Guadalupe and the Walls That Divide

Guadalupe and the Walls That Divide

by Gene Sager

As a veteran scholar of history and religion, I have been fascinated but saddened by the walls that are built between and even within religious groups. Words are used to separate; they are used as mortar in the walls. “Infidel” and “pagan” are quite effective in denigrating those with a different religious perspective. “Mariolatry” is a term used by some Protestants who are critical of Catholic devotion to Mary. In Buddhism, the Mahayana (literally, “Great Vehicle”) Buddhists use the pejorative term “Hinayana” (“Lesser Vehicle”) to refer to the other major Buddhist sect; it carries the meaning “inferior”. Even when people belong to the same religion, notions like “Negro” or “wetback” can create insurmountable walls between them. Despite all this, I am still hopeful as I am aware of powerful spiritual movements which work for tolerance and unity. I wish to explain here why I have not given in to despair.

As a convert to Catholicism, I am amazed by the richness of the Catholic tradition, from elaborate ceremonies to individual meditation techniques to the veneration of saints, and so much more. In my experience, the Church is like the matriarch of a vast family. She knows there have been horrible mistakes and some leading figures who have tried to reduce the tradition to a rule-oriented, walled castle. Still, she continues to hold out her arms to protect us all. Her arms extent even beyond the thinking of most Catholics. It is this mother-love theme that still gives me hope, especially as personified in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here I will look at a number of walls that divide and offer a Guadalupano response.

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Our Lady of GuadalupeAccording to the traditional account, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico in 1531. At that time there were walls dividing the peoples there — cultural and religious walls between the indigenous people and the Spaniards. She came, she said, as “the merciful Mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind.” The word “united” indicates her vision and her purpose: to breakdown the walls that divide. To counter the ethnic bias which has plagued the Americas, Our Lady appeared first to an indigenous man named Cuauhtlatoatzin (which means the eagle that talks) who came to be known as Juan Diego. She spoke with him at length in Nahuatl, his native tongue, on a sacred hill dedicated to the earth goddess Tonantzin. An indigenous man, in his language, on a hill sacred to his people. In the eyes of Our Lady, the natives are not second class citizens.

Of course Our Mother appealed to the Spanish bishop as well, sending Juan Diego with a request to build a chapel as the foot of the hill. Her visage is mestiza; she identifies with the natives and the Europeans. She called herself by a Nahuatl name which sounded to Spanish ears like “Guadalupe,” a famous shrine in Spain. Thus Our Lady succeeds in bringing blessings to all through what can be called a “sacred ambiguity.” In time, native conversions to Catholicism increased, and, by whatever title or name, Our Lady became a popular focus of devotion for all. Some natives still call her Tonantzin, or simply, “Our Mother”.   Many indigenous people in Mexico and elsewhere practice a kind of syncretism which blends native religion and Christianity. In her wisdom, the Church has tacitly accepted this blend.

Word of the appearance of Guadalupe migrated north and south in the Americas. As migrants moved north and south, they told the story of the endearing Virgin, and they carried versions of the image — the woman with the blue-green mantle, the Lady who emanates gold rays of compassion. She has won great numbers of devotees, becoming the Queen of the Americas and beyond. However, in modern times, national borders were drawn across the land, sometimes creating artificial divisions and very real problems.

The border I know best, the US-Mexico border, creates multiple difficulties. For centuries, even before the present border was drawn, people were accustomed to moving freely back and forth between northern Mexico and what is now the “Southwest “ of the United States. Today American politicians use border issues as a political tool, firing up anti-Mexican sentiments by alleging extreme problems involving drugs, criminal elements, and loss of American jobs. Amid the vicissitudes of border policies and document mixups, families are separated and underground traffic accelerates. Anti-Mexican prejudice is exacerbated, and here is a tragic irony: I have witnessed Mexican-American bias against Mexicans. Deeply rooted Latino communities live on both sides of the border; they have essentially the same culture, including religion. But, sadly, the border has politicized the region, dividing the people. Our Lady endures great sorrow as these walls cause alienation and untold suffering.

While politicians discuss a long, tall wall at the border, the Catholic Church has maintained a consistent pro-immigrant policy. The long, tall wall notion is a political travesty that runs counter to the history, the culture, and the religion of the region. As a Guadalupano, I call for a liberal border policy and compassionate treatment of immigrants.

One more wall deserves our attention here: the wall featured in the story about the man who goes to heaven and gets a tour. The man sees a wall in heaven and asks St Peter what possible use a wall could have in heaven. St Peter replies that the wall is for the Catholics: they are inside a walled area so that they think they are the only ones who made it into heaven.

Unfortunately, this wall is not just in the made-up story; it exist in the minds of many Catholics and non-Catholics today. The Church is attempting to dispel the “only us” myth; when my son recently studied for confirmation, the teachers used a Catholic textbook which flatly states, “The Catholic Church does not teach that only its members go to heaven.” [Faith Alive, eds Pasco and Redford, p. 118.] But the old myth dies hard.

Part of the problem is the time-worn phrase, “No salvation outside the Church.” (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Today, Catholicism teaches that in this phrase, “the Church” includes any Christian who is a member of any church. A Protestant friend of mine looked at me in disbelief when I told him this; he has always believed the wall-in-heaven story. The Catholic Church also teaches that anyone of good will may come to the vision of God in heaven. This inclusive, welcoming spirit is personified in Our Lady of Guadalupe. She holds her mantle out over the walls that can divide “us” and “them”. The golden rays of her compassion extend throughout the world, offering blessings to all.

About the author:
Gene Sager enjoys writing articles about religion, the environment, and modern culture.  He has published many articles on these subjects and is co-author of a textbook, Patterns of Religion, now in its 3rd edition.  He has lived in the Midwest, Japan, and New Mexico, and is currently living in southern California.

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