Old cities and eternal visions

Driving out from the city centre hotel to Teotihuacan this morning was a confirmation of many of the urban themes we had discussed this week. The sheer volume of this city of more than twenty million is a sight to behold, bunched up on myriad hills, vulnerable to earthquake, polluted, convoluted, fragmented in inequality and yet extraordinarily vibrant and diverse.

On the way we saw a procession of campesino on horse back, riding into the city to demonstrate. As we said often this week, it is the city that is the site of  critical change, of politics. The Arab Spring was born in the market square, not the field.

Teotihuacan is a fabulous site, accommodating at its height an estimated population of 200,000 in the fifth century AD, it now stands outside the city, a compelling ruin. The twin pyramids (of Sun and the Moon) are truly impressive, as are the views from the top: a panorama of the volcanic valley in which Mexico City sits. When Cortes came this way, he only saw grassy mounds, and rode on. You cannot help pondering the fate of our own cities, imagined as permanent.

On the way back, we visited the Church of Our Lady at Guadeloupe. This is the most holy shrine in Mexico where the Virgin Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego, a recently converted Aztec, in 1531. There was no doubt that the appearance was convenient to history in sealing Catholicism's arrival in the New World; and, the Church is built on what had been an Aztec religious site. However, it is a tradition that has struck deep roots especially in the imaginations of the indigenous population.

The cloak on which the Marian image was miraculously impressed stands above the altar of a new basilica designed in the 1970s and you progress past it on a slow moving multiple beltway, accommodating both the needs of veneration and of moving people on and past in significant volume.

On this ordinary Saturday afternoon, the place thronged with pilgrims and visitors. The demographic was compelling - people were mostly poor, mostly there either as families or church groups, approaching with a mix of the festive and the serious. It was a pleasure to watch them, moving through this sacred space, with all its contradictions - the young seeking blessing, the old and the sick healing.

I quietly prayed for the healing of family and friends in the old church, as a man talked through a microphone to his group assembled below. Contemplatively still this space is not!


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