It's Wednesday in Holy Week, and I'm singing nearly every day, so I'm not going to be around here much except for posting a few photographs. And, after all those Mexican posts, I need to take a litte break!
This wrought iron knocker and grill were on a door in Coyoacan, and now that I look at them I think it must have been the front door for a convent or monastery; the wooden panel behind the cross probably slides out of the way so the person inside can see who is at the door. All the buildings on that street had tall walls along the narrow sidewalk and you couldn't tell what was inside or whether they were residences or offices or public buildings of some sort. Occasionally a door was ajar, and you could peek inside into a beautiful, mysterious courtyard, or an entrance hall.
Best wishes to all who are observing religious holidays this week.
Our first day in Mexico was a national holiday as well as being a Monday - the day when most museums and many shops and restaurants are closed. A good time, we thought, to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Villa, as it's popularly called, since the site contains several churches and other buildings, is the most-visited shrine to the Virgin Mary in the world (over 20 million annual visitors) and the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Latin America -- reason enough to visit. But I wanted to try to understand something deeper about the devotion to "Our Lady" -- this particular apparition of the Virgin Mary -- whose image appears everywhere in Mexico City, and who seems embedded in the hearts of the people, whether overtly religious or not. I wondered what I would feel.
We reached the site after quite a long ride by Metrobus to the northern part of the city, and a walk through a residential neighborhood full of first-floor souvenir shops and small retail stores. Within the walls of the shrine, one finds a huge stone plaza, and around it, the new basilica shown above, and several former basilicas, progressively older from left to right, dating back to the 16th century. Two of these are shown in the picture below; all of these buildings are very large, and suffered considerable damage from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; one was so slanted that it felt extremely unsafe, but people were still worshipping in it.
On the top of Tepeyac Hill, in the upper right, is yet another church, the final destination of most of the pilgrims who come here.
Here is the official Catholic account of the story.
On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking to him in Nahuatl (the dialect of the tribe of the Aztecs) the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Under the revisionist painting shown above, the caption reads "The Conversion of the Indians." You can see the Franciscan friars administering baptism from water held in an Aztec vessel, now serving as a font; above them, the Virgin of Guadelupe appears wreathed in smoke that billows from Popocatepetl. Through the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was read aloud to the native people in Spanish, the Spanish monarchy had declared its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, fight the native inhabitants. Resisters were considered evil, in defiance of God's plan for Spain, and were forced to convert to Christianity or were killed. (Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale depict what really happened.)
Below the painting is a reproduction of the famous image as it appeared on Juan Diego's cloak or tilma; the original tilma is displayed in the new basilica, above the altar, in an enclosure containing gases to help keep it in a state of preservation. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin became Latin America's first indigenous saint when he was canonized at this site by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Why, then, did so many native people become attached to Our Lady? Before the Spanish Conquest in 1591-21, Tepayac Hill had been the site of a temple to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish destroyed it and built a chapel there in honor of the Virgin Mary. After they were converted to Christianity, the Indians continued to come there, addressing the Virgin as "Tonantzin." Whatever the truth was about the story of Juan Diego -- an indigenous man -- only a decade later, the Indians formed the core of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a devotion that continues to this day. As we visited the shrines and walked around the site, we saw hundreds of native people who had come with their families. There were very old women, walking with difficulty, supported by a daughter or son, and there were many young woman with newborn babies in their arms, bringing them to meet the Virgin for the first time, or to be baptized at a special building that is part of the Villa.
At the far end of the plaza is a raised area which affords a beautiful view of the entire site. I stood there and watched pilgrims crossing the rough stone plaza on their knees, toward the new basilica.
In the previous picture you can see a sign that reads "Mercado," or "market." Behind the main buildings is a large typical Mexican market -- a warren of interconnected tents and buildings -- full of souvenirs, and things to eat and drink. We stopped there for lunch: roast chicken with freshly-made corn tortillas.
You can see the roofs of the mercado behind this earliest church, where Juan Diego is interred.
Just above that church is this astonishing larger-than-lifesize bronze tableau of native people presenting gifts to the Virgin; from it, a path leads up the hill through beautiful gardens to the shrine at the top, the "shrine of the roses."
All along the path and through the gardens, people stopped with their families to be photographed.
There were professional photographers with tricky printers that produced large-format photos on the spot. Each of them had a shrine-themed photo-spot, some more kitschy than others. Here we have not one but two Virgins, a Pope, multicolored roses, and every stereotypical Mexican symbol you can think of. At the shrine, Pope John Paul II, "Juan Pablo," seemed second only to the Virgin in popularity; there is a huge bronze statue of him in the plaza. I didn't see a single image of Pope Benedict, but I'm sure Pope Francis will become popular here too.
A view of one of the older basilicas and plaza, as we climbed up the hill.
And some of the beautiful plantings. I loved seeing women carrying their babies in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.
The Shrine of the Virgin of the Roses, at the top of Tepayac Hill. Photography was not allowed inside; it was a simple, very old structure with a small dome, an altar, and some large paintings of the miraculous events.
Finally, we descended, becoming part of the large crowd enjoying a beautiful day, completely at ease in this shrine that clearly belongs to them. They were families on an outing; devotees coming to pray; people seeking some moments of peace and beauty in a crowded city -- but by their manner, their respect was clear: this was not a park like any other.
What did I feel?
At one point, crossing the plaza, I looked down at a stone beneath my feet and saw that, unlike its neighbors, it was covered with Aztec carvings. That is Mexico City: the past coexists with the present. They weigh upon each another in the stones of the buildings, mingle in the faces of the people. Our own past always seems both real and unreal, and so perhaps in this place with its unfamiliar and miraculous history I was able to suspend judgements and simply be present.
Did the Virgin appear to Juan Diego half a millenium ago? Does it really matter?
She is present today on this streetcorner in Escandon, and thousands of other corners, shop windows, tree notches, and public nooks throughout the city; as people pass by, they notice, pause, cross themselves. Her image appears in all the churches, and she is present in nearly every home in a ceramic statue, an image woven of palm fronds, or embroidered on a blouse, or molded into a folkloric retablo. She moves through the city around people's necks, or on their backs, and travels with strangers back to a far northern city: a dim image seen through a tiny crystal set in the cross of a rose-scented rosary.
In the end, I was touched by the beauty of the shrine, and I was moved by the old women, many of whom were probably not much older than me. There was a lot that I didn't understand, because I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, and a lot that I did, because I am human. I'm content to leave it at that.
It dawns open and expectant, as wide as the sea.
but soon will be whizzing by, hurtling me closer and closer to that final destination.
But sometimes, more often now, I remember to see the landscapes opening up on the sides,
the ones that hold still,
the peace that sits so quietly under the trees.
Happy New Year to all of you!
Last week's drive from Montreal to central New York started out under blue skies: this is the beginning of the St. Lawrence Seaway, with the Pont Champlain in the distance. There were a couple of huge boats in the canal, easily breaking up the thin ice as they moved through it -- but the Great Lakes shipping traffic will end pretty soon.
Adirondacks -- not that you can see them very well in this picture, taken out the window as we whizzed down the Northway!
Amsterdam, NY: a city of mostly-abandoned mills on the Hudson. We stopped at this auto parts store to buy new windshield-wiper blades.
While J. was inside the store, I took this photograph of the mill behind it.
At "home": the view from the porch the next morning. So much for sunshine! But we had holly berries and a lot of warmth and brightness inside.
I'm still busy with singing, work, and getting ready for the holidays; somehow this year everything really did converge at once. Except for my music obligations, though, Christmas itself is simpler for us than it used to be. I miss the family and friends who are no longer with us, especially at this time of year, but I'm also noticing a growing sense of of acceptance and calm in myself, a desire for simplicity, and less internal pressure to do all that baking and shopping and gifting and visiting I used to do. Things don't have to be perfect: I don't have to be perfect. I trust that the love I feel is expressed all the time, not just at Christmas, and I've let go of most of the expectations (both of myself and others) that used to lurk around the holidays like icebergs, threatening to sink the whole ship. It's a relief to recognize this, and I wonder, looking ahead, what such an unburdened Christmas will be like ten or twenty years from now, should I still be here.
Paradoxically, as the trappings of Christmas -- both physical and emotional -- lighten, it feels like the season is regaining some of its mystery and joy that I remember from early childhood. Doing less opens up a space, and within that space, I find I can see much more. O magnum mysterium, we will sing on Sunday. Yes. One doesn't have to be literal about the Christian story to feel mystery at this time of year; the wheel of the seasons turns, and then stands still for a moment, inviting us to stop, too, and find the light hidden in the dark midwinter stillness.
Well, here we are on a Monday morning, and for the first time in a couple of months, I am looking ahead past the deadlines on my virtual desk. We sent two big projects off at the end of the week, and I feel like I've just stuck my head up above water after swimming very hard for a very long time.
The first thing I did after getting to the studio today, though, was to accept a painting commission - with a deadline, of course. It's for a landscape in Iceland, and the scene is so beautiful I really wanted to do the commission; it will be a pleasure to work on it. Fortunately it doesn't have to be done before the end of the year.
And this morning I also received a new manuscript for consideration, a very interesting potential project, on top of the new CD and two planned books that Phoenicia will be publishing in the early part of 2014. We'll see...
Coming up before the end of December: a visit to my father; rehearsal and performance of The Messiah; singing the annual Lessons&Carols service at the cathedral as well as Christmas Eve mass at midnight; baking to do and a few presents to send off; a special concert back in Vermont for a friend's 75th birthday. J. and I have tried to learn how to keep the holidays from being too stressful, and a big part of that has been for me to learn to do less, and spread the tasks out over a longer period of time. It's taken a while but I'm getting there!
However, as my mother could have told you fifty years ago, I'm one of those people who's happier when I'm busy, though I do like (and need) to have some quiet and completely unstructured time, and struggle when I don't. What about you -- do you prefer being busy or not? Where's the line for you between feeling productive and contented, and overworked and stressed-out, and how do you manage it?
We're having a gentle snowstorm here in Montreal; it's beautiful. Wishing all of you a good week ahead, and hoping to finally be here a bit more regularly myself!
First snow. Dark silhouettes of people going to work, against the newness of the white earth and frosted trees; the bright orbs of light from the lamps in the park; the muffled, soft stillness.
An ambulance careens by in a blur of chartreuse. A runner, in neon tights; a woman pushing a baby carriage through the slush; determined bicyclists; walkers under umbrellas.
How fragile we are, with our firetrucks and snowplows and ambulances, arming ourselves against the unpredictable! How we clutch at a bit of warmth: the early-morning coffee cup, a cigarette, the loyal dog trotting at our side in its bare paws; how we distract ourselves with colors of lipsticks and scarves; the question of whether to put salt or sugar on our oatmeal! Meanwhile the giant poplars are singing themselves to sleep, the earth shrugging and settling beneath its white blanket, the planet hurtling through the universe. I gaze at myself and my fellow travelers with tenderness: so tiny, so myopic, so trusting, so unprepared.
While in D.C., we went to the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon. I hadn't been there since singing with my choir from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, NH, at the bishop's invitation, on New Hampshire Day at least ten years ago -- and a memorable experience that was!
This time we arrived at about 3:30 p.m., before the 4:00 service of Evensong. And just as happens in the Montreal cathedral where I now sing, the choir of Men and Trebles (boys, in this case) was finishing their rehearsal as we walked up the long aisle of the nave.
While my friends looked around, I went up into the side chapel where the choir members were putting on their white surplices and waiting until it was time to begin the processional. I went up to one friendly-looking fellow and asked some questions about their schedule, and very soon we were deep into a happy conversation about lifelong choir singing, liturgical repertoire, Benjamin Britten, and the differences and similarities between the musical life of our two cathedrals.
Then I saw my friends starting to come up the chancel steps into the choir loft and realized we were going to be able to sit in the stalls: a treat that sometimes happens in big cathedrals. As it turned out, I ended up right next to the choir, facing the conductor, and across from the organ, so I could hear the performance and watch the director almost as if I were singing myself. Some of the young boys had absolutely beautiful, clear voices, and the men were professional and supportive, singing the tenor and bass parts. It was extremely interesting to watch and listen to another top-flight choir in action -- and, if I can be permitted a little bit of self-praise, it made me realize how very good our choir and our director really are.
There was netting above us throughout the space; we learned that this was a precautionary measureto catch any loose mortar, as restoration work proceeds on the damage caused by the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck the Washington area on August 23, 2011. The cathedral sustained quite a bit of damage but has been declared structurally sound.
After the service, which filled me with happiness and peace after a very busy weekend (that's what can happen when you aren't performing!) I visited some of the other side chapels, and took some photographs of favorite windows. Aren't they gorgeous?
All the windows in the cathedral are modern, and they are just as beautiful to me as the stained glass of Chartres or Notre Dame. The cathedral "is a privately-owned and operated non-profit organization that receives no federal or national church funding," and while it is staffed by Episcopal Church clergy and follows Episcopal/Anglican liturgical tradition, it is ecumenical in spirit. They try hard to make everyone feel welcome, and the architecture, carvings, windows, ironwork, art, and gardens -- many of which commemorate history and people from our own times -- are all well worth seeing.
Earlier that same day, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, there had been a Blessing of the Animals. In this press photo, Rev. Baylor blesses a pet mouse:
The vision statement of the cathedral is this:
The National Cathedral will be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world.