Monday, March 23.........Esquipulas, Guatemala
Yesterday I left Guatemala City early in the morning and headed northeast to the old Maya site of Quirigua. It felt odd to be alone in the van, and when I got to the ruins I found myself wishing that Robert were there to share it with. I had expected to stay the day and night, but troubled by sadness I drove on to the pilgrimage town of Esquipulas. Eight hours of concentrating on the road diverted my attention from my anguish, easing the pain in my heart. Along the way, sprinkled here and there in the mountains and river valleys, different species of forest trees were blooming with great profusions of pinks, purples, yellows, and oranges. Flowering trees put out a great deal more color than ground flowers and I have always delighted in their displays. I stopped and climbed high into a flowering giant. Perched in a veritable sea of pink, ten thousand individual flowers fluttering in the wind all around me, I prayed that love be more deeply revealed within my heart and mind. Years ago the Earth Spirits told me that my final long pilgrimage, in Latin America, would be for the "full awakening of love". I feel far from that place now. I have been unable to love as much as I wished I could.
The Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City holds the distinction of being the most visited pilgrimage site in the western hemisphere. If we narrow our focus to the seven countries of Central America, however, there is no place more venerated than the Church of the Black Christ in Esquipulas, Guatemala. I am not aware of any archaeological evidence indicating a sacred or ceremonial use of the site in Pre-Columbian times. But folklore and local beliefs tell of pilgrims coming to the mountain valley when the Maya were yet a young culture. With the arrival of the Spanish friars in the 16th century, a church was built at the foot of a small hill within the valley. Twice I climbed this hill, both times reflecting how it had very favorable place-energetics according to Feng Shui geomancy.
Church of the Black Christ, Esquipulas, Guatemala
In 1595, a statue of Christ on the Cross, carved from dark balsam wood, was installed in the church. It is not known specifically why the statue is dark. (Some people assume it is due to the centuries of candle smoke inside the church, but this is not the case. The clothing of the statue is not stained by the smoke, and underneath the protective clothing the wooden skin is not less dark.) Most probably the dark color - it is not really black but rather a coffee brown - points to the strong pagan elements that infused and influenced early Colonial Christianity throughout Meso and Central America. Christian pilgrimages to the church began shortly after 1737 when the Archbishop of Guatemala visited and went away cured of a chronic ailment. Local church authorities, knowing the enormous income statistics of vital European pilgrimage shrines, constructed a new church in 1758. Situated about a mile from the old church of Santiago, the great white basilica was soon attracting pilgrims from all over Central America.
While pilgrims journey to the shrine throughout the year, there are two periods when their numbers multiply greatly. One is for a week up to and culminating on January 15, the other is the week of Easter. During these times, upwards of a hundred thousand pilgrims descend upon the normally quiet mountain valley to adore the Black Christ. Great markets spring up, the hotels are over-filled, and people sleep in the church courtyard and along the city streets. These festivals are said to be the finest displays of native dress in all of Central America.
The primary goal of pilgrims during these two festivals is to have a few seconds in front of the Black Christ. Winding around and within the church is a long, constructed path upon which the pilgrims walk toward the sanctuary of the Dark Christ. From early in the morning until late at night well over 10,000 people will be walking very slowly in this line, patiently waiting for their time with the venerated statue. Some pilgrims, possessed of great devotion or expressing intense prayers, will crawl - on their knees and elbows - the one mile from the old church to the new.
I came during late March and there were only hundreds, not tens of thousands of pilgrims. One day I would like to visit during a major pilgrimage festival, but even during the quiet season that I experienced, the place was powerfully charged with an atmosphere of peace, gratitude, and deep love. The basilica is not a particularly beautiful building nor does it have the fine carvings and lovely stained glass windows found in European pilgrimage churches. Yet, when I was in Esquipulas, I did not want to be anywhere else. It was as if the shrine exerted a powerful magnetic force upon some part of me. It may sound strange or unbelievable, but I actually felt this force pulling me towards and into the church. I sat for hours within the shrine, meditating, watching the peasant pilgrims, listening to the organ music and the extraordinary singing of the monks. It would be very easy for me to spend a week in this way, or perhaps a few weeks until the Easter festival. But no, I have many other places to visit on my Latin American pilgrimage and so I will depart for Honduras tomorrow.