that picture of “Our Lady” at the office”? I was confused. What did he mean by “Our Lady”? He saw my confusion and said “The Madonna”. It dawned on me that he was talking about the framed Christmas card. He said when he asked about it, Mike told him that he thought maybe I’d painted it, but he wasn’t sure. I said “No, that’s a Christmas card that I framed a long time ago because I liked it.” Francisco said “I want to tell you a story:”

Francisco’s father had been a prisoner of war in the Philippines and was forced to work in a mine. One day the guards began viciously beating one of the other prisoners at the mine and Francisco’s father threw a football sized rock at one of the guards, but missed. The guards turned on him and nearly beat him to death. They then carried him back to his cell.

As Francisco’s father lie in his cell he was certain that he was going to die. What seemed like hours passed as he struggled just to breath. Suddenly he noticed a pinpoint of blue/white light in the darkness. The light grew and grew until a woman stood before him.

The woman told him that he was not going to die. That he would be OK. That one day he would be married and have a family. The woman disappeared. The next morning guards came and told him that he had been transferred to another camp. They had a large bundle of mail for him that had accumulated while he was there. It had all been opened and as he reached for the bundle a card slipped from one of the envelopes and fluttered to the floor. As he picked it up he saw that it was an image of “Our Lady of Guadalupé”. He knew that this was the woman who had come to him the night before. He wept tears of gratitude.

I thanked Francisco for sharing the story and he left. When I got back to the office I pulled the card from the frame. On the back of the card: “The Virgin of Guadalupé by Marsden Hartley, 1919”.

Here is one account of her story: It was December 9th in the year 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City. A peasant named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was walking from his village, over the hill, when a dark-skinned woman appeared to him. She was obviously “otherworldly”. Just the site of her made his knees knock. Speaking in his native tongue Nahuatl, she told him to build an abbey on the site in her honor. Obediently, Juan Diego spoke to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, but the prelate did not believe him and asked for a miraculous sign. Juan avoided the hill frightened of seeing the apparition again. A few days later, on December 12th, the woman appeared to him again; this time at his village. Juan told her that the bishop wanted a miracle. She told him to gather flowers from the hill of Tepeyac, even though it was winter, when normally nothing bloomed. He went up the hill and found Spanish roses in bloom, gathered them in his tilma (a sort of apron that peasants wore), and presented these to the bishop. When the roses fell from his tilma an image of the Virgin remained imprinted on the cloth. This image can still be seen at the abbey built in her honor.

The Virgin of Guadalupé is the “Protectress of Mexico”. Her feast day is December 12th. She represents the Virgin Mary to mainstream Catholics. Others view her as a manifestation of the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin. The hill on which her abbey is built was the sacred site of the female entity Tonantzin. Tonantzin was honored in that same spot by the Aztecs for hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupé was flown on flags and banners during Mexico’s early fight for independence from Spain.

Elena Avila, a descendant of the Aztecs and a practitioner of their traditional medicine states that the Aztecs did not have a concept of “God”. According to her, the Spaniard’s world-view was so different than the native’s that they misinterpreted a basic aspect of their indigenous religion. The Aztecs did not view these beings as “Gods and Goddesses” but as supernatural energies or forces of nature and the universe.

I see “Our Lady” as an affirmation of what was true and pure in both traditions. She represents the mother who always has unconditional love for her children. The religion of the Spaniards was grafted onto the religion of the Aztecs in order to take root. The root was more vigorous than imagined and something flourished and blossomed that gave the people hope. Because of the sacrifice of Christ, no other sacrifices were needed.

As surprising as the way I discovered “Our Lady” is the fact that I did not know of her consciously before this. My maternal grandfather was Mexican. A very serious, hardworking man, he struggled to assimilate into the culture of the United States. So important was this to him that he did not teach his children Spanish. He came to regret this later in life. Unlike most Mexican families, ours is Protestant. Grandpa despised the Catholic Church.

Whether you believe in Celestial Beings or not, you may know “Our Lady” personally. Symbolized by the rose, her essence is pure, unconditional love. To smell a fragrant rose is to know her. I hope you will. Gracias.

Rae Bell aka Pauline Marie

Sources: “Our Lady of Guadalupe” – Wikipedia
“Woman who glows in the Dark” by Elena Avila, RN MSN
“Survivor” by Francisco Lovato is about his father’s experiences as a POW.