Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12 – Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

            After a prayer session at a migrant camp in New York’s apple country, a young mother pauses on the steps of the crowded trailer she and her husband share with three other couples. When she feels overwhelmed by her life as an undocumented immigrant far from home, she confides, she comes out onto these rickety steps to look for the Virgin’s star in the night sky. Her grandmother taught her this custom in their Zapotec village in Oaxaca. “It helps me to know that whether I am here or in Mexico, I can see her,” she says. After a moment, she adds in a quiet yet firm voice, “She sees me, too.”

Deirdre Cornell,   
American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Da de los Muertos

By Felipe O’Riley

sipped and savored,
and more

Stories told
and marigolds,
and more

Warm hush, campo santo,
church bell, candle glow,
and more

Tamales, yes! yes!
but even more!

Closer stars twinkling softly
in the darkening blue of coming night,
the Virgin’s enfolding firmament
embracing open hearts:

Heartbeats and lullabies
and every song
and every woman, every man,
every child cherished
every hope ever hoped,
every breath ever taken,
every breath to come,

And tamales,
Yes! Yes!

Monday, October 27, 2014

In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 3

Conversations with Prof. Amy Remensnyder, author of La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary and War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

By Jeffrey Richardson

After relating how the Spanish veneration of the Virgin Mary evolved over centuries on the Iberian Peninsula both in peace and war, Prof. Remensnyder’s narrative sets the stage for the Spanish entrada in the New World. As the violent, breathtaking saga of the Conquest in the New World unfolds in her book, we sense that indeed we have stepped onto a more familiar shore, yet beyond the fringe of that shore is a land laced with mysterious trails and full of secrets.

One of the important findings from Remensnyder’s research revolves around the way in which indigenous people of the New World came to welcome the Virgen Mary among them.

“[Another] surprising thing was to discover indigenous peoples accepting Mary as a conquistador, not simply as a replacement for Native goddesses,” says Remensnyder.

As she had been doing for several hundred years in helping Christian armies re-take the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, Mary arrived in the New World as the patron of military men. But also as in Spain, she came with two distinct identities: Mary, the author of military victories through her support of men-at-arms in the cause of Christianity, and Mary, the compassionate mother figure of infinite love and forgiveness.

The priests who would take up the all-important task of evangelizing to the indigenous people in the Americas didn’t arrive in numbers until a quarter century or more after the first contacts. It was the conquistadors who came with weapons, and with Mary. Their own veneration of the Virgin compelled them to erect shrines at every place they camped or conquered, and her dual nature was not lost on the native onlookers.

“The indigenous people knew her from the outset as both a conquering and a compassionate figure,” says Remensnyder. “Over time, she didn’t simply become a stand-in for the goddesses among the pantheon of deities vanquished by the Europeans, she was incorporated in her own right [into their spiritual lives].”

Remensnyder notes that as a cultural historian her task in researching and writing the book was not to iterate all, nor prove any, of the miracles or other extraordinary occurrences that gave rise to Mary’s emergence as a favored saint among the warring Spaniards. Rather, she says, “I tried to understand people in their own world, undoing notions of what we think about the past”

Additional comments from our interviews with Dr. Remensnyder:

Did you get the impression that Marian veneration of the conquistadors lost a little something of its sincerity in the rarified air of the New World, in the avaricious pursuit of gold and silver? Or put another way, given their circumstances, were accounts of Marian veneration left by conquistadors likely to be more self-serving than those of the Spaniards who won back the Iberian Peninsula?

It’s easy for us in this secular age to look back at the pre-modern era and say how easy it must have been for them to use religion to justify conquest, to justify the pursuit of wealth and power. And while they did use religion to justify their actions, that doesn’t mean they didn’t truly believe in the precepts of their faith. Just think of all the treasure of the Americas that went to adorn churches in Spain. Just last summer I went to Granada in Spain and had a chance to see the San Juan de Dios Church, a church that is just covered in New World gold.

Can you elaborate on the idea of indigenous peoples accepting Mary in her own right, not simply as a replacement for native goddesses.

On one level, the Spanish presented Mary to the New World as a powerful spiritual intercessor, and also brought with them a hierarchical political and economic structure in which intercession by a patron at a higher level of society was the norm. So, Mary became a go-to intercessor in spiritual as well as temporal matters, accessible to anyone including the indigenous peoples with little or no leverage in the Spanish system, a way for them to cope on a daily basis with this new, imposed colonial system.

On perhaps a more emotional level Mary came to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as a spiritual figure markedly different from the goddesses of their pre-contact pantheon. While she could be stirred to anger and action, she was more consistently kind and nurturing than some of the more complicated, fearsome, even bloodthirsty goddesses to whom they had paid homage.

This is not to say that Native peoples universally or immediately embraced Mary upon the arrival of the Spaniards. Aside from the omnipresence of Spanish arms, the waves of friars who soon followed the conquistadors strategically targeted indigenous youth, indoctrinating them from an early age, setting up painful generational conflicts with their elders. But again, we have to be careful to not categorically dismiss as insincere the power of Marian veneration that grew up among native peoples in the New World. It is interesting to note that in the late 17th and 18th centuries there were in Mexico and Peru a number of anti-Spanish rebellions among indigenous peoples with the Virgin Mary at their heart. They had adopted her in a very deep way.

What if France had colonized Mexico and Central/South America instead of Spain?

It’s really hard to answer that. It’s true that the French had a long tradition of Marian veneration, and included proselytizing as part of their colonial enterprise in the New World. They even, like the Spanish, had known Mary in peace and at war. But one key difference is that, unlike the Spanish, they lacked the centuries-long collective experience with people of another faith and culture in which Mary figured so prominently in framing the inter-cultural relationship. I also wonder if the French would have been quite as intent upon re-claiming or co-opting the indigenous spiritual space, the temple, as part of establishing Christian domination.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 2

Conversations with Prof. Amy Remensnyder, author of La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary and War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

By Jeffrey Richardson

The biggest surprise for Amy Remensnyder in researching her recently-published book on the Virgin Mary was that which first drew her to the subject: the apparent contradiction of Mary’s association as much with war as with peace. Recalling her first encounter with a Madonna known as La Conquistadora, she writes:

“I first encountered La Conquistadora in the tranquil backyard of New Mexico’s most famous pilgrimage site, ChimayĆ³ . . . I was not a pilgrim but a tourist. Ill at ease being a spectator to devotion, watching people in these intimate moments as they offered fear in exchange for hope, I went outside. There, on a shady stone wall behind the sanctuary, I found La Conquistadora. She was one among a number of saints whose images were set into stone: Saint James, Saint Francis, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their shrines dwarfed the small colored ceramic tile depicting her as a dainty Madonna clad in white and blue. Yet clearly she had her imposing side----her name was ‘La Conquistadora,’ proclaimed the blue lettering beneath the image. Disquieted, I lingered in front of the tile. Conjuring all the aggressive violence of warfare, ‘the Conqueress’ hardly seemed a suitable title for the Virgin Mary, crowned with her halo of tenderness.”

Remensnyder’s book offers a deep and far-reaching look at this Marian dichotomy and with great detail and cogence traces (among many other things) the evolution of Mary’s veneration by the Christian kings, knights and faithful foot soldiers who fought for centuries to end the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, it was that long line of kings that produced another surprise for Rememsnyder.

“I didn’t expect that I was going to write a book that was in large part about men and masculinity,” she recalls.

The author’s findings did not hinge solely on the prevalence of men in prominent positons of power in social, economic and military affairs, although it certainly was a man’s world in that sense. However, by careful study of the writings of the day—songs, epic poems, letters, biographical sketches, official documents and decrees—she found ample evidence that medieval Iberian conceptualizations of Mary shaped the very foundations of masculinity itself. Knights defending the faith were encouraged to see the Virgin Mary as their “lady love,” to enter into a committed relationship with her of such spiritual ecstasy and perfection than only the language of romantic love and longing could contain it. Thus, in tracking the centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict in Iberia, Remensnyder traces the gossamer boundary where medieval notions of romance and chivalry touch and intertwine the language and precepts of masculine Marian devotion in a way that is arrestingly earthy.

“Offering their love service to Mary, knights played the manly roles of faithful suitor and valiant champion. They also announced their Christian virility, for warriors often make themselves men by defending the women they cherish . . . Wartime rhetoric and propaganda, as well as the stress of combat itself, often encourage soldiers to imagine the women they love—whether wife, mother, or lover—as pure and innocent icons of the values for which they fight. For a Christian knight of medieval Iberia, what woman could more perfectly represent the purity, innocence, and moral order he was supposed to defend than Mary, embodiment of the Church, the monarchy, and the land?

“Our Lady’s Christian champions could believe they owed her military service against the Muslims because they were her vassals as well as her lovers.”

Remensnyder’s research has produced some interesting surprises for the reader, too. Surveys of Spanish history sometimes leave the impression that the centuries-long Muslim occupation of Iberia was complete and continuous and only ended when Ferdinand and Isabel drove the Saracens from Spanish shores. In fact, the epoch was marked by intense warfare punctuated by extended periods of peace, tolerance and lively commerce. The arenas of military action constantly shifted and Ferdinand and Isabel were only the last in a long line of Christian rulers who had gradually re-asserted dominion over the peninsula. Remarkably, Christian mercenaries often fought for Muslim princes (and vice versa) and Spaniards vying for pre-eminence fought among themselves as often as they did their common foe.

Ferdinand and Isabel’s success in pushing the Muslims from their last Iberian stronghold in Granada did set the stage for imperial adventures in the new world—adventures in which the Virgin Mary would figure prominently and in surprising ways.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

 In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 1

Conversations with Prof. Amy Remensnyder, author of La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary and War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

By Jeffrey Richardson

Raised by parents who loved history, Amy Remensnyder may have been destined for a career absorbed in the past, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few surprises along the way. The first came just after graduation from high school in 1978 when she went to England, traveling the country by rail. Stopping over in Lincolnshire she went to visit the ancient Norman cathedral there and was awestruck by the experience.

“It was overwhelming,” Remensnyder recalls. “The cathedral was so imposing, so majestic, so mysterious. I looked at this incredible architecture and I thought to myself, ‘I do not understand the people who built this at all, how they did this. Who were they?’ I’m still at it, trying to understand medieval people.”

Remensnyder plunged into her quest for understanding, earning a bachelor’s in history and literature from Harvard, and completing advanced studies in Cambridge, England and Paris, France. She added to her credentials in the field of medieval history with a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and is now an associate professor of history at Brown University. She is the author of two books, including the history of La Conquistadora traditions, as well as countless academic articles.

Yet even as she settled into her life’s work, Remensnyder’s more personal journey—and its attendant surprises—continued. Raised in the Episcopal faith, she later embraced atheism, a striking contrast to her scholarly encounters with early Christianity, including the traditions and underlying beliefs of Marian veneration and its iconography. While the images spoke more to her mind than her heart, the winding path of inquiry was taking her into new country.

“What I found in studying medieval religious imagery is that things mean more than what simply appears on the surface,” says Remensnyder. “I came to sense that medieval people, unlike so many secular modern Westerners, believed that the world had meaning beyond the surface of things. Through these images, including Marian figures, they found pathways, channels to that deeper meaning.”

Remensnyder’s interest in La Conquistadora grew out of a chance encounter during a road trip to New Mexico in the summer of 1992. Visiting the venerated Santuario at ChimayĆ³ north of Santa Fe, she strolled the grounds, turned a corner, and came face-to-face with the diminutive figure of New Mexico’s patroness, set discretely in a stone wall along a quiet walkway.

“ ‘Wow, what is that?,’ she recalls thinking. ‘I’ve never heard of an image of the Virgin Mary called La Conquistadora!’ It was a startling juxtaposition of military violence with what I’d been trained to understand as the compassionate, benevolent Mary balancing the stern judgment of Christ.”

When she began investigating New Mexico’s conquistadora, she discovered there have been other Marian figures that carry the same name. She also discovered that notwithstanding the aggressive connotation of the title, these figures carried deeper meaning to the protagonists in Spain’s history in both the old world and the new.

“I started off thinking the story was going to be all about war, a one-sided story of war and subjugation of Native peoples by the Spanish, but it was more complex than that. It was as much about cultural exchange in the long run. In New Mexico, for example, it was common for Christianized tribes or groups to invoke the name of Mary, La Conquistadora in conflicts with traditional indigenous foes,” Remensnyder says.

Remensnyder explains that her academic research of La Conquistadora was significantly augmented in another surprising way. In 2002 she accepted an opportunity to travel to Katmandu for a one-month retreat. There, as a participant, not just a detached observer, she found a religious tradition comprised in large measure of visualizing, of imagining, the Buddha.

“And it’s the religious imagery that you meditate on,” notes Remensnyder. “So I was suddenly having a powerful, tangible experience that strongly mirrored the essential practice of Marian veneration with its focus on beloved images. It really informed my research and gave me a much clearer idea of what I was dealing with in examining La Conquistadoras and their followers down through the ages.”

Now a practicing Buddhist, Remensnyder put the finishing touches on her new book last summer after more than a decade of research.

Note: The title of Dr. Remensnyder’s book was changed slightly after a previous post on this blog. The title as given above is correct. In an upcoming blog post we’ll continue our visit, looking at the long lineage of La Conquistadoras and the ways in which this veneration resembles and differs from other Marian devotions.