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Madre de Dios

by Barry Lopez

     I entered a Jesuit prep school in New York City at the age of eleven and later finished two degrees at the University of Notre Dame. During those years in the city, I served regularly as an altar boy at low Mass and also at Catholicism’s most complex public ceremonies, including the solemn high Easter Mass, when the Paschal candle is ritually prepared and light begins to fill the cavernous dark of a cathedral, ending the purple-shrouded silence of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. At the Masses at which I served, I felt no doubt or cynicism about what I was doing. Whatever my moods might have been, I believed and understood that I was in the presence of a great mystery.
     As a freshman and sophomore at Notre Dame, I attended Mass three or four times a week. No matter what pangs of adolescence I might have been feeling then, and they were in my case severe, or whatever family troubles I might have been embroiled in, I felt the support and consolation of this Catholic ritual and the theology beneath it. Catholicism, though, was not a religion I was formally born to. I was baptized in the Church at the age of five, the son of a Roman Catholic father and a Southern Baptist mother. Soon afterward my father, a bigamist, abandoned my younger brother, me, and his spouse to return to his other wife and son. My mother — inexplicably, it would seem later — insisted on raising my brother and me as Catholics, though she herself would never convert. She supported us as a teacher and, years later, told me that the Catholic schools in California’s San Fernando Valley back then were better than the public schools. Maybe for her that was all there was to it.
     In college, I came to see that the Jesuits had encouraged in me a more metaphorical than literal understanding of Catholic liturgy, and that they had also encouraged me to develop an informed, skeptical attitude toward organized religion in general. The Jesuit approach to spiritual life, famously, was cerebral, but, importantly for me, theirs was a tradition also at ease with mysticism as a path to God. By the time I was thirteen — my mother had gotten remarried by then, to a twice-divorced Roman Catholic who moved us from California to New York — I had found a spiritual home in Catholicism. I reveled in Catholic iconography and ritual. I was fascinated by the difference between the regal Jesus of religious institutions and the historical Jesus. And I was a diligent student of the overarching Catholic history of medieval Europe (though not very well informed about the foul underbelly of the Crusades or the behavior of the Borgia popes).
     At the end of my senior year in high school, I accompanied my classmates to a Jesuit retreat house at Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. I was fixated at the time on leading a life like Teilhard de Chardin’s, the Jesuit paleoanthropologist, a life of inquiry into secular and sacred mystery, and a life of service to God and man. We spent three days in prayer, silence, and contemplation (as the Jesuits characterized it), in order to become more certain each of us was taking the right next step as we prepared for college. I hoped to return to the city convinced that my future lay with the Jesuit Order, but that was not what happened. I felt no calling. I entered, instead, the University of Notre Dame, declaring aeronautical engineering as my major.
     It turned out that aeronautical engineering was not my calling either. By the middle of my freshman year, with some pointed advice from my physics professor, I came to see that I was enthralled not with the mechanics of engineering but with the metaphors of flight, with Icarus’s daring and the aerial acrobatics of tumbler pigeons, which I had raised in California after my father left. I moved over to the College of Arts and Letters, and there took up writing, photography, and theater. At the time — the mid-sixties — every Arts and Letters undergraduate was required to take four years of philosophy and four years of theology. As the reading and classroom discussion in these particular courses went successively deeper, my understanding of the lives of mystics like Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross expanded, along with my curiosity about what ordinary daily life was like for people like Francis of Assisi and Martín de Porres.
     During my graduate and undergraduate years at Notre Dame, if I prayed in public at all, it was usually at a grotto on campus, a shallow shelter of fieldstone built into a slope between the campus’s two lakes. A statue of the Mother of God stood there on a pedestal above a barrier of wrought-iron pickets. It was flanked and fronted by dark wrought-iron stands, on which racks of votive candles burned in deep-red and dark-blue glass vessels. The Grotto, as it was called, was lit day and night by these hundreds of flames. The flickering yellow light, swept regularly but rarely extinguished by gusts of wind and so arranged as to not often be extinguished by rain or snow, represented for me the elusiveness of what had attracted me and others to organized religion, to that sphere of incomprehensible holiness which, in the Western imagination, stands beyond the reach of the rational mind. On some frigid nights when I knelt there, alone in the effervescent swelling of candle light holding the darkness at bay, I felt a streaming convergence of inert stone, gleaming light, weather and shadowed trees, all of it presided over by an unperturbed and benevolent Queen of Intercession, a woman hearing my prayers.
     I drifted away from Catholicism in my junior and senior years, though without anger or denouncement. Most of the friends I made at Notre Dame broke with the Church during their time there, but I did not experience the fury they felt, the sense of betrayal they described. (We were a decided minority at the school, listening to Bob Dylan in our dorms and protesting against the Vietnam War in our Carnaby Street bellbottoms.) My friends imagined themselves trapped in a risible and suffocating superstructure of religious doctrine, cut off from the very empirical experiences that could make for a full life. The Church, in their view, was asking them to embark on lives that had already been led.
     I drifted away because the religion I sought was, finally, not to be found at Notre Dame. The environment in which we learned was not just exclusively male; hardly a single Protestant attended class with me, let alone an agnostic or Jew. No philosophy but that which had produced the culture of the West was examined. We were middle-class white youths, being taught to perpetuate our religious and economic values throughout the world. We were largely innocent of the world, however, so innocent it should have scared us.
     When I graduated, I took a job with a publishing house in New York, but the question of both my vocation and my religion remained unsettled. A few months into my employment I asked for a week off and traveled to Kentucky, to make a retreat at Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery near New Hope where Thomas Merton lived. I wanted to address one more time the possibility of a religious life. This monastery, with its daily routine of liturgy and manual labor — it was a working farm — seemed a right place for me, a Cistercian community in the tradition of the French Carthusians and Benedictines. As attractive as I found the lives monks led there, however, the answer for me still seemed to be no.
     In the decades following that decision to look elsewhere, I was fortunate to be able to travel often and widely, from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego, from Tajikistan to Namibia, from Poland to Tahiti. Much of what I would see, to employ a noun popular in some Catholic circles when I was young, was the culture of heathens, though these foreign epistemologies and metaphysics always appeared to me to be recondite and profound on reflection. In traveling with Alaskan Eskimos, with Kamba tribesmen in Kenya, and with Warlpiri people in the Northern Territory in Australia, I found a spirituality and a capacity to engage with mysticism that I have come to think of as universal among people. The utility and strength of these ways, of course, is often obscured by the ordinary failure of every human society to live up to its own expectations. How a particular society reconciles its history of seemingly intractable failures, its strains of injustice and irreverence, with its spiritual longing for perfection is, to me, a succinct expression of its religion.
     In those many years of travel, long after I had lost touch with my Catholic practice, I continued to rely, anyway, on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence. I continued to believe, too, in the immanence of the Blessed Mother, for me a figure of compassion and charity, a female bodhisattva (not meaning here to slight either strict Catholics or Buddhists). She was simultaneously a figure rooted in my religious tradition (including the tradition of the Black Madonna, of which the Church of my youth never spoke) and a figure who transcended religion. Like her Son, the battered Jesu nailed to a gibbet at Golgotha, she did not need a religion to inspire belief in her existence. Further, if one had any imagination, she did not need the papal bulls of Pius IX and Pius XII to gain credibility in the eyes of either a devout Catholic or an apostate.

     I have felt the presence of the Blessed Mother only twice. I was in the northern part of the Galápagos Archipelago once, in 1989, passing just to the north of Isla San Salvador late on a May afternoon, when I saw a slight disturbance on the shoreward water, about a mile away. Just inside Buccaneer Cove, the low rays of the setting sun were catching what seemed to be the vertical strikes of blue-footed boobies diving for fish. The repeated splashes, however, were occurring only at one spot. With a pair of ten-power binoculars I finally made out a herd of sea lions trapped in a net.
     We were on a course for distant Isla Genovesa, and I knew the captain might not want to detour. I located our guide, Orlando Falco. I gave him the glasses and he quickly confirmed what I thought — sea lions drowning in a net set illegally by local fishermen who intended to use the carcasses as bait to catch sharks. The sharks would have their fins cut away and then be turned loose to drown. (Over the past few days, we had seen four or five definned sharks washed up on Galapagean beaches.) The fishermen were selling the shark fins — another illegal act — to buyers aboard Asian factory ships who, as it happened, were supplying them surreptitiously with the expensive nets and other fishing gear.
     Orlando was conflicted. He said the captain, who was his employer, would be very reluctant to get involved in what would appear to be a judgment about the livelihood of other men on the islands, illegal or not; and he would not want to get caught up in Galápagos National Park politics. Nevertheless, we went to the bridge and he argued our case. The captain glared briefly at Orlando, then changed course.
     Once the Beagle III was anchored in the cove, Orlando and a crewman lowered a motor-powered, fourteen-foot panga into the water and, with four other tourists traveling aboard the Beagle, we approached the sea lions. Some of them were trussed so tightly in the net’s green twine that their eyeballs bulged from their heads. To get a short breath one animal, closely bound to three or four others in a knot, might have to force the others underwater, only then to be driven underwater itself by another animal struggling to breathe. The high-pitched whistles and explosive bellows of animals gasping for air rent the atmosphere in the cove again and again. Their desperation and sheer size made an approach in the small panga dangerous, but we had no choice now. Orlando and I braced ourselves to work on the port side. Two people leaned out on the starboard side, to balance the boat. The crewman kept the lunging jaws of the sea lions away from us with an oar blade, and Orlando and I went after the net with our knives.
     I ran a hand under the constricting mesh, pulled it toward me, and began cutting. In their efforts to climb into the panga — they were biting frantically at the port gunwale to gain purchase — the animals threatened to pitch both of us overboard. How they had survived until now, I couldn’t begin to understand. Braced hip-to-hip, Orlando and I cut away at the twine, trying not to nick the sea lions’ flesh. It was full dark now on the equator, where dusk is brief. A second panga arrived with flashlights from the Beagle and stood away after handing them over. The light beams swept wildly through the night, catching the mesh pattern of the net, pink mouths, white canines, and the glistening conjunctivas of the sea lions’ eyes. Orlando and I nicked our forearms and hands, and our shins cracked repeatedly against the boat’s gunwale.
     In the heaving chaos something yanked at the hilt of my knife — a sea lion flipper, the net — and it was instantly gone. Snatched into the night. Without it I could not continue to help. I was briefly paralyzed, then swung around to help Orlando. Someone was bailing the panga around my feet. Like a tightrope walker I reached out to maintain my balance. When I closed my empty hand in the dark air above the water, it closed around the haft of the knife. Orlando, adjusting his stance to accommodate me, saw the knife appear in my hand. He looked at me without expression and then fell back to work. Orlando and I became aware then that whenever our hands touched an animal, the moment it felt a knife sliding between the twine and its skin, it went limp, while the sea lions next to it continued to bawl and thrash. With this help from them we were able to work more quickly.
     In the weak beams of the flashlights we could not be certain, but it seemed we finally freed about fifteen animals, all but one of which swam slowly away. Before we left, Orlando and I pulled ourselves hand-over-hand along the entire length of the float line all the way to the anchor buoy, cutting the net’s mesh to shreds.
     Back aboard the Beagle, everyone save Orlando and me stepped into the main cabin for a late dinner. The two of us sat on the open deck in silence, barefoot, our t-shirts and shorts soaked. Orlando, a young Argentine, was not a man particularly reverent about anything, certainly not mystical. In the deck lights we could see that our shins were turning black-and-blue, that the small cuts on our hands and arms were swelling shut from the salt water.
     I said, “Did you see what happened with the knife?”
     “La Madre de Dios,” he said, staring into the night.
     Later that evening, unrolling my sleeping pad on the Beagle’s deck, I recalled a single one of her many appellations: Mediatrix of Graces.

     The other time I felt the Blessed Mother near, it was not another man’s observation which I accepted without hesitation, a moment when something made perfect sense. It was thirty-six years earlier. I was eight years old, trapped in a pedophile’s bedroom. This man, who first sodomized me when I was six, went on doing this until I was eleven. He enjoyed the complete confidence of other adults in our community. He commanded their respect as a medical doctor. I was a rag doll in his bed, an object he jerked around to suit himself. He had carefully arranged the many fears of my childhood life — insecurity, lack of physical strength, a desire to do the right thing — to create a cage. I could not see any way out.
     That afternoon, gazing into the shabby bedroom in catatonic submission, I saw the Blessed Mother, a presence resolved in the stagnant air. She was floating barefoot a few inches above the floor, clothed in a white robe. Over her head she wore a pale blue veil. Her hands were extended toward me. She said, “You will not die here.” I took her to mean that something else lay beyond this. As bad as it could still get, she seemed to be saying, she would be there.
     The Queen of Heaven, I might have thought then. And would say now.