Guest post by Paul Burnham.
I didn’t believe in Mary in the same way my Catholic friends did. My own faith accommodated her immaculate conception and her divine errand. There was room for that. But I didn’t believe in her intercession—not on my behalf.
And I dismissed her apparitions. I knew of these—in Lourdes and Zaragoza and on a hillside in Mexico City, where I had once witnessed a procession of pilgrims, penitentes, ambulating on their knees toward a shrine built to Our Lady of Guadalupe. These apparitions were fantastic and incredible accounts, and far from my own experience; so I dismissed them. I remained chained to an anchoring bias, to the dogma of my initial exposure to faith and belief. I resisted her.
Then, in a community art studio in Montana, her image appeared to me—arms extended—ready to embrace me, ready to forgive. She had been in the periphery of my belief all along, where she had waited for me, patiently, until I was ready. How could I resist her any longer?
My daughter was there, and her friend, and the studio manager. But they didn’t receive the vision. In this Damascene moment, only I heard the clatter of scales falling from my eyes. I held the vision close. I kept it secret.
Two weeks earlier, I had brought my daughter and her friend to the art studio—to glaze bowls or cups or other practical articles. We were there in early October. The studio had seasonal ceramic skulls—an inch tall and of pure white clay, dried and ready to glaze—to observe the Day of the Dead.
I was bored. The girls were chattering and painting, absorbed in a world separate from mine. I picked up one of the little skulls and painted it. Dark blue—azul—the same blue I had seen on Madero Street in Mexico City, on the exterior walls of the Casa de los Azulejos. The blue of an evening sky. Light enough to still see the silhouettes of swallows crisscrossing high above the street. Dark enough for stars to appear.
I painted the entire skull with this blue glaze, and the teeth white and the gums red and the eyes lemon-drop-yellow, with tiny black pupils. On the back I painted a multi-colored sun. I imagined this sun—El Sol—burning the back of this poor man’s head for all the years he worked in the maguey fields. El Sol was now quenched by an evening sky, cool and refreshing. This man—this campesino—would at last have peace and rest.
The skull went into the kiln with the bowls and cups and pitchers and all the useful things visitors had made that week. 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. We went back the next week to collect our shiny items. But the studio staff couldn’t find my skull. Sometimes these small pieces show up later. Another week passed. They called me at home. They had found my skull. Not sure how we missed it. It survived a second firing.
Ceramic glazes can be unpredictable, temperamental. The kiln’s fire can also produce varied results. But the blue was just what I had hoped—the blue of Madero Street. Azul. The gums and teeth were perfect too: blood-red and white, smiling. But the pupils had spread, and the eyes were not the intended yellow. They had turned black—aboriginal—like those of a fresco-God from the interior of an Aztec tomb. No matter; my laborer in the maguey fields was finally at rest—no longer tormented by the burning sun—content and smiling in his celestial home.
I turned the skull in my hand. Another part was different than I had intended; the sun was entirely gone. The intense heat of the kiln—maybe in the second firing—had transfigured El Sol into another divine being. Walking through that dark blue sky was Mary. María. All alone. Our Lady of Solitude. María de la Soledad.
The glaze had run down the back of the skull, and the unmistakable image of Mary had appeared. Tender. Pure. Arms extended in a gesture of generosity and compassion. Yellow rays shot from behind her—a radial halation centered on her heart. She moved toward me, floating in the blue sky. I had not expected her here—here in the center of my own narrow perspective, so far from my own experience. Yet here she was standing in front of me, on the back of this little ceramic skull: María de la Soledad.
Only then did I remember I had seen her image on one other occasion. Or I may have seen more than her image. But I didn’t recognize her then—I resisted—and only after three decades of my own perfidy was that vision given back to me.
On that other occasion, I was passing through Mexico City—not far from that hillside where she had appeared to a young Indian man, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, four hundred fifty years before. A large plaza and basilica mark the place—the same shrine where I had seen her devotees kneeling. Some had walked many miles to worship. Some had gone to their knees for the last few hundred yards, until the fabric and skin over their tibias wore away and their blood ran on the black basalt cobblestones. I had dismissed her there, too—in that plaza. But my transgression was greater than a mere dismissal; I had resisted her. I had felt her there, and I had denied my feelings—the worst of all crimes.
An hour’s walk south of that basilica, in a dark bus station, I found her. The sun was rising on the waking city, and the mercurial morning light only allowed brief glimpses of people and signs and movement there. Many years of diesel exhaust had etched the concrete walls grey and black. These walls reflected little of the sunlight that found its way into the bowels of the station.
In that subdued light I found the sign I had been seeking: a black slate board above the bus stall, and on it, written in pink chalk, the destination: CUAUTLA.
The bus’s engine was running, belching black exhaust from a polished chrome pipe. The acrid fumes burned my eyes and nostrils. I blinked, dispersing the tears so I could see the way forward. And as I blinked, a ray of sunlight fell across my face. The spreading of watery film over my eyes refracted and scattered the light for a moment. I saw a man standing next to the bus—toward the front—inviting me to approach. I moved alongside the rumbling and snorting beast, back to front, carefully, as though walking next to a horse that had never smelled my hands. He greeted me and I offered my ticket. He wore grey slacks and a navy blue jacket, with a faded patch over his heart: conductor.
A thin ray of sunlight, nearly horizontal, passed over us and reflected off the windows of an exiting bus. The reflection illuminated a woman standing next to us. I hadn’t noticed her before, though she stood close enough that I could have touched her hand. She wore a white blouse, embroidered with red and yellow and blue flowers, and a navy blue skirt—ankle-length—trimmed with red and white bands at the hem. Her leather sandals were light buckskin, almost gold in color, and she had bright ribbons in her hair. The exiting bus disappeared, and with it the reflected sunlight. My eyes adjusted to the darkness again, and I could hardly see the woman any longer. Had I not seen her before, I doubt I would have noticed her in that moment. She stood still and appeared thin, slight, almost transparent.
The man inspected my ticket, punched it, and invited me to board. I found a window seat that allowed a view of the man and woman outside. The darkness dissipated as my eyes adjusted to the dim light.
When the last passenger entered the bus, the woman turned to the man—I could see her more clearly now. The man bowed his head and closed his eyes. The woman removed a rosary from around her neck and gently placed it over the man’s head and arranged it on his neck, so the crucifix rested in the center of his chest. With her right hand, she touched her own forehead and began. I watched her lips move—En nombre del padre—The man bowed more deeply—y del hijo—She touched her breast—y del Espíritu Santo—She touched her left and right shoulders. She then produced a small cup, and a wooden aspergillum with a short brush on one end. The man raised his head and opened his eyes, looking straight up at the ceiling. The woman wetted the brush in the cup and flicked holy water onto his face and into his open eyes—que los ojos vean—He raised his hands, palms together, as though praying. She flicked the water again, onto his hands this time—y que las manos conduzcan bien en el camino. She lifted the rosary from off his neck and replaced it on her own neck. The blessing was finished. Her blessing was finished. His eyes would see the way ahead and his hands would guide us safely along the road.
The sun’s glare off another bus blocked my view for a moment. The woman disappeared in that flash of sunlight. The bus driver boarded and closed the door. Air brakes snapped and hissed. We rolled back into the great roundabout and turned toward the street. The sun was now coming right through my window. Blinding. The driver announced our departure to Cuautla. But I wasn’t going to Cuautla. I would go only as far as Amecameca—toward the twin volcanoes that are sometimes visible through the lingering haze of Mexico City. He would let me off on that road.
I looked for the woman again, but the sun was in my eyes. The driver brought us to the street—called General Emiliano Zapata—and waited for a break in the traffic. The sunlight poured into the bus station. For a moment I saw her again—the woman who had offered a blessing on our driver, on us all. A column of light shone at her back. Bright yellow rays shot from behind her.
Our driver pulled into traffic. I blinked again, looking for her. But she was gone. We arrived at the outskirts of Mexico City—where the sunlight was no longer hindered by buildings and walls. The driver lowered the visor to block the morning sun falling on his own face. I closed my eyes against the light and felt the warmth bathing my face. The light passed through my eyelids. Red and yellow.
I placed the heels of my palms over my eyes, pressing hard, blocking every bit of light. I saw her again—a perseveration appearing on my retina—red and yellow and blue flowers embroidered on her white blouse, yellow rays emanating from her heart.
Only many years later I saw her again—in the art studio—between a flash of sunlight and the dark blue sky. She extended her arms again—that familiar gesture of generosity and compassion. I recognized her this time. I didn’t resist her. She had waited for me, patiently, until I was ready.
Paul Burnham is a civil engineer, writer and river-runner in Montana. He has also been a missionary in Brazil, and speaks Portuguese and Spanish.