Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Shrine

One day some friends take us to visit a small shrine.

Ominous grey clouds mill around in the sky like a herd of uneasy cows. Although in a hurry to meet our friends, we pause along the road to admire rainbows. Then it begins raining, though not so heavily as to make the long, slow dirt road to the shrine impassable.

When we first see the shrine perched on a hill, it the road is marked by a striking guardian: the decaying carcass of a coyote lies in the middle of the road, on its back, the face still staring up at us, the teeth still looking quite capable of tearing into a delicious rabbit should one happen by.


Soon we are there. 

It is a simple place, rebuilt not many years ago -- and perhaps several times before that.

I do not know how long it has stood there.  

I know that the swirling clouds and changing light are an evocative background for it on this particular afternoon.

I know that many people have visited the shrine, lighting candles or bringing flowers or toys or photographs of loved ones in need of aid or protection.

It is a strange place, and moving.  As with certain shrines in Tibet, it moves me whether or not I share the faith of those who pray there.  As we sit inside the small structure, the rain begins again, then attacks with full force and the usual machine-gun-like rat-a-tat on the tin roof, then withdraws again -- or moves on to attack some other part of the desert.  My friends light candles.  I sweep the floor, after noticing that our feet have brought in bits of mud from the freshly damp sands. 

The shrine celebrates a small child: El Santo Niño de Atocha.  Sitting there, I know nothing of him, but resolve to learn a little.  As well as flowers and toys and candles, the offerings include bottled water and an odd assortment of iterms meaningful to those who left them, including a Carolina football cap and a photograph of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder."  I like the eclectic mix.

I love too that it is here, this small shrine that overflows with faith and passion and love, even with no one else here.  (It is a good ride on a dirt road out into an unnamed bit of desert, and I will offer no further details of its location.  Already near the parking lot a few broken beer bottles and several hypodermic needles suggest that Faith isn't always what brings folks here.)  Part of what I love about Doña Ana County is its unpretentious eclecticism -- that is, that just wandering around in the desert we find so much -- and such variety -- to wonder at.

Leaving, on roads now slick from continued rain, I am grateful.

Santo Niño de Atocha is the image of the Child Jesus carrying a basket of bread, a staff, and a drinking gourd and wearing a cape with a shell on it, the symbol of Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that, for more than a thousand years, has run through Santiago de Compostela in Galicia Spain. There is a legend that St. James preached in Spain. (The Vatican has accepted relics there as authentic but has so far stopped short of confirming that they are relics of St. James; but in earlier days making the pilgrimage earned the pilgrim a plenary indulgence.)

St. James returned to the Middle East from Galicia, and was then beheaded in Jerusalem; but apparently his disciples got his body onto a marvelous stone ship that transported them and it to Galicia, possibly without any crew.  In Galicia, they asked the local pagan Queen (Lupe, the she-wolf) whether they might bury him there. She didn’t much care for them, and sent them to a nearby sacred mountain in hopes that the dragon there would kill the Christians. Fortunately when they made the sign of the cross, the dragon exploded.

They buried him. Centuries later a shepherd spotted strange lights at night, and then God revealed to an Archbishop that St. James was buried at the site. They built an altar where the shepherd had seen the lights. There’s a shrine in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  (Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia, which is now an "autonomous community" in Spain.)  Similar shrines have since appeared in Mexico, the Philippines, Chimayó, and Doña Ana County. The pilgrimage, known in English as the Way of St. James, has been portrayed in books and paintings. Many pilgrims traveled it during the Middle Ages, until the Black Death interfered.

In the 13th Century, Spain was occupied by Muslims. Many Christians were held prisoner, and the most devout of the prisoners were denied food. At first, their families could bring them food. Then, only children younger than 12 were allowed to bring food to the prisoners – but many prisoners had no young children.

The women of Atocha prayed at the statue of Our Lady of Atocha, imploring the Virgin Mary to ask her son Jesus to help. Soon afterward, a mysterious child under the age of twelve began bringing food to the prisoners who had no children. His water gourd was never empty. The child wore pilgrim’s clothing, and was unknown to the people of Atocha. The women returned to the statue and thanked the Virgin for her help, and noticed that the shoes worn by the statue of the infant Jesus were tattered and dusty. Thereafter, it is said, they were repeatedly replaced, but always appeared soiled again soon afterward, a sign that the infant Jesus went out every night to help those in need.
Often in art the Holy Child of Atocha is shown with his bread basket empty, indicating that he has been busy feeding the needy. It is now filled with flowers – as was the little shrine we visited. He is dressed as a pilgrim. Well beyond Atocha, travelers during the Moorish Occupation sometimes reported that a young boy, dressed as a pilgrim appeared and gave them food, and guide them out of danger.

John Adams, who had to stop in Spain on his way to Paris because of a leaking ship, traveled the Way of St. James in reverse. As he heard the story, and recorded it in his autobiography, "In the time of the Moors, the People made a Vow, that if the Moors should be driven from this Country, they would give a certain portion of the income of their Lands to Saint James. The moors were defeated and expelled and it was reported and believed that Saint James was in the Battle and fought with a drawn Sword at the head of the Spanish Troops, on Horseback. The People, believing that they owed the Victory to the Saint, very cheerfully fulfilled their Vows by paying the Tribute."

The scallop shell long ago became the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, because it is often found on the shores in Galicia. Pilgrims often took shells home as souvenirs. However, it has two other explanations: one variant is that a heavy storm hit the ship carrying St. James’s body, the body fell into the ocean but washed ashore intact, covered with scallops; the second is that when the stone ship (mysteriously, with no crew) transported the disciples and body back to the Iberian Peninsula, a wedding was taking place on shore when the ship arrived. The groom’s horse got spooked by the ship, and the young groom and his horse fell into the sea. Through a miracle, horse and rider then emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

Whatever its origin, the scallop shell served as a metaphor for the pilgrim: as the ocean waves wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s Hand guides the pilgrims to Santiago. It also served a more practical purpose: the shell was just the right size for a pilgrim to drink water from it, or use it as a bowl.

In Zacatecas, after the Spanish Conquest, when the town of Fresnillo was under construction, some workers saw a mule arrive carrying a huge wooden crate on its back. To let the mule rest, the miners removed the crate, but the mule then ran away, leaving the crate behind. The crate contained a silver crucified Christ with no cross. The Spanish general overseeing the construction ordered that a church be built across the valley and that an image of Our Lady of Atocha be brought from Spain to stand at the site.

Silver was then discovered in Fresnillo. Mines were opened. Within a few weeks, an explosion trapped many of the miners. Their wives prayed at the church for their husbands, and noticed that the child on the image of Our Lady of Atocha was missing. Meanwhile, a child visited the trapped miners, gave them water, and guided them to an unknown escape route. In later years, whenever there was a problem in the mine, the child appeared – and the image of the child on the Virgin’s arms was found dirty. The people eventually took the Holy Child off his mother’s arms and put him in a glass box for viewing – as we saw him in the little shrine. Santo Niño de Atocha became the protector of miners and a symbol of Zacatecas, from whence arrived the grandparents or great-grandparents of many residents of Doña Ana County. At Christmas many people in Zacatecas made pilgrimages to the church to bring toys to the Holy Child.

Too, in 1857, one Severiano Medina is said to have made a pilgrimage to Fresnillo from Chimayó and returned with a small statue of El Santo Niño de Atocha which was placed in a private shrine. Nearby is a posito, or well, where devotees come to take blessed dirt as an aid to healing.

During World War II, in the Pacific, troops from New Mexico fought at Corregidor, where there were many underground tunnels and defenses. Recalling El Santo Niño de Atocha as the benefactor to all who were trapped or imprisoned, Catholics among the soldiers vowed that if they survived they would make a pilgrimate from Santa Fe to Chimayó in gratitude. At the end of the war, two thousand veterans did so, with their families, some walking barefoot.

I’m also told that in Michael Jackson’s video for "Beat It" a picture of El Santo Niño de Atocha hangs above Michael Jackson’s bed.




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