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Sunday, July 21, 2024


My wife and I once thought of retiring in Mexico. Some of the most pleasurable, memorable moments in our lifetime occurred there, and some powerful learning experiences.
The Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most revered, frequently visited religious site in that country. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote that .".. one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe."
A mestiza child-woman, wearing a shabby shift, was climbing the stone stairway to the shrine on her knees, leaving bloody spots on the stone. Her shoes were yellow rubber flip-flops.
She appeared to be talking to herself, then I realized she was praying. And weeping.
The object of her grief was a motionless gray infant cradled in the crook of her left arm. With her other hand she repetitiously made the sign of the cross, a motion that revealed two coins clutched in her right hand: two centavos, intended as an offering to accompany her prayers to the Virgin to heal her baby.
The baby was obviously dead. I doubt the mother realized that.
The throng of pilgrims and tourists swirled heedlessly around them; a perspiring portly priest passed by with a dispassionate glance.
This teenage mother with her lifeless child could be the poster girl for 18 million of her people living under the poverty line in that beautiful, benighted metropolis, seven million of them squatters in filthy enclaves sprawling for thousands of acres on the city's perimeter. Six hundred thousand children sleep on the streets each night. The worst U.S. slums are comfortable by contrast.
Many places in the world I have seen ignorance, and the poverty which it feeds and feeds upon. But why there, why then, did a burst of unaccountable emotion grip my gut?
Certainly it had something to do with the dark desperate drama playing out in the shadow of a monument to compassion, healing, and love. It had something to do with the pitiful cash offering intended as a contribution to a church which housed treasures valued at more money than her mind could ever comprehend. It had something to do with my cassock-clad clerical counterpart performing his walk-on cameo role in this video of the human condition.
My emotions included helpless pity, frustration, raging anger, a struggle for comprehension, and guilt.
Human pathos, viewed in the abstract and from a distance, produces a low level of emotional intensity, a mental murmur of "how sad." Up close the urge to help surged, bidden by instinct and training, to the surface of my awareness.
I could help her! I had money, connections, the cojones. My gringo Spanish was passable. I moved toward her, and stopped.
I could not help her. Just three feet apart, we occupied different worlds.
A bomb of emotion exploded inside me; I grappled with the fallout for days.
Non-rational guilt that I couldn't fix her life. Most clergy have some Superman delusions.
Anger at a world in which abject wretchedness is allowed to co-exist with so many who have enough, and more. The words of Jesus came to mind: "The poor are always with you."
Anger at an institutional church served by clergy who can ho-hum their way past an anguished mother and her dead baby. But whenever I get ethno-critical of religion, I remember that religion reflects the culture; I cannot judge the church, or its clergy, by what I think they ought to be.
Anger at a religious system that takes money from an impoverished peasant girl and builds palaces to house its icons. But reality reminded me that she needed that icon, that palace. It was the only grand, beautiful, luxurious thing in her life, and God was there. And hope. Two centavos would buy her part ownership; who would deny her that?
I must find my place somewhere between ho-hum and useless judgmental anger.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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