Just about the time the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on that tree down at the corner of Seventh South and Third East, I found myself in Kathryn Stockton’s Literary Theory class holding both hands up in the air, yelling, “Ooh, Ooh, I know — the stigmata!” Both hands in the air, palms out — see? Stigmata? Even Kathryn, who knew I’d been up to my eyeballs in Simone Weil and the mystic martyrs, looked a little alarmed as I launched into my theory about how the stigmata, those spontaneous wounds which cannot be entirely discredited by modern science (or by the rationalist skeptics within the Church) serve to puncture the certitude of our religious beliefs in much the same way that Irigaray’s use of the language of mysticism serves to puncture the certitude of our theoretical beliefs.
I tell you this only to illustrate how far gone I was at the time. The stigmata, please. I wasn’t raised that kind of Catholic. Not one of those homes with the the Virgin in the front lawn, safe in her blue bathtub. Not even one of those homes with the holy water font at the front door. There were no cruxifixes, no saints, nothing, as my mother would say, that common.
And yet, here I was, in the heart of the Department, in the very course where they seek to inculcate the new graduate students in the dogmas of deconstruction and postmodern literary theory, with my hands in the air, going on about the stigmata of all things.
Meanwhile, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe had been spotted on the branch scar of a streetside elm tree in a bad neighborhood. An elderly lady, Graciela Garcia waited nearly a year before telling anyone what she’d seen, but the Virgin didn’t seem to be going away, so maybe, she thought, just maybe it wasn’t the wishful thinking of an old lady. The word spread throughout the Latino community, and the faithful began to come visit. Someone put up a rickety metal staircase so the abuelas could climb up and touch the tears which were seen to emanate from Her image. Candles began to appear around the base of the tree. School photos and rosaries and little messages were pinned to the bark of the tree. Newspaper stories appeared, along with civic concern. It was city property after all, what if someone fell? What if the candles ignited a fire? It was a public nusiance, it was a danger, it was messy.
Which was exactly what I liked about it.
La Guadalupana wasn’t going to appear in a nice neighborhood. No one would recognize her, for one thing. What’s this? my friend Kathy said when she saw my Virgin of Guadalupe rosary hanging from the rear view mirror of my car. Kathy was raised, like me, a nice horseback-riding, private school, lace-curtain Irish kind of Catholic. We were basically WASPs without the P. I couldn’t tell what appalled her more, that I had a rosary hanging from my car like some common immigrant, or my sincere explanation that driving is dangerous, and it can’t hurt to have the Mother of God, particularly the Virgin of the Americas in the car with you. For Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, and her image appears on everything from tee shirts to scarves to keychains to bodega walls to the hoods of cars and the protest signs carried by Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. She is most definitely not the bloodless white-and-blue Virgin Mary that nice Irish girls like Kathy and I grew up avoiding. Who wanted to be a ninny like that? No, Guadalupe is a different kind of Mother altogether.
I first heard about the tree from someone in the Department. Apparently, some visiting writer had gotten wind of it and late one night after his reading and drinks, a gang of them had gone down to see. I was glad I’d missed it. I couldn’t think of anything less appealing than going off with a bunch of self-conscious writers to check out the scene. I could see them now, piling into the car. An apparition. Standing around down there in the dark, peering at the flickering candles, pointing out how poignant the petitions are. Look at this one. Then standing back, cigarettes in their hands, their little writerly minds looking for just the bon mot to capture the deep irony of this moment, the Virgin of Guadalupe, appearing in this tatty little corner of a drug-infested park in the City of Saints. It would have just pissed me off, and since I spent most of my five years in that program pissed off, I’m just as glad to have skipped that episode.
It was the last thing I expected when I came to Utah, this faith. I came for the mountains. After two years marooned in the Big Valley of central California I was dying for mountains. A writing program with mountains — who cared who taught there? They had a good reputation and I had a book already underway. I just wanted time to write and the crisp air and rattling aspen leaves of high elevation. I could ski again — when the writing got too hard I could go out and fly through the white and blue world up at Alta, wear myself out and come back down ready to start over. It was the other Utah I sought. Not the Utah obsessed with religion but the one obsessed with that the religion of wilderness, the religion that had saved me from a childhood in the suburbs, my mistaken attempt to live in Manhattan, my near-marriage to the bond broker. It was religion of the outdoors I thought I was returning to when I moved to Utah.
And then one snowy Sunday, I decided to walk the three blocks to the church in my neighborhood. I don’t know why. I wasn’t filled with any especial fervor. It was one of those quiet snowy Sundays when the whole city seemed peacefully at rest. And so I put on my boots and walked through the beautiful white world to Mass. It was an ordinary Mass. The church was sleepy, half-empty. The procession was led by a very enthusiastic deacon, a man in his mid-forties who one knew, just from looking at him, still lived at home with his mother. But there he was, the lectionary held high over his head, singing with all his heart, very loud, and totally off key. Unfortunately, no one seemed to find this heartbreaking or charming, the congregation stared at the pews in front of them, embarassed not only by his lack of musical talent, but, I imagine, by his fervor. Behind him, a couple of sleepy teenage altar servers, and the elderly Irish priest strolled up the aisle. Like I said, it was a perfectly ordinary Mass. The prime comfort it offered was an absolute lack of surprise. And then, after communion, when I turned to return to my seat, I found myself suddenly standing in a place where I Believed. Nothing was different. The light was the same through the clerestory window that it had been mere minutes before. The sincere musicians were still strumming their guitars and singing about Jee-sus. But suddenly everything was slightly but absolutely different. Transubstantiation. If it’s only a metaphor, Flannery O’Connor said to the hip ironic writers of her day. Then what’s the point?
It was a while before I went back. At first, I kept going to the sleepy traditional Church. My sudden conversion to a person who actually believed in the Transubstantiation, that the wafer and wine were no mere symbols, but the actual and real presence of Christ’s body and blood, well, let’s just say that this idea took a little getting used to. But, gradually, as that first year passed, I’d go up to the Newman Center, where the congregation was much more involved and vibrant, where as a group they seemed interested in a little more than just the comfort of a rote recitation of the Mass. That first year, I’d sneak in every few weeks, hiding in the back row, trying not to check whether there was anyone from the Department there. Standing in Mass singing about God’s love is about as far as one can get from the dogmas of postmodern literary theory. I like to tell people that it was Deconstruction that made a Catholic out of me again. The death of the author, the death of meaning, the idea that the best we can hope for is to make interesting linguistic patterns and call them fiction, poetry, criticism. Three years into my PhD program, to my surprise, I found myself standing in church wholeheartedly singing about God’s love. By then I was almost not embarrassed anymore. By then I’d mostly stopped crying at the tenderness and heartbreak of the sight of these people, gathered once a week to try to have faith, to try to believe.
And the Virgin of Guadalupe was, in some way the door that led me back to the Church. My friend Deb started it. She’d been in the desert for months, radio-tracking kit foxes on the Barry Goldwater Gunnery Range. A project so fraught with contradictions that she’d taken to buying saint candles at every bodega and gas station and taco stand she passed. At first they’d been a lark — particularly to someone raised, as she was, in a fundamentalist Baptist family. Somehow surrounding herself with saint candles out there in the desert just compounded the subversive pleasure of knowing that her mother would have a heart attack if she’d known. It was bad enough that Deb was out there in nature, with the dirt, and wild animals. But to surround herself with glowing saints as well? She wrote to me that one of the things she loved is that there were so many of them, and that they came in such great colors. She liked St. Michael’s sword and the deep red glow of his wax, purple St. Martin de Porres with his collection of furry animals, and the cheesy rose scent that the pink Virgin of Guadalupe candles gave off. (We agreed, and still do, that the Nino de Atoches is a little spooky.) They were a ragtag bunch of biologists camped out in the desert, sitting around the campfire at night, a flickering ring of multicolored saint candles surrounding them. For my birthday, which is only two days earlier than Her feast day, Deb sent me my first Virgin of Guadalupe candle along with a calavera, those little skeleton statuettes that populate the Day of the Dead celebrations. It was a skeleton-woman seated at a desk, madly typing away, her cotton-wool hair askew. They went on my desk, and as I worked, day by day to sketch out my first novel, a dark story of a family searching in vain for their lost daughter, I began to find the Virgin growing on me.
After the stigmata incident, I met with Kathryn Stockton about this strange paper I was trying to write for her, and somehow we got talking about how much harder it is to come out, so to speak, as a person of faith in an academic environment than it was, in her case, to come out as a lesbian. It’s cool to be a lesbian. It’s very very uncool to be a practicing Catholic who believes, in a weird but wholehearted way, in the transubstantiation of the Host, in the Assumption of Mary into heaven, in the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego on that mountainside in Mexico. Being a lesbian is transgressive, hip, subversive. Standing in a room full of people reciting a fifteen-hundred-year old Profession of Faith is not. Especially in Salt Lake, a city where one feels bludgeoned, on a daily basis, by the language of piety. It’s in the air, in the water, in the innocent ignorant faces of my students at the University, in the casual rudeness of those clans gathered at the airport every time you come back from a trip, blocking the entire exit with their banners and balloons, welcoming back some “elder,” some boy, barely able to shave, who nonetheless has been out there for two years convincing poor people to give ten percent of their paltry incomes to his church. Collectively, on a day-to-day basis, it’s enough to make a a grim anticlerical agnostic out of anyone, but for some weird reason I still don’t entirely understand, it sent me back to Mass.
Looking back, I think it was this spaciousness within the Catholic Church that allowed me to find a way back. I’d never really left the Church, but I had, like most of the people I knew, drifted away from organized religion. But nonetheless, when that first Virgin of Guadalupe candle burned down, I found myself out on the west side of town, looking for grocery stores in Latino neighborhoods, searching the aisles for the candles. They began to proliferate in my tiny apartment, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Marta, Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, St. Martin Caballero. And because I am a writer, I started reading, finding essays by writers I love about their relationship to the Church. Nancy Mairs on the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ron Hansen on the Eucharist. Flannery O’Connor’s letters about conversion to the woman she calls “A”. Andre Dubus’ description of the sacraments as a man in his wheelchair, getting his daily exercise by doing laps in a church parking lot after morning Mass, singing at the top of his lungs, exchanging rueful smiles with the smokers waiting for their AA meeting to start.
What brought me back to Catholicism was not professions of faith, not dogma, not hard answers, but that I found in the church of my childhood a fundamental acknowledgement that we are all hopelessly broken and abject, that we are, as Anne Lamott once said, “fucked unto God.” What brought me back was the acknowledgment I found in Mass that despite our perception of this state, that we’re in misery, that we’re lonely or not successful or living in marriages that seem less fabulous than we’d hoped they’d be, that despite the fact that our children are not always above average and that our houses are messy and that we fail, on a daily basis, to be kind to the people we love most, that we are still beloved of God, that we are somehow, despite our wonder at this fact, not cast out. There is, somehow, always room at the table, always room to return, and when we do, we’re welcomed back if not like the prodigal, at least with the simple grace of a stranger scooting over on a pew to make room.
The mountaintop where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego had, for as long as anyone could remember, been the home of older goddesses, Tonzatin, the snake mother, and Coatlicue who ate her own children rather than relinquish them to the conquistadors. The Church of course, destroyed these older temples on Tepayac, only to have Herself appear, and demand of this new bishop a cathedral of her own. The Church I returned to is a church elastic enough to take in Guadalupe, that brown-skinned, pregnant, barefoot, suspect “mother goddess of us all” as the poet Francisco Alarcon once told me. The Church I returned to is one where yes, there are dogmas, but more important there is ritual. There is the weekly enactment of our oldest story of sacrifice and sharing, of reaching out in the face of that immanent disaster that is our lives. What I came to love about the Mass was it’s physicality. That it wasn’t all about the words. That it depended on the group of us, sitting and standing and singing and kneeling and holding hands for “the words our Father taught us.” The mystery of walking forward and accepting, hands outstretched “the body of Christ,” of sipping from the cup and turning to pass “the blood of Christ” on to the next person. The mystery of finding myself weeping, in public, a horror I’d been schooled so carefully to avoid that I stood all through my youngest brother’s funeral, a stoic nine year old, dry eyed. But more than once those first couple of years I’d find myself standing during a hymn, unable to sing, silent tears trickling down my face. No one edged away, and just as important, no one intruded to ask. The congregation simply accepted my tears along with my presence. It was the single place in my life during those years where I didn’t feel bludgeoned by language, where I felt there was room for mystery and presence, where I felt it was okay simply to be. Which is not to say there was no conflict. I don’t know a modern Catholic who is not beset by the doctrines of our Church. Ordination of women, abortion, divorce, birth control, sex outside of marriage,the avalanche of clerical pedophilia scandals, these are all vital issues for clergy and laity alike. Cafeteria Catholics they call us, the conservative dogmatics, sneering that we pick and choose among doctrines, ignoring those we find too arduous.
Becoming a Catholic again required of me that I let go of a certain amount of irony. When people would ask me about the Virgin’s appearance on the tree, wanting to know if I thought it was real, I replied carefully. What I think is real is that the Virgin is always with us, that she’s as real as that tree in Tauffer park, as real as the Wasatch range behind us, as real as all the ancient spirits that inhabit the world. What I think is real is that Graciela Garcia saw Her there, and finally had the courage to point her out, and that the community came together and built a shrine, complete with a sturdy staircase and candles and petitions to Our Lady pinned to the tree. What I think is real is that because people believed that She had come to visit, they started hanging out in a place they had been afraid of, and that because the good abuelas and abuelos were there, the heroin addicts went elsewhere. And because the heroin addicts went away, the kids can play on the playground and there’s a man selling ice cream from a pushcart. It’s not that the world is healed, but one little park in a corner of Salt Lake City, a little park that everyone had given up on, saw a second life. That’s what I think is real, and I think that it’s Her presence, the presence of faith in something bigger and more precious than ourselves and our wordgames, that made this happen. So yes, I guess I do think it’s real.
Commissioned by the Salt Lake Acting Company. Performed February 2002 as part of Cabbies, Cowboys and the Tree of the Weeping Virgin: Short Plays by Utah Writers.