Back 6 years ago this summer, I visited the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a huge, round building at the foot of a hill. Next the basilica is the old basilica. Only a part of the old basilica is open, but you can still go in there. I went in and looked for a special spot: the original place where Juan Diego lived after the apparitions. That’s the place where the tilma of Juan Diego was originally kept. So, after passing through the crowd, I walked along a hallways and there was a side chapel. A few people were milling around. And there, on the side, behind some Plexiglas, was the original stone location where Juan Diego originally lived. It was little and messy and poor. That’s where I had my spiritual moment and felt close to God. See, I had to pass through all the big, beautiful, and wealthy stuff to get to the origin – to the place where God really lives. That’s what happens: God chooses the little and messy and poor, and then we cover it up with the big, beautiful, and wealthy.
Later on, after leaving the new basilica, I stopped in the doorway and saw a crowd of people. They had surrounded a singer, I guess a famous one, who was singing songs to Mary. Everyone had the cellphone cameras out. And over to the very end of the doorway, outside the crowd, was a homeless man lying huddled on the ground. No one seemed to pay attention to him. I thought, they missed the boat. It’s easy to block out where God lives with the big and beautiful and wealthy.
I had the opportunity to go to Assisi some years back, where St. Francis was from. If you go to Assisi you will notice the great Italian countryside, and how the city sits halfway up a mountain. At the top of the mountain is a majestic castle for the nobles. If you visit the city, you’ll notice that it’s enchanting, almost magical. The stones that make up all the buildings are pretty much the same bleached cream color. There are a multitude of religious houses and churches and the basilica there. There’s also a huge tourist industry, and commercial shops. And special sites, like Francis’ birthplace. But there’s something the tour guides will never tell you: You’re looking at what Francis *left behind*.
Francis went to live at the bottom of the mountain in the valley, where the peasants lived. He wore their clothes. And he fixed up a tiny chapel in the middle of where the peasants lived. The little chapel, the Portiuncula, is housed in a giant basilica with a golden statue of Mary on top. It is also part of the tourist trap game for the wealthy of world to visit. There are no peasants in sight. There is no way to get the original circumstances, the original context back – the context for where God chooses to live. It’s easy to block out where God lives with the big and beautiful and wealthy.
Bernadette was a young girl who lived in Lourdes, France in the 1800’s. She and her family were, officially, the poorest in the town. I say that because they were the only ones who had to live in an old prison while her parents were unemployed, and Bernadette calls herself the poorest girl in the town. She went out one day to what is basically the town dump. You may know the rest of the story. Mary appears, a spring is dug out of nowhere from the ground, etc. Now, that location in Lourdes is covered with a giant, beautiful, ornate church. It is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the whole world. But no one goes there thinking it was a dump.
Back in 2006, I had a spiritual director who I talked to regularly. He was an older Jesuit who had many years as a spiritual director. I remember one afternoon in his office, after we had been meeting for about a year. He said, “I’m always careful in saying things like this, but I will say it. Jerome, you have the characteristics of a person that could found a religious community.” And I answered, “No.” Why? Because if I ever started something, then soon enough people in high places will come and start to make it systematized and institutionalized and romanticized, and the original me, or us, and the message will get built over. I will have glossed over prayer cards with me in clothes I really never wore with something like a glowing face. People will start praying to me instead of living the original message. They will be happily overencumbered in their bubble saying prayers and fussing about habits and buildings and approvals and constitutions and everything related to structures, and think they are doing the mission, instead of spending that time and energy on the actual simple original message. It will no longer be little and messy and poor. No, everything will be big, and it will be beautiful, and it will be wealthy. And everyone will forget about the original inspiration and mission. I know how that goes. So … NO.
In the Gospel, the wise men from the east follow the star looking for the new king. They first arrive at Herod’s palace. Herod was rebuilding the Temple for the Jews. It was one of the greatest building projects of ancient times, and Herod was know as a great builder. And he lived in his own palace: big, beautiful, and wealthy. But the wise men knew that wasn’t where God lives. The star led them to another place, little and messy and poor, and they were excited: They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Mt 2:9-12)
They had found where God lives.
It is easy for the big, beautiful, and wealthy to catch our attention. It’s easy for us to look to that for a comfortable, secure home with God. It’s easy to cover up where God actually lives with distraction in wonderful church buildings and systems and culture. It’s easy to miss the boat. But if you follow the star that God puts in you, it will take you past all that to the origin, to the little, messy, poor people and places where the true treasure lies.
Where God lives.