Believing: Surfing Madonna, Pray for Us

Author: Michael Garvey '74

Michael Garvey

The city council of Encinitas, California, must soon decide whether or not the most recent apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an act of vandalism. Appearing on the wall of a railway bridge over Encinitas Boulevard last month, a few days before Easter, Mary arrived on the vibrantly hued surface of a 10-by-10-foot stone-and-glass mosaic. Adapting to the beach community that Encinitas is, Mary stands expertly atop a white surfboard on a curling blue wave, and the locals have now added “Surfing Madonna” to the litany of her names.

The unauthorized, even guerrilla emergence of this well-known Marian icon in a public space has once again become a matter of controversy. This latest Guadalupian image is, depending on one’s predilection, sacred art, irreverent graffiti, folkloric artifact, defacement of public property, a prayer from the streets or an unconstitutional infliction of religious belief on taxpaying passersby. The Mother of the Americas’ capacity to unsettle is intrinsic to her charm

Anyone who has prayed before or even looked at the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart knows this. The work of Maria Tomasula, Grace Professor of Art, the familiar image in the Basilica’s eastern apsidal chapel is arresting in the particularity of Mary’s face, for which Tomasula’s teenage daughter served as a model.

According to Maxwell E. Johnson, professor of theology at Notre Dame, “The Virgin of Guadalupe is appearing everywhere, it seems, as tattoos, jewelry, fine art, folk art, home altars, yard shrines, rugs, ornaments and decorations for cars, baseball caps, T-shirts, paños (pieces of cloth or handkerchiefs painted by prison inmates), computer mouse pads, murals on the sides of buildings and homes, or veladoras (devotional candles) in grocery stores.”

Johnson, a Lutheran, first visited Mary’s Basilica shrine in Mexico City 30 years ago and has been devoted to her ever since. His recently published book, American Magnificat: Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe, with a foreword and afterword by his Notre Dame colleagues, Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, and Virgil Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology, includes essays by scholars from Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian theological traditions.

American Magnificat also includes an English translation of the Nican Mopohua, the 16-page account of the apparitions reported in 1531 by a Nahuatl-speaking peasant whose baptismal name was Juan Diego. He had met a beautiful young lady on the hill at Tepyac, he said, and she had spoken to him in his own language, bidding him to gather up in his tilma, or cloak, the roses she had wonderfully caused to grow among the rocks there.

The pregnant image left behind on Juan Diego’s tilma has been giving rise to wonder, faith, hope and delight ever since. And always to controversy. Like the very doctrine it celebrates, of how God comes to us from a virgin’s womb, it just won’t leave anyone alone.

Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public information and communication. Email him at