Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflections on San Juanita

Funny how a place can so quickly begin to seem like home.

We stayed in the Lagos Inn for four nights, and by the end of our time we were friendly with the hotel staff, used to the breakfast routine, adapted to the ringing of church bells outside our window day and night, and, perhaps most of all, addicted to the hot shower with awesome water pressure. (I will refrain from ranting about our current shower situation in Guadalajara. I know. I'm an ugly American. But if there's one luxury we miss most of all...)

Funny, too, how a different world can so quickly reveal its surprises, once you take that first step to enter it. Coming into Los Altos (translated as "the highlands," a largely rural ranch-land region of Jalisco state where we were and will be - I can't link to a Wikipedia page because there isn't one...yet) on Friday was a lot like entering a dark room. In those first few moments, you can't see anything at all, you're feeling your way around, maybe stumbling a bit but also extra careful so as not to knock anything over and wake everyone else up.

But then your eyes begin to adjust, and, gradually, you begin to perceive a little bit, even without your flashlight (flashlight=LonelyPlanet guidebook). "Surprise" #1: Los Altos, and San Juan de Los Lagos in particular, may not be a tourist destination in U.S. guidebooks, but it just may be the ultimate tourist destination for northern and central Mexico. Over 8 million people visit this town every year, and this past weekend alone, one of the biggest weekends, over 3 million people visited San Juan de Los Lagos, many of them - including an 88-year-old woman we read about in the newspaper - traveling on foot.

And, like in any tourist destination, enterprising locals adapt themselves accordingly. There are hotels galore in San Juan, though most of them jack up their prices on festival days, which is why we had to stay in the Lagos Inn in Lagos de Moreno an hour away. (Why half the towns have "Lagos" in their name is beyond us, because we have yet to stumble upon a single lago (lake) in the region.) And there are market stands. Market stands, market stands, market stands, like a massive outdoor mall. The most popular product being sold? Bed sheets, comfortors, blankets - it's like a Bed Bath and Beyond sidewalk sale, if a Bed Bath and Beyond sidewalk sale extended throughout an entire city. Unbelievable. (After watching me glue my eyes to them one too many times, Chris said that, yes, we could get a Chivas comforter when we move to San Juan de Los Lagos. I'm going to hold her to it!)

So it seems like the routine is, you go and you walk for three weeks to make your pilgrimage to the little virgen in the Basilica, and then you go shopping for some bed sheets, and then you go home. Nearly 8 million Mexicans come here to do this every year. And yet: not in the U.S. guidebook. The things we miss when we only take the tourist route... (Update: San Juan de Los Lagos has finally made it into the Fall 2008 edition of the Lonely Planet Mexico guide (which has an AWESOME cover photo, by the way). We bought the relevant chapter online (downloading chapters = great feature of, and the entry is about three paragraphs long, with no information on hotels or restaurants or anything. But it's a start.)

I remember trying to explain to people for most of spring 2008 where we were going. I got a lot of "San Juan de what now?" and I sympathized, because I would have had the same reaction, so I eventually just started saying "a small town north of Guadalajara." But once we got to San Juan de Los Lagos, "small, remote town" seemed like a really stupid description. Nobody'd heard of this place in the states, but with 3 million people streaming in it while we were there it suddenly seemed like the center of the world. And I realized for the 896th time how little we in the States understand Mexico.

And how little we understand Mexican religion, Mexican Christianity, Mexican Catholicism. I had an "ethics" class a few years back in which we read a book about Christian ethics through Latino eyes. It was really awful. The author went banally on about how important the family is in Latino culture and failed to mention Mary the Mother of God one time. Not once! (The author was a Protestant, of course - I love it when authors deal with thorny issues by ignoring them and pretending they don't exist.) Even I, with my limited knowledge of Mexico then, knew that the Virgen de Guadalupe was central to Mexican Catholicism. And, like a lot of Lutheran pastors and professors and seminarians, I patted myself on the back for having some passing knowledge of Guadalupe.

That's okay, I suppose - the Virgen of Guadalupe is important. She's the biggie, as much a symbol of Mexico as the red-white-and-green Mexican flag, and the Patroness of all of the Americas according to Roman Catholicism. We are finally beginning to see a good amount of theology written about her in Lutheran circles. During the Mexico Semester Program we had a few classes with Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, who teaches at the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest in Austin, and who has written some intriguing pieces about how the Virgen of Guadalupe can help us Lutherans recover a deeper respect for Mary (which, we forget, Luther had in droves) and, perhaps as importantly, help us recover the role of women and the critical elements of femininity in a Christian tradition that has too often been overwhelming patriarchal.

But focusing only on Guadalupe now seems like it distorts the theological challenge, making it much easier than it really is. With Guadalupe, it's hard enough. We have to almost completely rebuild our understanding of Mary from the bottom up. Might as well call it like it is: In terms of religious practice, for vast majorities of Mexican Catholics she is just as important as any member of the Trinity and she may just be the most important one. It's an observable fact here. So if you want to incorporate this understanding into your own, you either have to make room at that three-person divine table for Mary, or you can do what many Protestant theologians are doing and link up Mary with the Holy Spirit, building on the long tradition of understanding the Holy Spirit as feminine. (One begins to feel real sympathy for the teenage girl from Nazareth having all this divinity heaped upon her, but such are the initial abstractions of the systematic theologian.) It's not an easy task, but at least it's just one challenge.

Except that on Monday morning I flipped on the TV and found the Catholic channel, which was showing another Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos festival in August in which the virgen, which is physically a little doll you can hold in your hands, was brought out of the Basilica and shown to the hundreds of thousands of people waiting outside. This little doll is revered because she performs miracles (and you have to hear Chris tell the story of her first miracle - it involves circus performers. Seriously.). People travel thousands of miles on foot to visit a doll and say a prayer, often a prayer of thanksgiving for a miracle recieved. And on the way, they carry banners featuring both this doll and and image of the virgen of Guadalupe, side by side, so that after a while you get used to referring to "Guadalupe" and "San Juan" and "Zapopan" and "Soledad" and "Caridad" as if they are not just different appearances of the one Mary but different virgens, different entities entirely, because, for the people here in some very real sense, they are. It's enough to make even the most open-minded Lutheran a little uncomfortable.

Yet at the risk of offering a pat solution, I continue to believe that the best first step here for Lutherans is not to cry "IDOLATRY!" and run screaming out of the room. (I have nearly seen it happen in class once. Really.) No, I'm not advocating immediate acceptance of all beliefs and practices either. Rather, I need some strategy for entering into this new space, both treating the 8 million other Christians as equals worthy of respect while not doing a disservice to my own background either.

So, step one: Instead of first pointing out all of the areas where we disagree, why not first find all of the areas in which we share an understanding or a practice? I know: Obvious first principle of ecumenism. But it's easy to forget when we're confronted with something so incredibly different.

Next, we might look at those areas in which this new, "strange" religious practice might actually fill a need that we have in our own tradition. Watching people limp their way into town after a long walking journey, Chris remarked at how physical this understanding of spirituality is. That long walk for the virgen is like a physical prayer. I'm reminded of an earlier post about the physical, activity-based nature of Mexican religious celebrations - Posadas, Three Kings Day, etc - and this, it strikes me, is no different. I use my brain a lot in writing theology and composing prayers, but how often do I use my body in practicing my faith?

And then, yes, maybe the third step or better yet the three hundredth step will be saying no, I don't really agree with that particular point. I can't really agree, at this point, that Mary remained sinless from birth to (not death in this tradition but) ascension or that Mary remained a virgin even after she gave birth to Jesus. I'm not even sure, after convincing arguments from Biblical studies professors at seminary about the meaning of the Greek New Testament text, that the Mother of God should be called a virgin at all, but that one's still in the ecumenical creeds so I'm holding off making a decision on it for now. But even the fact that it's a live question in the theological circles I travel in back home shows just how different a place San Juan de Los Lagos is than LSTC. Or Seattle, for that matter.

Funny how a journey can begin anew when you least expect it.

Now playing: U2 - Flower Child (From All That You Can't Leave Behind Sessions)
via FoxyTunes


From Michigan with Love said...

I can't wait until you are presiding Bishop!

Mike and Beth said...

...and the journey will be new so many times over...thanks for continuing to write!