I must have had some very good lifetimes as a Latin Catholic. My ancestors were German Lutheran preachers, but somehow I have always been in love with Mary, Jesus, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. My German grandmother had a bust of Mother Mary that she would stroke with a vaseline covered rag every day to honor her (I had a truly Grimms’ fairy-tale upbringing). I think she infused a tremendous amount of spiritual reverence in me, but it was all covert because my parents were the “Question Authority” Baby Boomer generation who still have a deep distrust of organized religion.
I am not saying that organized religion doesn’t need a major cleansing, but I believe people are hard-wired for the awe and magic that transcendent spiritual experiences may offer. Some folks go to Burning Man now or do ayahuasca, while others try to fill that void with shopping, eating, and watching TV, but we all need myths and miracles to make it through this crazy earth walk. Those that are the loudest disbelievers are the most heartbroken about our separation from our divinity.
When I moved to New Mexico I felt like I had come home. There are hand-painted images of Mary everywhere. They even build niches into the walls of their adobe homes for altars-how does it get any better than that? It is such a fascinating mix of indigenous, earthy wisdom combined with Catholicism’s gilded finery. It is a gaudy, sincere, down-home, DIY form of worship that emanates a humble beauty.
My recovering perfectionist lets out a sigh of relief and says, “thank God we can make our altars wild and funky and free, and if the plaster Jesus’ head falls off, we will just pick it up and wire that sacred sucker back on and keep going!” How many times in my own life would it have served me to tape things back together and keep on keepin’ on? No small issues such as impermanence, death, and decay shall get in my way for living my love of the divine in its many forms.
This photoshoot began my dream day. I was back in New Mexico after a year’s absence, fresh off a beautiful drive down from Washington state. The year before I had taken some incredible photos of a cemetery in Nambe, NM and on the way out of town I saw this enticing spot in Cebolla and cataloged it for next time. It is about a half an hour from my favorite place on earth, Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and I created a lot of the imagery for my Oracle of Initiation deck.
As I spotted the bright flags, flowers, and painted wrought iron I knew I was in for a good time. There were graves covered with the entire pantheon of saints and godheads including Mary, Jesus, Santo Nino, Guadalupe, Saint Anthony of Padua, and enough garishly beautiful plastic flowers to be seen from the moon.
People honored their dead children with toys and plastic angels, their dead cowboys with crosses made of horseshoes and their white brimmed hats set upon crosses buried in white-painted rocks. I think I have always belonged to this tribe of people who passionately throw themselves into making altars that are gloriously imperfect but so filled with love. This post is dedicated to my favorite Catholic altar maker, Angela.