Tag Archives: religion

Allhallowtide: The Sacred, the Sublime, and the Silly

By Brooke Gazer

When Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, he was seeking fame and fortune, but the priests who followed had a more challenging purpose. They wanted to save souls and gain converts for the Catholic church. Many Aztec rituals, like those surrounding the Death Goddess Mictecacihuatl, appalled them, but these practices were so deeply ingrained that some could be traced back to the Toltec Period (800-1000 CE). In Mexico, as in much of the New World, conversion would require compromises and one technique was merging existing native rituals with Catholic ones. With this in mind, they moved the festival of Mictecacihuatl from July to November, and incorporated Christian concepts.

The notion of rearranging festival dates and focus was not a novel one. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV created a day to commemorate holy martyrs. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV moved and expanded it to include all saints. This three day celebration became known in Europe as Allhallowtide – October 31, November 1 and 2.

For traditional Catholics, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; it may also be referred to as Day of the Innocents or Little Angels. Catholics are encouraged to pray for martyrs and saints as well as deceased children, who are assumed to be innocent. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of everyone else, including those who may have gone to Purgatory and are awaiting entry to heaven.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on the same dates, but in Mexico it bears little resemblance to what Pope Gregory IV originally had in mind. Deceased children are remembered on November 1 and adults on November 2. However, people are not praying for their souls to enter heaven; they are awaiting a reunion. Many traditional Mexicans believe that death is part of a continuing cycle, and that on this hallowed night, the spirits of their ancestors are able to walk among them.

Since the dead return at night, people begin sitting vigil the nights of October 31 and November 1. After dark, Mexican families gather at home in front of ofrendas (altars for the departed), and at the gravesite. They offer favorite foods and beverages while sharing stories about the deceased. It’s a joyful time, about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss. One might compare this to an Irish wake, except that this is an annual event, and the spirits of the deceased are believed to consume the offerings left for them. Believers will tell you that the flavors are altered after the dead have inhaled their essences.

In addition to believing that a loved one may return to enjoy earthly pleasures, Mexicans have continued other indigenous practices. Marigolds, called cempasúchil from the Nahuatl (Aztec), were believed to awaken the dead. Graves and the altars displaying candy, alcohol, favorite foods, and small mementos, are heavily adorned with these distinct orange flowers. On a practical note, it bears mentioning that the pungent fragrance of marigolds repels ants, so that chocolate and other treats are not overrun by these tiny pests. Those ancient priests knew more than we give them credit for.

Candles also play a major role and cemeteries are brightly lit with hundreds of velas as families gather to welcome their loved ones back to earth. Candles are part of Catholic rituals that have merged into this festival and it is believed that the light from the flames helps to guide the spirit home.

If you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery in Mexico during this time, it is an awe-inspiring experience. People are proud of the artistry employed in decorating their loved one’s graves and will welcome you as long as you are respectful. Oaxaca is one of the most traditional states in Mexico, so it stands to reason that this is an excellent place to experience this spectacular celebration of life. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this might not be the year to visit.

While not all Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, most do – if only to respect their ancestors. It is a lovely ritual, like agnostics decorating a tree and exchanging gifts in December. Adorning a grave or an altar is way to remember loved ones and allowing ourselves to do this is a healthy tradition that we might all benefit from.

This holiday should not be confused with the festival that we call Halloween. Since they share the same origins, the date overlaps, but this is where the similarity ends. During the medieval period in Ireland and Britain, Christians and pagans gathered around bonfires on Allhallowtide to ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world. It became tradition to dress in costumes of saints and demons and act out battles of good vs. evil. Somehow when this antiquated tradition crossed the Atlantic, it was adapted into a frivolous candy fest for children.

Halloween pales in comparison to Mexico’s spectacle, seeming rather crass to those who never grew up with it. For a child, however, the allure of dressing like a kitten or maybe as Superman and filling a sack with free Chiclets, Reese’s Pieces and mini Hershey bars is irresistible. Even as far south as Huatulco, this American/Canadian tradition is creeping into the culture. Each year, I notice more kids roaming our streets and begging for treats. An interesting twist, however, is that in Mexico time has a different perspective, so that local kids have cleverly extended October 31 into a multi-night candy grab.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco.
http://www.bbaguaazul.com.

New Year of the Trees

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

A deep appreciation for trees is integral to Judaism.  Trees are mentioned over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew generic word for fruit also appears over a hundred times. In addition, specific trees and fruits that grew in ancient Israel, including the date, fig, olive, and persimmon, are described and praised throughout the Bible.

Two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, are central to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, as is a fruit that they were not supposed to eat but did. The tree of life later came to be metaphorically associated with the entirety of Judaic knowledge or with the totality of human generations, and representations of the tree of life are commonly found in synagogues, works of art, and the titles of books or movies. Traditional sayings about the tree of life are commonly inscribed in Hebrew on the walls or doors of Jewish schools and places of worship.

When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, much of the land had been stripped bare of trees during the centuries when most Jews had been in exile. A major effort was launched to turn Israel’s desert land into fertile areas of orchards and forests. Trees were planted that were the same species that Jews had nurtured 3,000 years earlier at the time of King David.  Children around the world collected coins to support that effort, and each was rewarded with a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel with the funds they provided.  The beautiful lush forests and orchards in modern Israel are testimony to the success of that effort. In those early years, many people during their first trip to Israel would ask to see “their tree” – but it was impossible to identify individual trees that had been established with particular donations.

Many Jewish holidays incorporate fruit and nuts into festival meals and traditions.  On Passover, a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called “charoset,” offsets the taste of horseradish, eaten to remember the bitterness of slavery.  On the spiritual New Year, Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are served to wish the family and guests a sweet year the year round. In the fall at the festival of Sukkot (tabernacles), branches of the myrtle, willow and date palm are bundled together and, along with the fruit of the citron tree. are used in a celebratory ritual.

Not only do trees and fruit play an important role in Jewish holidays, but they have been awarded a holiday of their own – the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is commonly called Tu B’Shevat, which means the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, the date of the holiday on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the secular calendar, Tu B’Shevat falls in January or February. While in some places, such as Mexico City, the temperature on Tu B’Shevat can be bitter cold and the trees still dormant, and in other places such as coastal Oaxaca the weather can be witheringly hot and dry, in Israel or Guadalajara Tu B’Shevat is a time when trees begin to flower.

Tu B’Shevat is celebrated in different ways depending on the community. Many communities essentially celebrate an Earth Day, providing information about sustainable growing methods.

Others hold seders, which are meals incorporating seven species of fruits and grains mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Some communities in temperate climates plant trees, while other communities raise funds for planting trees in Israel. Almost everyone celebrating Tu B’Shevat eats fruit.

One of our favorite Tu B’Shevat celebrations took place in Huatulco with The Eye staff and their partners. Everyone brought a dish made with fruit for brunch – a delicious variety of salads, frittatas, salsas, cakes and cookies. We talked about and sampled four kinds of fruit and compared them to human personalities – hard on the outside but soft inside; soft on the outside but hard on the inside; soft on the outside and inside; and hard on the outside and inside. And then everyone told a story about a favorite tree they remembered from a period in their life.

Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Scriptures but rather was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud – Jewish oral tradition written down around the year 500. But for those of us who love trees, it is a wonderful time to appreciate their diversity and the bounty they provide and to commit ourselves to their protection.

Saintly Mexican Mothers and Fathers

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Some of the most famous Mothers and Fathers in Mexico are truly saints. Mexico has more saints than any other country in this hemisphere, and many of them began their road to canonization as priestly fathers or mothers in convents. The very first father who became a Mexican saint was Saint Philip of Jesus, the patron saint of Mexico City, a Franciscan friar who died in 1597; he was canonized by the pope 265 years later, in 1862. This is an example of how the posthumous path for mothers and fathers to become saints in the Catholic Church can be lengthy and requires many steps.

The first step in becoming a saint is to submit an application to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS, formerly called the Congregation of Rites), one of the nine congregations in the Roman Curia in the Vatican. The application is submitted by the person’s diosecan Bishop, who, after waiting usually five years or more after the death of the potential applicant, investigates his or her life to determine whether he or she appears to have the holy attributes of a saint. The investigation entails examining witnesses and exploring written works. The findings can either be used to end the path to sainthood or passed on to the authorities in the Vatican.

One of the first Mexican applicants for a potential path to sainthood was Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, who died around age 80 in 1548. Although he was known for his cogent doctrinal writing and praised as the protector of the indigenous population, the application submitted in his behalf was never acted on by the Vatican organization that preceded the CSS.

One of the most recent applicants is the Reverend Mother María Concepción Zúñiga López, who died in 1979. Raised during the post-revolutionary period in Mexico when Catholicism was brutally suppressed, young María nevertheless sought out clerics and nuns in hiding who could be her mentors. At age 28 she founded an order of nuns devoted both to contemplation and acts of kindness. Her writings were sufficiently influential to be deemed noteworthy by the Pope. Given the glacial pace on the road to becoming a saint, it would be surprising if the Reverend Mother had already reached the next level.

The second step to sainthood is to become a Servant of God. Once a bishop submits an application to the Vatican, the CCS, consisting of 34 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, reviews the application and the supporting documentation. If the application is accepted, the applicant is designated a Servant of God and the CCS takes on the mission of further investigation.

Numerous Mexican applicants were accepted for further investigation as early as the 16th century and were designated Servants of God, but stalled in the process of being recognized as a Saint. María Regina Sánchez Muñoz was one of the several Servants of God recognized for founding religious organizations. Also known as María Amada del Niño Jesus, she did not found an order for women seeking an exclusive religious life, but rather organized lay people seeking a way to contribute to the church and betterment of their community – Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Mary of Guadalupe. First founded in Guadalajara in 1926 during the period of Catholic suppression, the organization currently operates in many Mexican states and in Belize. While Mother María Amada has not yet reached the stage of recognized sainthood, her enthusiastic and committed followers appear to have recognized her as an unofficial saint.

The third step is to become a Venerable. The CCS examines the life of the Servant of God to determine and document whether there is sufficient evidence of living a life of holiness which drew others to prayer and participation in the church, including whether miracles have been attributed to the Servant before or after their death. Once the CCS completes their investigation, the documents are sent to the Pope. The Pope decides whether the Servant has led a life of “heroic virtue” and, if yes, a mass is held in which the Pope raises the Servant to the status of Venerable.

The majority of Mexico’s Venerable mothers and fathers were early Bishops or founders of religious orders. One of the newest additions to the Mexican Venerable list is Father José Antonio Plancarte y Labastida, founder of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe. He was born in Mexico City in 1840, and died there in 1898. His heroic virtues were recognized by Pope Frances in January of this year

The fourth step is to become a “Blessed” which entails examining witnesses who attest to miracles having been performed for them after praying to a Venerable. The intent of the examination is to rule out cases in which, rather than miraculous events having occurred, natural causes can be demonstrated. Once one miracle has been attributed to a Venerable, the miracle is believed to be evidence that the Venerable is in heaven and capable of interceding with God for the sake of living human beings. The Pope then designates the Venerable as a “Blessed.”

Since Martyrs just need to have one miracle attributed to them to be canonized as a saint, they can be designated as a Blessed without miraculous intervention. A large majority of Mexican Blesseds are Martyrs from across decades of persecution and slaughter of Catholic fathers and mothers.

One of the most recent papal elevations of a Venerable took place in a Mass on June 8, 2018, by Pope Francis, who formalized the attribution of a miracle to María Concepción Cabrera de Armida and recognized her as a Blessed. Born in 1862 in San Luis Potosí, and known as La Conchita, she was known for her piety, visions and self-mortification from a very early age.  Rather than becoming a nun, Maria decided to marry and have many children, which she did.  In addition to raising her brood with the goal of teaching them to love God, she was a prolific writer, and described her life succinctly:

I carry within me three lives, all very strong: family life with its multiple sorrows of a thousand kinds, that is, the life of a mother; the life of the Works of the Cross with all its sorrows and weight, which at times crushes me until I have no strength left; and the life of the spirit or interior life, which is the heaviest of all, with its highs and lows, its tempests and struggles, its light and darkness. Blessed be God for everything!

She suffered many deaths in her family before she herself died at age 74 in Mexico City in 1937.

Finally, sainthood is confirmed upon the Blessed, if and when other miracles are testified to and found not to be based on natural causes.  Basically, Catholic doctrine holds that a person who is a saint has been recognized by God as holding that attribute and canonization by the Pope is confirmation of that status.

Mexico currently has over 30 Saints.  About one-third of them were Martyrs, primarily Fathers who were killed during the Mexican Revolution.  Between 1926 and 1934, about 40 priests died violently for carrying out the government-banned Church sacraments and refusing to renounce their faith.  They are all celebrated in masses on May 21.

The most recent Mother to be canonized, by Pope Francis in 2013, is María Guadalupe García Zavala, better known as Mother Lupita.  She devoted her life in Guadalajara to caring for the poor and the ill and founded the Handmaids of Saint Margaret Mary and the Poor.  During the period of extreme anticlerical suppression, she risked her own life hiding priests in her hospital.  And during periods when the hospital ran low on funds, she begged in the streets until she had sufficient funds to continue her efforts.

The newest Father to be recognized as a saint, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, is Rafael Guízar y Valencia.  Originally from Michoacán he became the Bishop of Xalapa. Rather than hiding, he openly provided comfort to the wounded and dying during the Revolution.  He died in 1938, and when his body was exhumed in 1950, it was said to be virtually intact.

The most famous of all saints in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, was not recognized by the Catholic Church for centuries.  First appearing in a vision in 1531 to Juan Diego (who himself became a Saint), the reported appearance of Saint Mary mother of Jesus as a dark-skinned Mexican native, speaking the indigenous tongue Nahuatl, was decidedly rejected by Church officials. Nevertheless, Mexicans en masse prayed for her intervention with God, and so many miracles were attributed to her that the Church could hardly ignore the phenomenon.  Beginning in the 1700s, Church officials began to bow to the grassroots movement and started to accord respect and recognition to her followers’ belief. Ultimately, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego and, in 1997 during his first foreign trip, proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be Mother of the Americas as he prayed to her in her basilica near Mexico City. This basilica is reportedly the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Obviously Mary, mother of Jesus envisioned as the Virgin of Guadalupe, holds the title of the most saintly Mother in Mexico.