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  • Writer's pictureMary Beth Keenan

Caught in the Ethereal

The vibrant colors and varied faces of a Diego Rivera mural provided the background to the story of Saint Juan Digeo and Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was 19 years old, studying art and architecture in Mexico for the summer, and hearing about the pair of indigenous Mexican saints for the first time. Our professor was preparing us to visit the Basilica the next day. With words and wonder she painted the tale of reluctant peasant, pregnant Mary, and scrupulous Bishop. I sat in awe, shocked that I had never heard of this visitation before and grateful that this professor, so passionate about art and architecture, but not about faith, told the story with such reverence and excitement. 

In December of 1531 Our Lady of Guadalupe began visiting Juan Deigo, an indigenous peasant, on Tepeyac Hill. She requested that he build a shrine to her on the spot of their visits. After a little more convincing from Our Lady, Juan Diego spoke to the bishop of the area, telling him the story of the apparition and the request for a shrine. The bishop did not believe Juan Diego; he could not imagine that Mary would come to visit an indigenous peasant to share such an important request. 

After a few more days and a few more failed attempts with the bishop, roses bloomed on the spot of Our Lady’s visit with Juan Diego. In the winter in Mexico, these flowers should not have been able to bloom. Juan Diego harvested the flowers, wrapped them in his cloak, and ran to show the bishop the miracle sign of Our Lady: roses from the bishop’s home region of Spain. That was not the only miracle though. A depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego was colorfully imprinted on his cloak. This image and the linen itself are still in wonderful condition to this day, continuing the miracle. The bishop quickly came to believe the validity of Juan Diego’s visions and construction of a shrine began quickly on Tepeyac Hill.

(There are so many amazing details captured in the cloak, I invite you to take some time to look them up today. Two personal favorites: the black sash around Mary’s belly signifies in indigenous cultures of the region that she is pregnant. And the stars on her dress are in the arrangement of the night sky in Mexico in December of 1531). 

Today, the miraculous cloak, or tilma, hangs in a place of honor, behind the altar, in the Basilica. This Basilica was built in the 1970s after an earthquake caused structural damage to the Basilica from the 1700s. The two Basilicas face each other, creating a unique look into architectural history and an immensely beautiful city square. 

Upon entering the Basilica, I was drawn to the tilma. Our professor immediately began sharing more architectural knowledge: information about the new design, intentionality be

hind lighting fixtures, and the interplay between the two Basilica’s styles. All I remember thinking was, “Shh, please. I’m talking to Mama.” I had zero interest in the architecture lesson, I simply wanted to spend time with Our Lady of Guadalupe. I wanted “girl time” with Mama Mary and nothing else. 

I truly do not remember any details from our lesson that day. And to be honest, I hold that memory with some regret. I am grateful that I was captivated by Our Lady and Juan Diego’s cloak: it is a magnificent sight to see and a blessing to be in the presence of. However, I feel like I missed gaining a richer understanding of the context of the story and of the faithfulness of the Mexican people. I was so wrapped up in the ethereal, that I did not pause to appreciate the material. 

I focused solely on the holy moment, missing the opportunity to learn from the local environment. In some ways this makes me like Juan Diego’s bishop: paying attention to the typical ways the divine presents him/herself and missing the smaller, more creative ways. I wonder if the bishop noticed the thorns and dirt clods on the roses, or if he simply saw the shining face of the Blessed Mother on the fabric. To me, this is a big message of Our Lady of Guadalupe: allow the sacred to speak through the mundane, listen, pay attention to all, and learn from the beauty and truth right in front of us. 

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