by Michael D. O’Brien
I live in Canada, which for half of the year is a cold country. For most of our thirty years of marriage my wife and I have had a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a central place in our home, and her face has been a constant source of warmth and consolation to us. It is a mystery to me how her face seems to change from day to day. Some days she is smiling, on other days there is a gentle grief in her eyes, on still others we feel a wave of quiet, steady love coming from her. Nothing dramatic, but always there. We see her as the Mother of our family. We know she is also the Mother of the Americas. She is also the mother of all peoples, the mother of all mankind, and at Guadalupe she is revealed as the Woman of Revelation, the one who will crush the serpent with her heel.
When she appeared in the very epicenter of the Aztec cult of death, the new world’s heart of darkness, she identified herself in these words: “I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things, who is master of heaven and earth. . . . I am your merciful Mother, the mother of all who live united in this land, of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who have confidence in me.”
She went on to identify herself as the “Ever-Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” It is interesting to note that in Nahuatl, the Aztec language in which she spoke, there is no G or D sound. Nahuatl scholars explain that when the Bishop of Mexico was given the Lady’s title through a Spanish interpreter, he mistook it for Guadalupe, a Marian shrine in Spain. The Aztec word she used was almost certainly Tequetalope, meaning “She Who Overcomes the Devourer,” or, with a slight change of inflexion, Coatlaxope, “She Who Crushes the Serpent.”
A few years ago, friends of ours invited my wife and I to accompany them on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. This was a journey we could not financially afford. When the first offer came I declined not only for financial reasons, but because I felt somewhat uneasy about expensive pilgrimages to countries where there is such great material poverty. How can we fly there in expensive jets, I argued, live in big hotels and eat fancy meals, and then go and pray at the feet of the Mother of Guadalupe while the hundred thousand people praying beside us probably do not have enough to eat at times, and many of them are malnourished all the time? Is that a pilgrimage? And so I remained adamant that we would not go.
My wife, being larger of heart and mind than me, conspired with our friends, who without informing me purchased our tickets as a gift. They bought them without cancellation insurance, so there was no backing out. I should also mention at this point that part of my aversion to taking a week off was the driven “workaholism” that afflicts so many men in my society, the desperate need to provide “the good life” for one’s family, a state in which one is haunted by not enough time to accomplish what one thinks must be accomplished. Added to this was the mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion of raising a large family in the hostile environment of a materialistic anti-life society—the culture of death as the Holy Father calls it. Part of my error was thinking that I had to fight alone, forgetting that what we really need is to trust so absolutely that we simply let ourselves be lifted up and carried in our Mother’s arms. That is all. It is very simple.
But we are trained from birth—especially we men—to struggle, to protect, to provide. While it is true that this is our duty, so often in the fragmented autonomous universe of Western materialism the father of a family becomes isolated, independent, anxious. He goes faster and faster and faster in order to fulfill what are really false expectations imposed by a culture that is largely given over to grave sin. Ours is the culture of a Serpent who directly or indirectly seeks to devour everything. Yet I would say that for disciples of Christ, the danger in North America is not so much the evil things that the serpent offers all around us (though undoubtedly these are a danger for everyone); I would say rather that we are being consumed by too much of the good things, the high standard of consumption that we have come to expect as our right and responsibility. Almost all of us now think of luxuries as essential needs. Our family’s lifestyle was by no means luxurious, and if one had to position us on a totem pole of comfort, we were pretty close to the bottom (by North American standards). Nevertheless, though very blessed compared to most people in the world, I was a driven, haunted man.
In retrospect I see that Our Lady wanted to teach me something about this, and so we flew into Mexico City, several happy pilgrims dragging along one unhappy pilgrim. We arrived at Tepeyac on the feast of the Presentation, and walking onto the plaza in front of the shrine, we found it packed with tens of thousands of people, most of them poor native Mexicans. And of these the majority were young families with several children. What struck me first, before we even went inside to see the miraculous image, were the miraculous images of God spread throughout the plaza, singing, praying, laughing, dancing, eyes bright with expectation, warm with fervor. I was overwhelmed by the heart I saw there on that plaza. Please do not mistake me, I am not trying to romanticize people from a simpler culture, nor do I underestimate the grave social and economic problems they face, and that many underdeveloped nations face. But they are different problems than those faced by people of the wealthy developed nations. What I saw on that plaza was love—imperfect love, as all human love is—but love in abundance. And I saw joy. I saw that the children in their multitudes were the treasure of this people. And where their treasure was their heart was. And where their heart was their treasure was.
There were many beggars on the plaza, and I recall especially a little boy who came up to me. He must have been five or six years old. He held out his hand to me in the classic begging gesture, the open palm imploring a peso from what he thought was a wealthy tourista. I felt badly because my pockets were rather empty and I had nothing to give him. It was a moment of some kind of illumination. As I looked at this child whom the United Nations in its blind arrogance would call a geopolitical statistic, an overpopulation statistic, I saw that here was a human soul. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the entire weight of the material universe does not equal the value of one human soul. How, then, have we come to be so easily seduced by heartless judgments, come to think in terms of geopolitical categories of thought? Even people of faith can fall into the habit of rendering down the miraculousness of Being into a world of one-dimensional objects, including this boy, an image and likeness of God, whom most people would call “a beggar.”
I put out my hand, placed it on his forehead, and said in English, though he understood nothing of my words, “Gold and silver have I none, little boy, but I give you what I have.” I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and ruffled up his hair. It was probably a bad gesture, culturally speaking, but in my country ruffling up a child’s hair means you feel great affection for him. The child realized that there was no money forthcoming, yet he just stood there anyway, beaming up at me, and his eyes were full of, for lack of a better word, a kind of delight. I felt the same for this little stranger, and there was a bond of love lasting only a few seconds, a moment of a little heart speaking to an old, tired heart—and the old, tired heart speaking back. And then the plaza guards came and scooted him away.
When I stepped inside the Basilica, like everyone else I spontaneously knelt before the awesome image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As we went down on our knees before her, our eyes were lifted up to her radiant face, and there we saw a face in which Truth and Love are perfectly in harmony. And yet my heart, moved as it was by the beauty of it, was still very tired and empty. Regarding what happened next I would first like to set the context, lest it be misunderstood: I am not a visionary, I am not a mystic. Many in our pilgrimage party that day received extraordinary graces of all kinds as they prayed before the image of Our Lady. This was mine: As I was kneeling there feeling poor on all levels of my humanity, something happened which I cannot adequately describe. Though I am an artist, and also Irish, both of which make for a tendency to enlarge stories and embellish details imaginatively, I know when my imagination is at work and when it is not. That day it wasn’t working. And precisely because it was beyond my ability to produce a “religious experience,” I feel certain that the grace was a genuine gift from heaven, given from outside but received interiorly. As I was kneeling before Our Lady of Guadalupe, a hand came out of the image, reached down and ruffled my hair.
It lasted a few seconds, but it was very real and intense in a gentle way. Startled, I did not know what to make of this experience. Later, when I walked out into the plaza again, it suddenly hit me: What that little so-called beggar was to me, that is what I am before God. We are all beggars before God, but we are also—and this is the part which is so often forgotten—we are beloved beggars. We are so beloved, in fact, that even those who are very close to God only begin to grasp the reality of His great love. If we are beggars, we must also understand that the King has come out of his palace, and lived on the streets as one of us, and now to our shock and disbelief he embraces us in his arms, lifts us up and takes us home to the palace, adopting us as his sons and daughters. The story would not be complete without saying that the King has also given us his mother the Queen, who has become our own mother.
Let me conclude by reading a few excerpts from Isaiah 66. Like all of Scripture it is a multi-dimensional passage, literal, historical, spiritual, metaphorical, and yet reaching forward in time toward the definitive moment in history when all begging shall cease and eternal fullness begin. It is a passage that speaks about Jerusalem, in a section subtitled Mother Zion. I believe that it also has something to tell us about the role of Our Lady.
Before she comes to labor,
she gives birth;
Before the pains come upon her,
she safely delivers a male child.
Who ever heard such a thing,
or saw the like?
Can a country be brought forth in one day,
or a nation be born in a single moment?
Yet Zion is scarcely in labor
when she gives birth to her children.
Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth,
and yet not let her child be born?
says the Lord;
Or shall I allow her to conceive,
yet close her womb? says your God.
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
Exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
(Isaiah 66: 7-10)
Does the present condition of the particular churches of the West appear to be poor? Indeed we are poor. Are we not grieving over the many wounds from which our Church is bleeding? Do we not mourn the damage that is being done to her? Yet the trials through which we are passing will be short-lived. The evil cannot last, the darkness cannot overpower the light. The Church will continue for a while to go through her Calvary, and then she will leap out of the tomb, as she always does. During the time of suffering we need to be strengthened with specific graces, and these graces have been given by the Father to be distributed solely by the Mother.
For thus says the Lord:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings you will be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
As a mother comforts her son,
so will I comfort you.
The Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is coming. If for a brief time we are to suffer with and for the Church, to feel with our Mother swords of various kinds piercing our hearts, we must always keep our eyes on what is coming after. Rejoice! Rejoice and exalt when you have something to suffer for the Kingdom of God. Give thanks and praise in all circumstances, and especially in those which appear to be most dark, when everything appears to be failure, for that is when your redemption is near at hand.