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The Beautiful Lady: Our Lady of Guadalupe (2012)

Written by Pat Mora

Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Alfred A. Knopf

It's a funny thing that on the same day I read this book, I also read a chapter from The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (my current man-crush) in which he talks about the psychological underpinnings behind visions of the Virgin Mary and attempts to tie them into the then-current alien abduction mania.

"[T]he criteria for recognizing a credible witness of an apparition [was] the willingness to accept advice from the political and religious hierarchy," he writes. "Thus anyone seeing a vision disturbing to those in power was ipso facto an unreliable witness and saints and virgins could be made to say whatever the authorities wanted to hear."

He goes on to write:

"Possible motives for inventing and accepting such stories are not hard to find: jobs for priests, notaries, carpenters and merchants... rousing public spirit against enemies... improving civility and obedience to canon law... confirming the faith of the pious."

So the church was just fine with people having visions of the Blessed Virgin, because it proved that the church was right! How convenient for them! However...

...beginning in the fifteenth century, the attitude of the Church changed. Those who reported an independent channel to Heaven were outflanking the Church's chain of command up to God.

In other words, if supernatural apparitions were just appearing to random people directly, then what did they need the Church for? And what if the visions actually suggested to their supplicants a change in the status-quo?

Ask Joan of Arc.

Speaking of Joan of Arc, did you know that the reason the Church chose burning its victims alive as its choice of execution was because of a canonical law which forbade them from spilling blood? It's kind of like when I tell Arlo to stop hitting me, and he says, "I'm not hitting you, I'm slapping you!" Hopefully he won't join the clergy.
Her cloak shone with stars. Her skin was brown and beautiful.

Anyway, The Demon-Haunted World is a pretty interesting book, and it's perhaps unfortunate that all that was swimming around in my head when I opened up this lovely picture book, featuring a young girl gazing doe-eyed at the statue of the Virgin Mary.

"One of Mexico's most loved stories is the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe," writes the author, Pat Mora. "Her image was carried in Mexico's War of Independence and is still carried today as a symbol of freedom and justice by groups struggling for their rights, such as farmworkers in the United States."

Well, how can a Woody Guthrie lover like me possibly argue with that? It's not an easy business, to parse supernatural apparitions, and decide: This is how I must feel about this. It's a story, and stories are alive and mean different things. Listen, here is the story:

Juan Diego hikes to the top of Tepeyac Hill, near what is now Mexico City. The year is 1531. There is a blinding light ahead. Removing his sombrero, he kneels before the floating Virgin, who asks him to build a church for her, there, on the hilltop, for all to see, so that all may find rest.

"Oh, Senora!" he gasped
The conflict of the story involves Juan Diego trying to convince the bishop that the apparition is true. The bishop demands a sign and so a sign is had. "In 2002," Mora writes, "the Catholic Church canonized Juan Diego as the first indigenous saint of the Americas."

I enjoyed this story very much, it's simple and magical, and the paintings evoke a Mexico long past. I love the attention to the rolling clouds, which compliments the rolling hills and landscapes, and even the texture of the fabrics worn by the people of the village. Everything seems to belong, it's all a part of one thing. The landscape, the clouds, the fabric... the apparition, the bishop, the architecture of the town... right on that edge between history and folktale.

I am glad for books like The Demon-Haunted World, and I am glad for books like this. They co-exist and hit different parts of my brain. It's all a part of one thing.

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