Monday, June 15, 2009

A Visit with Christ the King

Writer's note: In the fall I was part of the first-ever Mexico Semester, a study abroad program that any LSTC student is invited to take part in. While I've completed that program, during the spring my wife and I have continued exploring Mexico while she researches for her dissertation on religious devotion and I prepare for internship. The following is one of our many adventures.

On Sunday we decided to take a day trip to the mountains of neighboring Guanajuato state. Our goal was to reach El Cubilete del Cristo Rey – the "tumbling" hill of Christ the King, where there is a towering statue of Jesus on top of a mountain that is said to be in the exact geographic center of Mexico. Mountain? Towering statue? Jesus? That sounds like an adventure to me…

We awoke just before dawn. Chris made tortas – crusty-bread sandwiches with Mexican fillings (we like beans, avocado, tomato, and chipotle) - for a midday picnic, and we headed out to catch a third-class bus to neighboring León (about an hour, see previous blog post), crossing the state line into Guanajuato in the process. From León we needed to take another third-class bus to the smaller city of Silao (another hour), and then, from the bus station in Silao, we boarded what looked like a small school bus that would take us up the long and winding – and rocky – road to… well, to Jesus.

Along the way we gazed out the windows at some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes we’ve yet seen here, making the ride itself as much of an experience as… well, as Jesus. Mainly this was because we left the highways that we usually ride on the bus for much, much smaller roads. The photos I took (see the photo album) are, I think, some of the most “Mexican” I’ve taken so far, in the sense that they fill the American stereotype of what rural Mexico looks like. Stereotype or not, I love what these photos were able to capture.

Cubilete de Cristo Rey

Dry semi-deserts patched with small green trees and smaller brown shrubs. Rolling fields of tequila-producing blue agave plants. A horse tied up under a tree. A woman walking along the side of the road with a child in her arms. The towers of a European-looking church placed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A little burro – yes, a burrito – poking his head around for something to eat as the bus rolls by. And – though I took no pictures of them – there were beggars, mostly women and children, the children dirty and mostly in old torn clothing, sometimes alone, looking lost.

And the bus rolled on, on and on and on, going up the edges of the mountain on a road paved with rocks that made the whole bus bounce continuously, even as it whipped around hairpin turns that left you peering over the edge of a valley that seemed to withdraw farther and farther away. As the bus drew near to the summit - as we ascended to Jesus - food stands started cropping up along the side of the road. No McDonald’s here, only family fondas, outdoor diners set up like long tables around which people gathered to eat home-cooked, home-stewed, home-grilled food, served in brown clay pots and heavy gray molcajetes.

Finally we approached the monument itself, and the bus stopped to let everyone off. An older gentleman tapped us on the shoulder and told us not to follow everyone else because it was quicker up the back staircase. He was right. And then there he – He? – was, Jesus himself, standing tall on the top of the mountain.

Chris had visited this monument before, on her last trip to Mexico in 2006. When she shared her adventures with her academic adviser, a Catholic himself (and also working on research this year in nearby San Luis Potosi), he remembered his own visit here and recalled he found this particular monument to Christ the King “kind of Stalinist.” I suppose that assessment had me prepared for just about anything.

The heavy metal Jesus has his arms out at his sides, palms mostly down, as if he is attempting to calm a stormy world. Two cherubic angels stand at his sides, one on his left holding up a royal crown, the other on his right holding up a crown of thorns. Jesus himself stands on a spherical structure that looks something like a globe. Underneath the concrete globe is a small sanctuary, of which the most striking thing is a massive bronze crown of thorns that, just above our heads, rings the ceiling of the entire circular sanctuary. Also above our heads, some ways above this crown of thorns, is a more traditionally royal crown, smaller in size.

We left the sanctuary and wandered over to the information panels on the edge of the monument platform. They told the story of how and when the monument was built, as well as a little history on the Christian concept of Christ the King.

The festival of Christ the King, which takes place every year in late November – even in Lutheran churches – was made part of the church calendar by papal encyclical in 1925, notably not during but between the great wars. A decade later, this region of Mexico – northern Jalisco, southern Zacatecas, and here in western Guanajuato – put the concept into very concrete practice.

When the government began a brutal repression of Roman Catholicism in the 1930s, a number of priests and laypeople resisted. Some priests continued to offer the sacraments and were executed, later to be named martyrs of the church. And while priests and bishops officially refused to support a violent rebellion, many laypeople did take up arms. When they were killed, they were said to have cried a very curious rebel yell: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

How quickly the world turns: Only ten years after what became known as the Cristero War, this massive monument to Christ the King was built, without government interference, in the heart of rebel territory, in a place that martyrs called home, in the very center of Mexico, a powerful symbol of what these Cristeros stood for.

But of course, the Cristero War, like any war, was hardly black-and-white. One of Chris’ host families from a previous visit continues to have a tenuous relationship with the Church because the family patriarch was beaten and robbed by raiding bands of Cristero rebels. Some historians continue to claim that the Cristiada was fomented by wealthy landowners who saw their power threatened by a newly socialist government; they, like so many others, used the power of religion to protect their possessions and keep out any threats to the status quo.

None of this means that there weren’t everyday Catholics who desperately sought out the sacraments from outlaw priests; none of it nullifies Padre Toribio Romo’s faithful dedication to his vocation, even in the face of state violence and repression. But this is the messy nature of giving Christ the man-made title of “king.” It inevitably ends in a knotty tangle of the secular and the sacred, of monarchism and monotheism. The golden crown may hide the blood better than a thorny one, but there is always blood, always, always.

Well. I suppose I should save any more meditations on Christ the King for November, or it will threaten to take over this entire blog post like Napoleon on a European rampage. And, anyway, you can only look at the monument to Cristo Rey for so long before your gaze is pulled away, in our case by the earthly landscape that lay all around us – and by the clouds that were now at eye level.

At this altitude your breath gets shorter; there’s not quite as much oxygen as down below. But the view takes your breath away anyway. We looked out over the bajio – the famous fertile lowlands of this region of Mexico – and to the dusty mountains that border it. Just a little lower on this particular mountain, a soccer match was taking place on a dirt pitch in the place where the mountain had been flattened out a bit. It reminded me of the ruins of an ancient Aztec ball court in the mountains of Xochicalco, near Cuernavaca. Outdoor team sports have been in Mexico for a long, long time…

We stopped in a little convenience store inside the monument to buy some cold Cokes for our picnic lunch – is Christ the king even over Coca-Cola? ...sometimes it’s hard to tell – and stuffed ourselves on bean-and-avocado sandwiches. We sat peacefully at the mountain’s summit for a little while longer, and then it was time to go. Leaving Jesus on his mountain, we boarded the yellow school bus and made our winding way back down to the ground, another adventure come to an end.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Omnivore's Reading Choices

“…and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…” Mark 4:27

I finally finished Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, after about a month of listening to it on audiotape. Chris and I are both reading (listening to) it, as we’d heard so much about its contents from various sources, but this surely marks the first time that I have finished a book faster than my book-devouring spouse. It’s true, this might be due to her trying to complete a massive dissertation research-gathering project right now, but I’m taking a victory any way I can get it. (Commence classic Queen song… now.)

Anyway, the book’s title refers to the dilemma posed by the ancient and still daily question, “What should we eat for dinner?” Pollan divides the options into four broad categories, each of which he sees as typical of the process that led to it: First, a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru, the end of the industrial food chain; second, a trip to Whole Foods, the a symbol of the organic-yet-still-industrial food chain; third, a trip to Polyface Farm, a place hewing hardcore to the values of an organic-and-intensely-local food chain; and fourth, an adventure hunting and gathering for food in the wild. Along the way Pollan uses his first question, “What should we eat for dinner?” to get at a much deeper question, namely “What kind of people are we?” – or maybe even more elementally, “Who are we?”

It’s a tall order for a single book, and as with most similarly ambitious projects The Omnivore’s Dilemma is full of absolutely fascinating reporting, rollickingly fun stories, and lots of question-raising – as well as, yes, a few sections where the implied argument is a little thin. But it’s well worth your reading time – and I’d especially put “your” in the plural here, as it is capable of spawning all sorts of discussions around what you and yours eat. It’s certainly sparked conversation at our little two-person dinner table.

As the book came to an end I was struck by a surprise move in Pollan’s story of his “fourth” meal. Not a religious man in any explicit way elsewhere in the book, Pollan suddenly feels moved by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the food he is about to serve his dinner guests. His time hunting and gathering has somehow left him with a profound sense that the food he has acquired is not of his own making.

Oh, he spent plenty of time doing “work,” to be sure, trudging through the forest, on his hands and knees looking for mushrooms and even learning to shoot a gun in order to hunt for the first time, but somehow what he gained during his time spent outdoors was an deep sense of his own reliance on the work of the natural world for his sustenance and survival. Whatever chemical compounds our science provides us with – and it provides us with a lot – it is all but secondary work. “We eat by the grace of nature,” Pollan concludes, “not industry.”

What a thing to read during a week when the appointed Gospel reading has Jesus painting a picture of that very “grace of nature.” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says,” is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow – he does not know how. The earth,” Jesus tells us, “produces of itself.” The “grace of nature,” indeed.

Yet as Jesus tells the parable, the small and scattered seeds do not simply grow for the sake of growing. They do not grow in order to compete, they do not strangle each other, they do not drown each other out to see who will be the tallest. True, the mustard seed, smallest of all seeds – and a weed at that – does grow to be, Jesus tells us, the “greatest of all shrubs,” but in Jesus’ parable, to be “the greatest” is not merely the end of some great natural game. Rather, even the mustard seed’s champion flourishing is in the service of something else.

What is that something else? I believe Jesus gave us two stories here for a reason. Each seed produces some different result, carries the chemical blueprint to infuse its plant with some specific qualities. Some shoot straight up in the air like grain stalks, some spread out all around like shrubs, some are brown, some green, some in orderly rows, some in a messy sprawl.

But the two plants – the precious grain and the pesky mustard seed – do have something in common. Both serve the rest of creation. They do not exist for their individual selves. They do not even exist only for their own kind. No, these seeds are grace-grown to be servants for the other creatures. In the parables Jesus tells us here, the seed-plants’ fruits end up serving creation at a very, very basic level: Food, and shelter.

Food: The first seed begins scattered but then grows up, step-by-deliberate-step – “first the stalk, then the grain, then the full grain in the head” – into a harvest to be gathered by someone who carries a sickle – in other words, it passes its work off, relay-style, to someone who knows what she is doing and will probably soon send that grain on to become bread that ultimately finds its way to someone who is hungry. The first seed, though it began scattered, ends up feeding the hungry.

Shelter: The second seed grows up into a mustard shrub, a garden pest, one we would at first glance be most likely to see as useless, and yet, somehow, infused with the grace of God’s kingdom, explodes beyond maybe even its own imagination and ends up as something more akin to the great and noble cedar tree Ezekiel prophesies in our Old Testament reading. And then, like his mountaintop forebear, the mustard shrub offers his inexplicably large branches to the birds of the air, that they might make nests in its shade. The second seed, though it began smallest of all, ends up sheltering the homeless.

So who are we, after all? The answer to that question must, as we have seen, begin with grace. “We eat by the grace of nature,” says Michael Pollan, and we know that this natural truth is but one reflection of the deeper truth about grace, that it saves us from death (and a deathly life) from day to day and from age to age. Saved at the seed, we grow up and out into the purpose for which we, as we remembered only two weeks ago on Pentecost, are sent, by the grace of God.

It is true: To live by grace, to grow by grace, is to be sent by grace. Like the grace-grown plant life in today’s parables, we, too, are grown for a purpose. We are sent, whether we, like the grain stalks, feed the hungry in our world, or whether we, like the absurd mustard shrub-turned-cedar tree, shelter the shelter-less in our neighborhood. There are many tasks to be done in the work God calls us to – but God sends many seeds to do them. May we sprout and grow as God’s seeds. Gracias a Dios.