North America’s Own Lourdes

The Church at Chimayo, New Mexico

The Church at Chimayó, New Mexico

France has Lourdes; Portugal has Fatima; Argentina has Luján; Mexico has Guadalupe; and the United States has the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, commonly known as El Santuario de Chimayó near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The little church is only 60 feet (18 meters) long and 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide. Yet, especially during Holy Week, some 30,000 pilgrims are in attendance.

The dirt floor has been known to have miraculous properties. Visiting pilgrims take some of the dirt for themselves or friends and relatives who are unable to visit. The church replaces the dirt, to the tune of 20 or 30 tons a year, from neighboring hillsides. The Catholic Church makes no claim as to the miraculous properties of the so-called sacred dirt.

Martine and I plan to visit Chimayo during our upcoming trip to Mexico. Maybe the sacred dirt will cure my diabetes. Or not.

Latin American Churches

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

In my posting the other day on Why Did I Go to Ecuador?, I seem to have left out one of the main reasons. This applies equally to Peru and probably Colombia, but not so much to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

I am referring to the Catholic cathedrals, basilicas, and other old churches of the Andes. Until age 17, I received a Catholic education at St. Henry School in Cleveland and Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. Then, while I was at Dartmouth, although a nominally Congregationalist school, I was very active with the Catholic Students’ Newman Club.

Coming to California has been disastrous to my faith—but yet something remains. It comes out when I visit the Andean churches, the most beautiful of which is La Compañía de Jesús church (shown above) near Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia.

In both Peru and Ecuador, I frequently stopped in at the local churches; and, not infrequently, I stayed for the services. In the Andes, I felt like a Catholic again. Even the smaller churches in places like Otávalo, Alausi, and Mindo drew me in.

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

In my life’s journey, I can see my returning to the Catholic Church. I continue to take exceptions to many points of dogma, such as the prohibitions on married priests, women in the priesthood, abortion, and divorce and some doctrines such as the relatively recent ones of the Immaculate Conception and what I call Papal Inflammability. On he other hand, there is much to admire. At this point, I am not sure which route I will take.

“Tears of the Lord”

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

One of the paintings I saw on Saturday’s visit to the Autry National Center is Paul Pletka’s “Tears of the Lord,” which depicts a bloody crucifixion on an Aztec cross, with native Americans in ceremonial garb walking by the foot of the cross.

It reminds me of the strange mix of Christianity with Andean religions that I saw in Peru in 2014. As one who has had a Catholic education through age 17, I was amazed by the beauty and ornateness of the churches in Lima, Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco. The farther I got from the larger cities, however, the more I saw signs of local religious practices alongside the Catholic images.

In the 1980s, when my brother and I visited the State of Chiapas in southern Mexico, we saw something even more extreme—so extreme, in fact, that we were made to sign statements in advance that we would not photograph inside the church or any of the religious ceremonies. The penalty for violation? Tourists had been killed for disrespect of the local customs. In the church of San Juan Chamula, the Christian statuary was decked out with corncobs and flowers. All pews had been removed, and the Mayans prayed by lying on their stomachs with their arms outstretched. The altar was de-emphasized altogether. Instead, there were various worship stations scattered around the nave.

And where was the local priest? The Catholic clergy had been kicked out more than a hundred years previously as part of a revolt. The churches they left behind were adapted to highland Mayan religion.

As I look at Pletka’s painting, I see the native peoples of the Americas incorporating all or part of Christianity, but insisting on their own brand of religious syncretism as well. At the tiny church in Corporaque, Peru, near Colca Canyon, I felt very far indeed from the Cathedral at Cusco. The only modern touch was that I was being filmed. Apparently, a nearby church was ransacked by thieves; and many of the small churches took measures to protect their ecclesiastical treasures.

A Halo for Judas Iscariot?

Twelve Apostles—All With Haloes—Watching Christ Entering Jerusalem

Twelve Apostles—All With Haloes—Watching Christ Entering Jerusalem

Today Martine and I attended the Valley Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in North Hills. Please excuse the lack of sharpness in the above photo. What is clear is that twelve men wearing haloes are watching Christ enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Now, my question is this: If these men are, in fact, the Apostles, why do all twelve have haloes, which would invariably include Judas Iscariot?

It was not until after Palm Sunday that Judas ratted the Messiah out to the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver. Afterwords, he felt remorse and hanged himself with a halter.

After Christ’s resurrection, Judas was replaced by Matthias:

Matthias was selected to replace Judas as recorded in Acts 1:15-26. The other man who was also in consideration was named Joseph or Barsabas, and surnamed Justus. Lots were cast and eventually Matthias was chosen. Acts 1:24-26 records the following, “And they prayed and said, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” The Bible is sparse on additional details relating to Matthias, but it does say that Matthias was with Jesus since His baptism until his resurrection. Besides the book of Acts, Matthias isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. According to historical sources Matthias lived til 80 A.D. and spread the gospel on the shores of the Caspian and Cappadocia.

Judas Is Pointedly Depicted Without a Halo at the Cathedral of Moulins

Judas Is Pointedly Depicted Without a Halo at the Cathedral of Moulins

Note that at this time, Paul was not an apostle. He was known as Saul and actively persecuted the Christians until, on the road to Damascus, God spoke to him from the heavens:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

— Acts 9:3–9, NIV

One final observation. In his short story (in the form of an essay) entitled “Three Versions of Judas” published in Ficciones, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges speculated on a different role for Judas Iscariot in the story of Man’s Redemption:
God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible—all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.
*  *  *  *  *
What, in fact, do I believe? I think twelve holy men depicted as wearing haloes are shown watching Christ enter Jerusalem. It is merely interesting to speculate whether Judas is one of them.

What, No Hajj?

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

Saudi Arabia Has Halted All Flights To/From Iran

It is a mandatory religious duty for all Muslims, at least once in their life, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are on the outs, the Saudis have forbidden all flights linking their two countries. This alone has the potential of leading to further nastiness. Admittedly, Iranian pilgrims can still go by boat (and risk being robbed by Somali pirates) or by land (and risk being robbed by bandits).

I cannot help but think that the real reason for all this nastiness is the conflict in Yemen between Shi’a rebels (called the Houthis) and the Saudis and their allies. In the end, the Saudis may think now is the time to rid themselves of the Shi’a menace once and for all.

Now what is this Sunni/Shi’a split all about? According to the BBC:

In early Islamic history, the Shia were a movement – literally “Shiat Ali” or the “Party of Ali”. They claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

Ali was assassinated in 661 after a five-year caliphate that was marred by civil war. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to the caliphate.

Hassan is believed to have been poisoned in 680 by Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, while Hussein was killed on the battlefield by the Umayyads in 681. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.

There are three main branches of Shia Islam today—the Zaidis, Ismailis and Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis). The Ithna Asharis are the largest group and believe that Muhammad’s religious leadership, spiritual authority and divine guidance were passed on to 12 of his descendants, beginning with Ali, Hassan and Hussein.

The 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in 878. Ithna Asharis believe the so-called “awaited imam” did not die and will return at the end of time to restore justice on earth.

In other words, the roots of the conflict go all the way back 1,400 years and show no signs of slackening.

It’s a sobering thought that we, who cannot even pronounce the name “Muawiyah,” may be affected in some way by this stramash.

Not the Epicene Nordic Christ

Head of Christ by Antonio Allegri aka Correggio (1489-1534)

Head of Christ by Antonio Allegri aka Correggio (1489-1534)

In all of art, there are only two depictions of Christ that I—a notorious renegade Catholic—admire. One is in a Luis Buñuel film called La voie lactée, or The Milky Way (1969). In it, Bernard Verley played the role of the Son of Man (below) as a likable guy who just happens to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana, because his mother kept insisting, “But they have no more wine!” I could see wanting to become his disciple.

Christ (Bernard Verley) at the Miracle of Cana

Christ (Bernard Verley) at the Miracle of Cana

Today, I visited my favorite painted depiction of Christ at the Getty Center. It was the work of Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio, sometime between 1525 and 1530. According to the museum’s website, the small (28.6 cm x 23.5 cm) painting represents the face of Christ on the veil offered to Him by St. Veronica on the road to Calvary—though I am not convinced of that. He is wearing the crown of thorns, which looks as if it had just been placed on his head without any sweat or bleeding in evidence.

What there is is an expression on Christ’s face that is a somber acknowledgment of the horrible death to come, the same death that He had asked to be relieved of in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Luke 22:39)

Neither of them show us the namby-pamby Evangelical Christ which is fed as pabulum to brainless children (and adults). I can believe in Correggio’s Christ, as I do in Buñuel’s Christ. They both portray the innate tragedy of the Redemption and the strange mismatch between God’s nature and man’s in the same body.

The Shield Wall

Anglo-Saxon Battle Helmet

Anglo-Saxon Battle Helmet

I am continuing to undergo a period of interest in the Anglo-Saxons. It started with some old poetry, and now I am reading the latest in Bernard Cornwell’s excellent series various called Warrior Chronicles and Saxon Tales. Set in the Tenth Century, we see the half-pagan, half-Christian Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his son of the same name battling internal enemies in the Mercian kingdom as well as Viking raiders.

Warfare among the Anglo-Saxons was a bloody affair. The warriors on each side linked their shields together and proceeded to hack above and below them with swords and axes to bring down their foe. In The Empty Throne, we find the senior Uhtred laid up with battle scars, but pretending to be hurt more than he is.

Reading this description of shield wall battle from Cornwell’s earlier The Pagan Lord, one wonders that he is alive at all:

There is a way of battle. In the end the shield walls must meet and the slaughter will begin and one side will prevail and the other will be beaten down in a welter of butchery, but before the blades clash and before the shields crash, men must summon the nerve to make the charge. The two sides stare at each other, they taunt and insult each other. The young fools of each army will prance ahead of the wall and challenge their enemy to single combat, they will boast of the widows they plan to make and of the orphans who will weep for their fathers’ deaths. And the young fools fight and half of them will die, and the other half strut their bloody victory, but there is still no true victory because the shield walls have not met. And still the waiting goes on. Some men vomit with fear, others sing, some pray, but then at last one side will advance. It is usually a slow advance. Men crouch behind their shields, knowing that spears, axes and arrows will greet them before the shields slam together, and only when they are close, really close, does the attacker charge. Then there is a great bellow of noise, a roar of anger and fear, and the shields meet like thunder and the big blades fall and the swords stab and the shrieks fill the sky as the two shield walls fight to the death. That is the way of battle.

After years of reading Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels of the Napoleonic Wars, which I devoured with great pleasure, I find the Warrior Chronicles to be at least as good.