It’s been six years since I’ve gone away overnight on retreat. The last time was so weird in every respect that it might just last me a lifetime. The retreat’s purpose was vocational discernment; with my convert’s enthusiasm still in full bloom, I indulged the fantasy that God was calling me to join the Order of Preachers, whose habit I found especially dashing. Though some members of the order tried, gently, to steer me in some other direction, the daydream of becoming Fr. Thomas or Fr. Albert died hard enough that I ended up at a Benedictine convent in North Phoenix with about a dozen others as unsuited to religious life as I was.
I have written about this retreat before, contrasting our own grotesque tics to the saintly hospitality of the sisters who received us. The ingenuity of the sisters who organized and led the retreat itself also deserves a mention. These women belonged to the apostolic orders represented by the LCWR and, by the look of them, were eligible for the senior citizens’ discount at any Olive Garden in the country. But they were nothing like the apostolic sisters you read about, the ones who curse their bishops and escort women to abortion clinics and take swan dives in front of Israeli bulldozers. My suspicion is that they had proven so disappointingly sweet and docile that their superiors punished them by handing them us for the weekend as a make-work project.
Most of the retreat activities escape my memory. Accurately or not, I seem to recall the lot of us sitting around two picnic tables with bowed heads and singing the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which I’d learned in second grade. That might have been less a spiritual exercise than their way of saying grace, but it captures the mood of the weekend: tender, infantilizing, and ultimately seductive. Though I knew how much we must have looked like a group of grown idiot children on a trip to the zoo, the sisters’ earnestness lulled me into a pliable state. Had one of them offered me a balloon, I would not only have accepted it, but obliged her by batting it around a little.
The second night after dinner, I went for a walk around the convent grounds. Probably I was looking for the lethargic, rheumy-eyed yellow lab – named Benito, after the order’s founder – who served the residents as a mascot. But on my way to the corner of the yard where I’d last seen him sprawling, I caught sight of something overhung with a triple strand of Christmas-tree lights. It turned out to be a shrine featuring of a relief of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As patroness of the Diocese of Phoenix, La Guadalupana is ubiquitous in the Valley of the Sun. You can see her sewn onto felt banners, printed onto t-shirts, painted onto the hoods of restored vintage cars. Sometimes she replaces the hungry eagle in the white of the Mexican tricolor. While waiting on line at the Circle K, I’ve spotted her tattooed on people who gave the impression of committing more mortal sins before breakfast than I do in the course of a typical decade.
But all of these representations, copied directly from the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, are flat. Here, for the first time, I saw the apparition in three dimensions. The carver had aimed for realism and hit his mark. Not only had he taken care to give her downcast eyes the almond shape commonly found among indigenous Mexicans, he’d made her cheeks as plump as you’d expect to see on a teenager in an advanced state of pregnancy. With the corners of her mouth curving upward, she appeared to be smiling, or even – shades of Genesis 18:13-15 – suppressing a giggle.
In the evening blackness, broken by the electric lights’ tiny halos, she looked alive. Enchanted by the sight of her, I dashed back to the porch, grabbed the first sister I could find and fairly dragged her out to the shrine. “You have to see this,” I cried. “Doesn’t she look real? Isn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?”
Folding beefy arms, the sister cocked her head to one side, then the other. She chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve heard people say that before. It’s true, I guess. Pretty cool, huh?” Then she bustled back inside, presumably to load the dishwasher or spoon out the brown Betty.
Maybe all weekend’s doting had made me more impressionable than I realized. Or maybe the sister lived in a world where communion with the saints is too commonplace for a lifelike Virgin of Guadalupe to deserve more than a nod. I suspect both. Only someone well used to little signs and miracles could have had no trouble discerning Christ in faces like ours. And if my critical faculties were operating a little below full strength, well, so what? Tradition holds that the Madonna of Tepeyac addressed Juan Diego as “my youngest son.” As the poor Aztec was well into middle age, she must have meant that he, like me, was a recent convert at the dewy dawn of his life in the Church. And there he was, like the kiddies of Lourdes and Fatima, receiving visions.