“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
J.M. Barrie- Peter Pan
Sometimes you just don’t know what you have stumbled into. It was my first week in Mexico and I knew nothing….I mean nothing, not how to ask for a beer or help. I had no latino friends and I had really only eaten Mexican food a handful of times in my life. I had no idea how vast and diverse this country is or that I would spend the next sixteen years learning about it.
My friend Jessica and I had come here sin plan, which when I think about it now, was the perfect introduction to this pace of life. After spending a few days in Tulum and meeting fellow travelers we were encouraged to travel to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. We got on a night bus, our skin still salty from a last minute swim in the Gulf of Mexico and we settled in for the 18 hour journey. I woke up with the sun as the bus made it’s way along the windy roads. I looked out the window and saw the lush jungle of the central highlands. The bus was moving very slowly and when I looked down I could see why, the side of the road was filled with people. It was the morning of December 12th which meant nothing to me.
I was not a stranger to religion- we had been flirting for years. I attended a French Catholic school, where I insisted on taking catechism like the rest of my classmates, despite my mother’s reminders that we were not catholic. In junior high I switched to a liberal private school where I was one of the few non-Jews and I loved the Bar Mitzvahs, the Seders and the Hanukkah celebrations that I was welcomed into. In university I attended buddhist gatherings and took electives from the religious studies department- by far the nicest and quietest building on campus. My travels had taken me to the Vatican, Notre-Dame in Paris and St-Joseph’s oratory, but like Robert Langdon says in the novel ‘Angels & Demons’ I felt that ‘faith is a gift that I have yet to receive’.
That morning in Chiapas however was a type of revelation. The procession was welcoming and beautiful. Men and women in traditional Indian garb- a tribute to what Juan Diego would have worn when he had his vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe- carried and passed a flaming torch up the mountain. The revelation was not a sudden religious epiphany, I did not in that moment believe in the power of the virgin or that Jesus was my savior but I believed in the faith of the runners.
The entire town was a-buzz with celebration. The road leading up to the church had been closed off from cars and food stalls flanked each side selling a cornucopia of food I had never even imagined. At the top near the church a small fair had been set up; the ferris wheel carrying people high above the crowd.
I loved feeling the power of their faith and rather than place me on the outside watching in, it swept me off my feet. As we joined the throngs of pilgrims making their way up the stairs of the Guadalupe church no one looked at us like we didn’t belong or questioned our devoutness. It was everything I had always imagined other people felt that had somehow escaped me; communion, joy and the certainty of something larger than myself. It was at that moment I think I fell in love with this country; the food, it’s ceremonies, it’s way of turning something like religion, which had always been sort of grey elusive to me into a celebration, an explosion of color and somewhere I completely belong.
This issue our writers explore religion; the good, the bad and the ugly of what unites and separates us. Brooke Gazer’s piece on the separation of church and state in North America gives an interesting comparative look at the way we allow religious beliefs to enter the public sphere. The Chaiken’s account of the what was happening in Mexico during the Inquisition, while dark, reminds us to look back to be able to move forward. Father William Saunders’ recounting of the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin help us to understand the background of this much celebrated holiday. Wherever your beliefs lay in the spectrum of faith we hope you enjoy this issue.
Happy Holidays….all of them!