What first drew me to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe were the myths surrounding the image. When I was a much younger man, and avowedly Roman in my Catholicism, someone (I forget who now) loaned me a book that recounted with detailed words and images the legendary apparition of Mary to Juan Diego in 1531. I was enthralled by what I read. It touched me very deeply that a humble peasant was visited by the Mother of Christ on a lonely spot, and that he was initially rejected by the local church authorities. I rejoiced at the restoration of Juan Diego’s credibility when the eyes of bishop Juan de Zumárraga and the clergy fell upon the image of the Virgin imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma as it unfolded to let fall flowers that did not grow in winter time. These flowers were meant as evidence to the church of the miraculous appearances, but the tilma outshone the flowers as indisputable proof of a heavenly visitor. My marvel at the image grew when I learned of reports that Juan Diego, the bishop and several others were captured as reflections in the left eye of the Virgin. I was fascinated by how some art experts explained that the blue-green starry mantle and the brown floral tunic of the Virgin encapsulated the role of the Virgin in bridging heaven and earth by giving birth to the Son of God. As a Malaysian—a person of colour—I loved the idea of a pictorial representation of Bunda Maria with dark(er) skin and hair. The artistic details of maternity bands at her wrists that denoted her motherhood, the cross at her collar, a sunburst behind her and a crescent beneath her, and an angel that held her up as she wafted in ethereal glory made my heart flutter with greater intensity. This was an image of Our Lady that took my breath away, a symbol of the Mother of Christ who deigned to reveal herself to mere mortals.
As time went by, the meaning of the image began to transform for me. While in religious life in the 1990s, a senior and very learned religious saw it fit to inform me (for whatever reason) that this image was that of the goddess Tonantzin. He spoke authoritatively on how familiar traditional and biblical Catholic symbols had been painted on the image to re-present her as Mary, such as the cross, as well as the sun, the crescent and the maternity bands that echoed the woman in labour in Revelation 12:1-2. Juan Diego never existed, he said, and the apparition was pure fabrication. I was crushed by the suggestion that an image which I had so long revered was nothing more than a colonising tool of the Spanish conquistadors to bring the peoples of the ancient Americas to their knees. Still, I thought, good can come from the seemingly bad, and beauty from what is hideous. It was still a beautiful portrayal of Mary that could foster my devotions, despite its rather unpleasant origins. And I was never particularly drawn to Juan Diego. I continued to cherish the image of the Guadalupana.
Much water cascaded under the bridge in the latter half of the 21st century. I left religious life and the Roman institution to become an academic while remaining a priest within an independent non-Roman, American Catholic jurisdiction. I familiarised myself with liberating spiritual practices and beliefs. I learned of political and social ramifications on theology that produced two classes in churches: the centred and the marginalised. I discovered queer theology. Even more amazingly, I discovered the queer, feminist, liberation, bisexual Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid and her book, Indecent Theology. Something she wrote unsettled my theological complacencies. She questioned why Marian apparitions “seem to have a formidable architectonic vocation [as] they tend to come barefoot from the Heavens but always require the construction of temples.” That started me thinking about Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes, ru du Bac, Lipa and Medjugorje among many others. Why did these apparitions demand the construction of chapels, churches, scapulars and medals? Why did they insist on ceaseless recitations of the Rosary for peace and unquestioning obedience to church authorities? More importantly, why did they not ask for stronger concerted efforts towards ending civil wars and tribal disputes? Why did they not recommend practical measures to combat world hunger and poverty, the abuse of women, children and LGBTIQ persons, and the ravenous tides of capitalism, terrorism and racism? Why did they always associate the horrors of human existence with human sin, especially “sins of the flesh” (basically women’s fashions). I started thinking deeply. How can human eyes behold spiritual bodies? Was it not possible that what the visionaries saw were interior images that were born of intense piety? Was it not possible that these apparitions were not just vivid projections of faith, but manifestations of hope for a better future as best understood and conceptualised by the visionaries and the communities in which they belonged?
My current perception of apparitions treads on “dangerous” ground as it departs from popular religious norms in following this line of thought. Yet, I wonder, does it make the involvement of the divine in human existence any less relevant or real? What I have also begun to believe is that these apparitions are spiritual articulations of a maternal perception of God. In other words, these apparitions are not necessarily Mary … does it matter if they are Mary? What if these apparitions are projections of belief in a God who embodies qualities that are often associated with the maternal dimension of human beings: care, compassion, gentleness, strength, presence and nurturance? Human eyes have never, and can never see God as God. Nevertheless, human eyes can see and human minds can learn of God in the sacrifice of Jesus and Maximillian Kolbe, in the deep self-awareness of Siddartha Gautama Buddha and Teresa of Jesus, in the teachings of Guru Nanak, Muhammad and Luther, in the discipleship of Mary of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus and Francis of Assisi, in the efforts of volunteers in soup kitchens, in the love of families and friends, in the work of local human rights activists, in each other. And these same human eyes that have seen, felt and made God present in human bodies can describe and convey God in human words.
I still cherish images of the Lady of Guadalupe. I have them at my study, by my bedside, and in my car and wallet. On some days, I see Mary in them, and my heart flutters again. But this time, it does not flutter because of miraculous, other-worldly associations. It flutters because I am learning to rejoice in the reality that Mary, like many other people I have learned about and human beings whom I have met and will continue to meet in my life, reveal God to me. On other days, I just see God in these images. It reminds me that I can only know and understand God as a human being, and I that I will never fully know God. It also reminds me again that through the love and life examples of those around me, I am always embraced by a God who is caring, compassionate, gentle, strong, present and nurturing. Viva Guadalupana! Hidup Maria! Hidup Sang Illahi!
 Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 60.
© Joseph N. Goh | josephgoh [at] josephgoh [dot] org