Note: I am pleased to introduce María Morera Johnson as my guest columnist. We recently had a dynamic conversation about the meaningfulness of the sacramentals we grew up with, and since last week's column described the affection and sentimentality surrounding sacramental blessings, objects, and practices, I asked Maria to share her perspective from her Hispanic background. As she has graciously agreed, I hope you enjoy learning about how María's Cuban heritage informs and enriches her faith. ~ Pat Gohn
By María Morera Johnson
I have fallen in love with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "She" stands just to the right of the altar in our parish chapel, solitary and without the bright sunburst that we associate with Guadalupe. Pose with hands in prayer, wearing a sweet look that matches the serene, simple, and muted colors of her robes, her stillness and the simplicity inherent in her design soothes me. I find peace when I am before her.
I am Cuban-American. Like many Hispanics, religious iconography and jewelry appeal to my senses. They are more than sacramentals to aid our daily worship, but objets d'art. Our icons are bright, often rustic or primitive and imbued with a beauty that transcends the actual piece, particularly in the relationship that we develop with it, whether for sheer love of beauty, or because the icon represents a special devotion or cultural identification.
It is easy to misinterpret that relationship as idolatry since outwardly we shower those objects with attention and affection. To be honest, sometimes there may be a little superstitious confusion mixed into these bonds, particularly within older generations who have not benefitted from the sound and earnest catechesis of recent years. I recognize, too, how these small but meaningful cultural idiosyncrasies might appear to our sisters and brothers in Christ who do not share an identical background or history.
Culturally, I come from a sensory-driven people drawn to the deep rhythms of music, strong scents, and shiny pretty things. To be Hispanic and Catholic means to embrace, passionately, all of the physical reminders of our faith. We revel in these tangible images because they make our faith immediate and present to us as we move through our daily activities. We bring them into our homes in elaborate and decorative altars. We wear medals and scapulars. These are quite catholic, small "c," practices that I have also noted in my non-Hispanic friends; the distinction is perhaps not so much in the devotion, as in the open—and yes, it is okay to say it—loud, celebratory approach we take.
A strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary permeates Hispanic culture, whether it is Our Lady of Charity—patroness of the land of my birth, Cuba—or Our Lady of Divine Providence, beloved by my Puerto Rican friends. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, appeared 500 years ago, leading the Mexican people in a faith journey that continues today. As patroness of the Americas, her reach extends beyond borders. Guadalupe's continued presence in our lives serves to unite her children and lead us to her Son.
She belongs to all of us, but we also belong to her, drawn together under the protection of her mantle.
That's what I think when I sit in the dimly lit chapel, natural light coming in through the window behind the altar, illuminating Guadalupe with golden rays of sunlight in the morning, completing naturally what no gilded backdrop can do. Her mantle is a mother's warm, sure protection.
I am comforted by her presence, not only because I have a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, but because under any of her titles Mary represents the profound part of my Cuban-American identity that is built around the matriarch. She is the madre of the gathering of siblings and aunts and uncles, grandparents, parents, and extended family and friends that comprise what we loosely and affectionately call mi familia, my family. Mary is present in my life just as surely as my mother, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and dear girlfriends are, sharing with me the joys of womanhood and motherhood, and the sacrifice and pain, too.
Holding Mary present in my life, through the big and small sacramentals that surround me, is a reminder that I walk the journey with her. She cared for a household. She raised a child. She made sacrifices. She loved.
She loved profoundly. Unequivocally. Unconditionally. And with abandonment.
Mary's Yes to God is the model by which we all should live.