El Encuentro

This is an excerpt from my book in progress, GOD OF LOVE.  It is from the chap­ter called “Indwelling Pres­ence: The Fem­i­nine Face of the Divine.” Some­times, the mas­cu­line par­a­digm can be a door­way to the sacred fem­i­nine.  Here in the San­gre de Cristos, the south­ern region of the Rocky Moun­tain range where I live, an ancient reli­gious broth­er­hood, called Los Her­manos Pen­i­tentes (The Pen­i­tente Broth­er­hood) has sur­vived in tact for over four hun­dred years.  Because of the remote topog­ra­phy of these high desert val­leys, the six­teenth cen­tury Catholic Church could not pro­vide priests for all the out­ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Span­ish set­tlers.  As a result, the peo­ple had to take respon­si­bil­ity for their own reli­gious life.  Draw­ing on medieval reli­gious pageants from the old coun­try, local com­mu­ni­ties devel­oped a series of rit­u­als that cen­tered on the Pas­sion of Christ, and espe­cially focused around the sacred time between Good Fri­day and Easter. Until recently, the activ­i­ties of the Broth­er­hood were secret.  Out­siders were not wel­come to either par­tic­i­pate in or observe Pen­i­tente rit­u­als, and as a result a mul­ti­tude mis­un­der­stand­ings and super­sti­tious sto­ries sur­rounded their activ­i­ties.  Thanks in part to the efforts of her­manos like my friend Larry, who is also a his­to­rian, the beauty of the Her­manidad is now begin­ning to be acces­si­ble to non-members.  For the past few years on Good Fri­day, Larry has extended an oppor­tu­nity for vis­i­tors to respect­fully observe an essen­tial Pen­i­tente rite: el Encuen­tro (The Encounter).  Not long after my fourteen-year-old daugh­ter Jenny was killed in a car acci­dent, Larry invited me to el Encuen­tro, and this expe­ri­ence became one of the most heal­ing moments of my har­row­ing jour­ney through grief. It was the Mother who mended my heart. We are invited to gather at noon on Good Fri­day in the dirt park­ing lot out­side the Holy Trin­ity Church in a small vil­lage at the foot of a moun­tain.  Across the road, nes­tled among the wil­lows, is the morada, the low, win­dow­less adobe build­ing where most of the pri­vate Pen­in­tente cer­e­monies take place.  Los her­manos divide into two groups, accom­pa­nied by their wives and las Veróni­cas, the young women dressed in black who rep­re­sent the girl who brazenly tore off her veil and wiped the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face as he labored under the weight of his own gal­lows up Gol­go­tha Hill.  They are about to enact the Pas­sion of Christ. One group lifts a hand-carved statue of Christ from his cas­ket in the morada, where he lies all dur­ing the rest of the year, sets it on their shoul­ders, and begins to slowly walk toward the church, chant­ing the ancient Span­ish liturgy in loud voices fueled by reli­gious emo­tion.  The other group takes Madre Maria down from her altar in the Church and moves with her slowly toward the oncom­ing her­manos who are car­ry­ing her Holy Son, Jesu­crito, and singing their own sacred songs.   Jesus and Mary will “encounter” one other in the park­ing lot. As the two groups draw near to each other, the cacoph­ony of sep­a­rate prayers reaches a crescendo.  Her­manos are weep­ing as they call out to Jesus and Mary, urg­ing them to be strong in the face of such ter­ri­ble per­se­cu­tion and suf­fer­ing.  The minor key of the chant­ing, the boom­ing bass, the two dif­fer­ent melodies and rhythms, and the wrench­ing sor­row of the Pen­i­tentes, all meet in an explo­sion of mys­ti­cal energy as the leader of one pro­ces­sion meets the leader of the other and gen­tly tilts Jesus down to momen­tar­ily rest against Mary’s shoul­der. But they do not linger.  “Go away from here, Mother,” Christ cries out, through the chant­ing voices of the her­manos.  “I do not want you to see me like this!”  And the man car­ry­ing Jesus pulls him away.  The man car­ry­ing Mary pulls her away.  The blended pro­ces­sion divides again, and each group walks slowly back­wards, chant­ing and weep­ing, and the encuen­tro is over. I dropped to my knees in the park­ing lot.  No one could under­stand my pain like Mary could.  She too was a mother who loved her child beyond all descrip­tion.  She too came face to face with her child’s suf­fer­ing, death, and her own shat­ter­ing.  In that moment, I spon­ta­neously reached out to Mother Mary, pour­ing my anguish into her open hands, lament­ing and con­sol­ing and thank­ing her all at once.  She received me with quiet yet unmis­tak­able mercy. After my own pri­vate encuen­tro with Mother Mary, I never again felt quite so alone in my loss.  I still suf­fered – I still do – but she shares my pain, and that makes my bur­den lighter.


  1. Gaye says:

    Holy Week tech­ni­cally begins on Palm Sun­day the week before and the whole Holy Week Liturgy, prayed as an out­sider to Catholi­cism many years ago now shifted my faith so vividly and so pro­foundly that I was never the same again. I have med­i­tated on that shift many times and con­cluded even­tu­ally that Holy Week in par­tic­u­lar engaged all of me .… body and soul and spirit and heart.

  2. dovalpage says:

    Ami­gu­ita, I didn’t know we could now see los pen­i­tentes. Thanks for shar­ing it. I will visit next year. Que pena that I didn’t find out before, I would have gone this one. Gracias!

  3. Catherine says:

    Thanks to los her­manos and Larry for shar­ing these pow­er­ful ancient pageants and to you the observer who painted a ver­bal pic­ture for us … and to your the par­tic­i­pant who dropped to her knees and reached out to Mary.

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