It’s already old news that the world did not end in December. Since last I wrote, we celebrated the birth of Jesus, and the visit of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ. Now, we are in Ordinary Time for a very few, short weeks, the semester has started, and I’m getting back into the regular rhythms of seminary life. My favorite souvenir from my time away is a small painting of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, which I brought back with me from the annual conference of the North American Academy of Liturgy, held this year in Albuquerque.
This picture is not, strictly speaking, an icon, but rather an image made in the santos tradition of the American Southwest. The santero, Charles M. Carrillo, also holds a doctorate in archeology and anthropology and teaches in the religious studies program at the University of New Mexico. Invited to give a plenary address at the conference, he told stories about the relationship that his relatives and other people in his community have with the pictures and statues of saints that they treat like regular members of the family. His deep, funny, faith-filled tales raised questions and a few eyebrows among academy members more comfortable with intellectual explanation and high liturgical practice than with folk customs and private devotions.
For me, Carrillo’s paintings of Santa Cecilia – patroness of musicians – tooling down the road in her classic car with her guitar hung over the radiator cap, or of Saint Isidro – patron saint of farmers, real estate agents, and gardeners – kneeling in a newly-planted field carved out of the Southwest desert, felt like home. The clear colors and flat, simplified, decorative forms felt as familiar as those the parts of the Los Angeles where the Virgin of Guadalupe smiles from car dashboards, the sides of buildings, and urban gardens.
But I had never met Our Lady of San Juan de Lagos until that day at the conference when Charlie Carrillo and his wife were setting out the santos among the scholarly books, liturgical vessels, and ornate vestments that are the usual offerings outside our meeting rooms. As I hurried by from one session to another, I was stopped in my tracks, wondering if perhaps I had somehow missed them the day before. Transfixed by the evocative power of these simple retablos, it was not a question of whether one would go home with me, but which one. As my eyes and hands kept reaching out to this nearly doll-like figure, framed by drawn-back curtains and flanked by two candles, it became clear that she was the one.
Dr. Carrillo says on his website that the work of the santero “is one of those art forms you cannot separate from the people. We write our own history by what we say and the art we do.“ I am not a member of the community to which the santos are native, but they speak to me about the divine in ways that full of meaning that I am unable to articulate. I simply stop and look, and know that I am in the presence of God.