Friday, December 14, 2012

the pope's loafers

By virtue of the creation,
and, still more, of the incarnation,
nothing here below is profane
for those who know how to see.
                                    (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

We celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe the other day. I always say that she is “my favorite Mary.” I have a pushpin with her image on it pressed into the dashboard of my car. (There’s a song in there somewhere…) I suppose it’s from hanging around so many wonderful holy Mexican-Americans all my adult life, from my friendship with Pedro Rubalcava dating from the early ‘80s through school in Camarillo and living on the edge of Watsonville the past ten years. Nobody here at the monastery knew what pan dulce was. I told them you could get it at the gas station in Watsonville, and I often did.

I sang for Pope John Paul II in 1987, at my home parish in Phoenix, SS. Simon and Jude Cathedral. I had written some of the music for the event––it was a morning prayer service for clergy and religious. I remember that the place didn’t feel like it was our church anymore, with all the Secret Service guys running around, and TV cameras and lights, and we had been locked in the place for hours before the pope arrived. And then when he did arrive, it was amazing, electric, to be so close to this great man. I thought to myself he was the only person in the place who was comfortable. As a matter of fact it was one of the very few times in my life I have been nervous singing in front of a crowd––so nervous I couldn’t get the first notes out of my mouth. The pianist had to repeat the introduction! So we get through the whole service and the pope is about to leave, and I stand up to lead the closing hymn, I’ve got my arms in the air gesturing to the assembly, and suddenly the Pope is standing right in front of me with the bishop. He says, “I want to meet this beautiful musician.” And I, without thinking, just turned into an old fashioned Catholic; I immediately got down on one knee and kissed his ring. Then the strangest thing happened. I noticed that he was wearing a watch. And I thought, “What the heck does a pope need a watch for?” And then I noticed as I knelt down farther that he was wearing reddish-brown loafers, and I thought I wonder if he ever puts pennies in there? Of all the memories of that morning, that stays with me as the strongest––I was blown away by the fact that he wore a watch, and the he had penny loafers. That all this authority and influence had been invested in this man, and he was just a human being.

Another anecdote: there has been a lot of argumentation over the past years about the liturgy, as you know. And many folks are arguing that we need to make the liturgy more sacred, and one way to do that is to have more high altars, maybe bring back the communion rail, to make sure the priest is removed from the assembly and only people in cassock and surplice are up around the altar, and more candles and more rich vestments. The poor Holy Father right now seems to weighed down under layers of silk and finery and is practically hidden at St Peter’s by these six huge candlesticks and a large crucifix. And the argument that this is edifying for people, to see something so obviously holy. But I always think about my first experiences at Shantivanam, our ashram in South India, where we sit on the floor throughout the entire Eucharist, right near the simple puja stone and brass plate that is used for an altar, the priests and monks wearing only their khavi dhotis and shawls, in the simplest, humblest manner possible, and I gotta say, nothing could have felt more sacred to me than those first impressions of celebrating Mass there surrounded by coconut trees and cawing birds, and the sense of reverence of the people participating was unsurpassed. I feel much the same about our liturgies here, stripped down to a kind of Zen simplicity.

The reason I bring those things up is because I have this other strong memory of a talk I once when I was in seminary given by a woman who was a great lover of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She explained to us that of course there were people who doubt the authenticity of the whole apparition and even of the existence of Juan Diego, as is to be expected. But scientists have never been able to explain how that image appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, which was made of cloth made from cactus fiber; and artists can’t figure out how those particular pigments in the skin tone could have been mixed in that day and age. But then she dropped a little bomb: she told us that a lot of what we see on the tilma was actually added on later. They’ve done infrared studies to prove it, and then there is just the flaking of the paints on everything outside of the main image. The original image seems to be just the rose colored robes, the blue mantle with the cintura of a pregnant native maiden, and the hands and the face. But all the other stuff––the moon and the tassel, and then the gold and the black line decorations, the angel, the orange coloring of the sunburst, and then the stars and even the white fresco background­––were added by human hands, some of it probably as late as the 17th century. All of that gives a more Spanish Gothic feeling to the painting. Actually through infrared study it seems as if even the hands were modified and the face was enhanced, to make them look a little more European, whereas the original skin tone is kind of an Indian-olive.

Then I consequently did a whole bunch of reading about it all myself, and even the most traditional Catholic sources agree that there were additions to the original image. Even though they are nowhere near as elegant as the original image, some people think that the additions add a human element that is kind of charming and edifying, that they accentuate the beauty of the original elegance, like “God and human beings working together.”

That’s valid, but I had a different response to that piece of knowledge. It’s almost as if the image didn’t look conventionally holy enough, just a picture of a pregnant native young woman in plain clothes. So they had to add the angel and the moon, all the gold and extra colors. Who would ever believe that this was holy without all that Gothic stuff?

But somehow that’s the point. The marvelous thing about the Incarnation, which we are about to celebrate, is just how close God comes, a god in dirty diapers. When I said that in my homily, one of the young guys who is here for his initial observership snorted with laughter, and he brought it up several times later in the day. I didn’t mean it to sound shocking, but it really is, I guess. Still, that’s it! Don’t they say something like that about Jesus all the time? Who is this guy? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Didn’t we see you in your dirty diapers? The gospels tell us that They were amazed that God could give such power to a human being. That is some of the gift of Mary: it seems as if whenever God becomes too distant and masculine and far away, and ironically even when Jesus, who was supposed to bring God so close to us, gets pushed too far away, along comes Mary to bring the compassion of God close again, like a nurturing mother would. But then we push her away too. It wasn’t enough for her to be a young pregnant peasant woman dressed in a simple tunic. People wanted to make sure she looked holy. As if there were nothing holy about Pope John Paul II’s red loafers and watch; as if sitting on the floor in south India weren’t as holy as a high altar at St Peter’s Basilica. In the midst of you is one you do not know. The wonderful, frightening, mysterious marvelous thing about God is how close God is, and how holy is everything around us––the ground we stand on.

There was and is a lot of nervousness about John Paul II’s emphasis on referring to Mary by such things as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix. It seems to some as if she is being deified, divinized. I’m not so bothered by it. I love seeing a feminine presence so close to the throne of the godhead. But, isn’t divinization the point anyway? The Eastern Christian tradition emphasizes this more than we do––the end of the Christian life is divinization, but we say it right out too: May we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What I want to emphasize along with that, though, is never to forget that she is also one of us, she is also a pregnant native young woman. If we could stretch our theological arms that wide as to hold both of those things together, Mary’s lowliness and her divinization, then we would be able to grasp something of the fullness of the Christian mystery. We don’t have to add anything on to her, nor on to reality, in order to catch a glimpse of real holiness. As Teilhard wrote, "By virtue of the creation and, still more, of the incarnation, nothing here below if profane for those who know how to see."