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.