Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Now I need to try to say something about the religious aspect of a portion of this day. Margaret Visser has been my guide to a small extent (see her book The Geometry of Love). Visser shows that the Catholic church edifice is an intentional physical construct with something more than architectural delight or aesthetics in mind. It is built and designed to remind people of mystical experiences they have had in the past but have put aside or forgotten - those occasions in which we have felt some profound insight into our place in the world. She suggests these insights are similar to the insights of the mystics - the ability to feel or experience two things at the same time, to live for the moment within a contradiction of our world. To feel you are unique and individual and at the same time that you are identical to all others in the world and thus insignificant. Or to give a trivial example, to see that something is black and white at the same time - the opposites have been collapsed.

This is achieved, if the church is designed well and you are ready, through a few things inside the church. First, in a Catholic church, one is surrounded by a history of your culture and indeed by the transcendent history of your people. Second, it encourages self reflection through a physical walk or a walk with your eyes - you see the stations of the cross and reflect on how each of these might reflect on your story, you walk to the alter and walk through history and through your own life history even that part which is not yet complete. Most churches allow you to walk up behind the alter and in a sense make a full circle, always coming back to where you began - life is infinite. Third, there is a great deal of ritual involved which takes you out of your personal situation and, through cooperation with others, create an event that can give you a transcendent experience. I am I and yet I am you. Some of these ritual events are quite profound. In the case of interest here it is the procession of the Virgin of Salud from the church and through the streets of the town, an event which takes several hours and much anticipation.

A long mass begins the event and at the end of this the curtains are drawn on the Virgin. In a few moments the Virgin appears from behind the alter and the crowd erupts in applause and shouts of “long live the queen of Pátzcuaro”. She is then placed on a platform and six men slowly walk her down the aisle to the front door. Those outside the church can now see her coming and begin to clap and take pictures. When she moves through the doorway there is loud clapping and shouts. Some try to touch her garments as She goes by. The same feeling erupts along the crowd-filled streets and at the 6 alters set up through the town. In each alter the men take the Virgin up a step or two and turn her to face the crowd. The Bishop blesses the site and with singing and praise the crowd cheers and again shouts long live the Queen. When She returns to the church, now full of people and anticipation, the place erupts on her entry- the brass band plays, fireworks explode outside. She slowly return to her place and the curtains are again opened, again to more applause.

This is a ritual event with power. First you experience some solidarity with those around you and you are drawn into the experience. There is a moment of transcendence as you see at one and the same time that the image is just a very old piece of art work made from “pasta de caña”, it is physical and at the same time is divine. The first we can see but the second is something that we all create and feel. No one truly believes that this image is real in the sense of being alive and able to hear our shouts and touches. Rather, we are able to see two things at the same time, the mundane and the divine and they are one.

This written by one raised in the Protestant tradition thus unfamiliar with the glorification of images. However, as a sociologist, fascinated by rituals and the roles they play in ordinary lives.

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