[An excerpt from Frank Graziano, Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2015).]

First you notice the floor, its tired beauty, an aisle eroded by centuries of need. The stones are veined in shapes that seem meaningful if badly enough you need some meaning. An abused maroon, footworn and dulled, a deep black fading toward its fate. The chapel is solemn, even somber. A life-size crucified Christ presides; the muscles in the arms look twisted. People come and go, mostly women, some peaceful and prayerful, maintaining relations, and others agitated and working through petitions. Everyone is comfortable, feels at home, knows what to do. A man moves a few pews closer to the altar; a woman leans forward, into the prayer; a baby coos between sips through a straw. The world outside muffles through the wall: traffic, voices, “All By Myself” interrupted by a hawker with a mic. No one seems to notice. The chapel’s silence pushes back, insulates a sense of closure. A silence too heavy to hover, like a dense fog, oppressive, a silence that spreads itself out between the bare walls, over the pews, that cushions the noise to a mute bass background, a tonal prelude for prayer and song. Every once in a while you hear a coin drop. Metal on metal, the deep clunk after the fall.

Lourdes, the president of the Señor del Rayo devotional association, said people find peace and tranquility in the chapel. One can see that on many faces: meditation, absorption, relaxation. Other devotees come with urgent purpose and their demeanor is far from tranquil. A woman in the first pew is pleading aloud and finally she stands up and gestures, paces, overwhelms the chapel’s dulled visuals with her wild gray hair half-tamed in a pony tail that swings a beat behind her bright blue dress. She kneels at the altar, stands up, paces, kneels again, lifts her arms, pleads, cries, recomposes, and cries again while praying. The whole body is involved. Her anguish is apparent. It takes a while to finish. And the spectacle seems double directional, addressed forward to the Señor del Rayo—who remained stoically indifferent, like a statue—and backward to the audience in the pews.

Emilia’s devotion was also emotional and corporal, but without the theatrics. She had come from her village with her daughter, Rebecca, who remained in a pew, to pray at the altar in her native language, Zapotec. Emilia began visiting the chapel in 2010 because her son, undocumented in the United States, was struggling to survive economically. With help from the Señor del Rayo the son’s earnings eventually improved enough to build a modest house for the family, so Emilia and Rebecca return periodically to give thanks and to renew their bond with the miraculous image that provides for and protects them.

Luz, also an indigenous devotee, stressed the happiness one feels when miracles mitigate the uncertainties of subsistence. A gift from God, she explained, “is when you’re asking for a crop you’re going to plant, that you’re given the harvest, that you don’t lose it, so you get happy because you’re given the fruit of what you’ve planted, no?, and you’re happy, it’s a gift, the whole family has something to eat. You get happy. God gave us what we asked for.” In matters of health, miracles are valued in themselves but also because they supplement or substitute unaffordable health care. “You keep spending money that you don’t have,” Luz explained, “and you’re trying to find the money and taking the drugs. And if you don’t get better you have to pay back whoever lent you the money and are even poorer and sadder, and you’re still sick.” With a miracle, conversely “you’re cured, you’re happy, you’re cured with a little money.”[1]

Lourdes stressed how miracles take time, how an initial nonresponse to a petition is a call to perseverance. Her devotion to the Señor del Rayo began in earnest when she had a problem several years ago. “I came a lot and would say to him, ‘Help me, Lord,’ but at first he didn’t grant me the miracle.” The problem got worse, and Lourdes, confused, would ask, “Why don’t you listen, why don’t you help me, why don’t you grant me the miracle?” Then she came to understand that a miracle is a process, not an instantaneous remedy, and that patience is integral to faith. “With time I realized that He does listen, that his powerful hand touches you little by little, little by little, until your miracle is completed.” As an example Lourdes explained that she was unable to get pregnant and repeatedly asked the Señor del Rayo for children, until finally the miracle was granted. “I got married when I was sixteen and had my son when I was thirty-four.”

More recently, in 2010, Lourdes felt “on the verge of a stroke and heart attack.” Her position as the president of the devotional association affords intimate access to the Señor del Rayo, and, consequently, more expeditious results. Every year on October 21 the cathedral pillars are adorned with flowers—“it looks like paradise”—and the Señor del Rayo is moved from his chapel to the cathedral’s main altar for high mass on October 23. “He’s carried by men who have a lot of faith in him, who are in pain, who have cancer,” and whose ailments improve through contact with this sacred power. Lourdes is present too, and on one occasion, while fearing the stroke and heart attack, she took the opportunity to make her petition: “I whispered in his ear and he cured me. I also had vertigo and he cured that too.”

In many cases miracles provide a solution when there is nowhere else to turn, when desperation becomes so intense that it alchemizes into the faith that makes miracles happen. I met Margarita while she was mopping in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament. She carried herself with a heavy sadness that seemed to radiate down her arms, into the mop, and over the floor that held hidden meaning if badly enough you needed some meaning. That heaviness was compounded by the specific gravity of her fatigue. “Thirteen years ago my husband left me with three children, one twelve, one six, and one five months old. He went to the United States, got married to another woman, and didn’t send me a single peso.” Margarita struggled through hard times. She was unable to find work, unable to support the children—“how could I feed them, how could I dress them?”—and succumbed finally to hopelessness, resentment, bitterness, and defeat. “I was desperate and wanted to take it out on the children, beating them, hitting them a lot because of their father, because I was alone and hurting, because I felt desperate.” She wanted to flee, to escape, “to go far away” but there was nowhere to go, no money for flight, and Margarita was trapped together with her hopelessness and rage and three hungry children.

That’s when she gravitated toward an exit as extreme as it was absolute: “to kill myself and my children, that’s what I had in my head.” She had gotten the idea from a murder-suicide reported in the news. I asked Margarita why she would kill the children too and not just herself, and she explained, “Because at the same time I thought and said to myself, ‘How am I going to kill myself and leave my children alone?’ No. I thought I’d take them with me and we’d go together.” The plan to murder the children, however misguided and horrible objectively, was Margarita’s expression of desperate maternal protection, a liberation from crisis as a family. She would not abandon the children as her husband had abandoned them earlier.

Margarita went to the church in her village, confided her plan to a woman there, and was advised to visit the Señor del Rayo. Devotion thus began as a search for relief from desperation and its dreadful impending consequences. The miracle that Margarita requested and received, employment, resolved the family’s immediate crisis but also resulted in knowledge and solidarity that alleviated Margarita’s alienation. “I asked God to help me, and what he helped a lot with was getting out to work. Getting out to work, because I met women who are alone like me and I never knew it because I had never gone out to work. So I would go to work and people would ask me why I was crying and they said to me, ‘Listen, Señora, you’re not the first or the last woman to be left. Look at us here, we’re all widows and abandoned women, and you see how we keep going and are moving forward? You have to keep on going.’”

So Margarita got work, met people, and found her way. At first she made and sold tortillas—“my father helped me with corn, helped me with firewood”—and her brother in the United States helped with modest support. Later Margarita got her current job, cleaning in Oaxaca’s cathedral, and is never far from the Señor del Rayo who saved her. Thirteen years have passed since the husband abandoned the family, the children are grown (I met the oldest daughter, who seemed close to her mother), and Margarita says, “I’m OK now, I made it. But I suffered a lot.”

According to tradition, a ship sailed from Spain with a statue of the crucified Christ destined for Oaxaca (then called Antequera) but was blown off course. The ship landed at a remote location rather than at the port in Veracruz, and the image never reached its destination because it was intercepted by local natives who had converted to Catholicism. (This image is now venerated in Otatitlán.) The king and queen of Spain, informed of this confiscation and duly concerned, sent another image of the crucified Christ, which arrived safely in Oaxaca around 1550. Construction of the cathedral began a few years later. The image was situated on the altar early in the cathedral’s development, when the walls were bare adobe and the roof was straw. On one occasion a bolt of lightning struck the roof and ignited a fire that destroyed the cathedral’s interior, but the Christ image “was respected by the fire” and miraculously remained intact. Thus the Señor del Rayo (literally, Lord of the Lightning Bolt) acquired his name.[2]

Today the Señor del Rayo’s chapel, the last on the left in Oaxaca’s cathedral, has decorative columns, gilded woodwork, painted biblical scenes, and, as its centerpiece, the crucified Christ on a gold cross, in a glass case, and backed with red cloth displaying votive hearts. A statue of the Virgin is beside the Señor del Rayo and floral arrangements color the foreground.

On the twenty-third day of each month the image’s waistcloth is changed with the greatest deference and solemnity. When I witnessed this changing, Lourdes’s husband and another man carefully moved the flowers aside and slid the glass door open, revealing the Señor del Rayo to gathered devotees. The mood in the chapel approached awe. One man looked on with a face completely abandoned to astonishment, as though he were witnessing something impossible. The waistcloth was changed with a gentleness of gesture that indexed deep respect and devotion. One waistcloth or the other shielded the image so that its nakedness was never visible. Afterwards the waistcloth that had absorbed sacred power over the course of a month was ceremoniously displayed on a table before the altar. A line formed up the aisle and devotees approached to touch, to kiss, to rub themselves against the cloth while acoustic guitars lifted the emotion to a higher register and then another when the voices came in with a naïve beauty so moving and sincere that even the wooden pews seemed to soften. Those harmonies going up to God went sideways too and cohered us as a group. Some people lined up again to have another pass at the waistcloth; an older couple holding hands began to cry. Eventually, after the waistcloth had been taken away and the music had stopped, it felt like something was wrong in the world, an emptiness, as though someone had drained the mood from the building.

“The music really enhances…,” I said to Lourdes, and was going to finish the sentence with “emotion,” but she filled the blank first with “faith.” Through emotion the music enhances faith and creates a sense of sacred presence. “I know the Lord is here,” Lourdes said, “listening to what I am asking for.” What we were feeling and believing was cued by music in context, resonating in the chamber of that chapel, and the ambient tone also cued the pitch of our voices, the pace of our step, the gentleness and measure of our gestures. Through the music we accessed emotions that we couldn’t get to on our own.

At morning mass the guitarists, the packed pews, and the charismatic priest imbue the chapel with an upbeat mood unlike the somberness of petitionary devotion at other times. The crowd feels different too; more men and children, families. Expectation builds as mass time approaches. The sacristan checks the mic, lights the candles, and eventually the mostly retired Father Ernesto arrives, walks up the aisle to the altar, and wrestles into an over-the-head white robe as a guitarist sets the mood. Most of the mass is music and most of the music is joyful. The regular guitarist standing at the back of the chapel is accompanied by teenage volunteers in the pews. Father Ernesto is a pleasure to watch as he masterfully orchestrates the mass, pointing now to the guitarists who miss their cue, now to the nervous first-communionist, holding a candle, so that she’ll takes her place on the altar. He pivots her body to the appropriate angle, about forty-five degrees, then leads a song with his hands lifted heavenward at an odd angle, the torso tilted, as though God were in a particular area of the sky.

I had come to mass with the hope of interviewing Father Ernesto afterwards. During the service, however, something took hold of my emotions, a slow accumulation that I couldn’t control, until finally I was overwhelmed by all of the humility and honesty and vulnerability and need, the choral voices and innocent faces and O-shaped mouths, the bad guitar chords and the nervous, composed girl trying to hold the candle right, timid in her wedding dress, with God inside her body, drinking the blood from that chalice. I was overwhelmed and envious of these people completely absorbed in faith, completely invested in their belief that something is sacred, that something transcends the habituated pettiness that in my world is sacralized so that we have, at least, a contrived sense of meaning, contrived like this meaning but less moving, less miraculous. I felt completely depleted, as though everything had drained away until there was nothing left but an emotion stronger than my ability to control it and a sense of being pathetic and condemned to absurdity and broken because I couldn’t invent something to believe in. It was like an epiphany, except it happened in my emotions. I struggled for composure while Father Ernesto cleaned out the chalice and everyone else was praying.

After mass Father Ernesto came up the aisle with the overturned lid of a doughnut box to collect contributions for the musicians. As he made his way he greeted and blessed people, rubbing the earlobes of women—a form of limpia or ritual cleansing—as they conversed. Most of the collected money, including all of the bills, was given to the regular guitarist; the teenagers shared the coins. I feared that Father Ernesto would leave when he reached the back of the chapel—Margarita had told me that he departs right after mass—so I approached, shook his hand, explained my business, and asked if we could meet when he was free. He nodded and directed me toward the altar. The chapel was still half full, even though the mass had ended some ten minutes earlier. The communion girl, her parents, and some others were standing on the altar. I sat in the second row of pews, beside some of the guitarists, and was relieved to have time to compose while Father Ernesto attended to those awaiting him.

A moment later, however, Father Ernesto called me onto the altar. That seemed strange; I thought we would talk when he had finished with his obligations. He asked me to repeat what I wanted, indicating with a finger that he didn’t hear well. I got close to his ear and explained my purpose but not too loudly; I was self-conscious about my intrusion. The communion girl’s father was standing nearby, and some others, drawn by curiosity, were on approach and closing the gap.

Then, inexplicably, Father Ernesto put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me in closer to the ear, saying he would take my confession. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Everything was moving too quickly. “Tell me your sins,” he was saying, but I wouldn’t know where to begin with sins, or if I had sins, or if it was all a sin. All I wanted was an interview. I remembered that as a boy I invented sins for confession, then added one to the count of lies. Father Ernesto was waiting for an answer, the others on the altar were waiting for an answer, Christ was bleeding so patiently behind us, and I was stunned mute and didn’t know what to do.

I had the idea—completely incorrect—that Father Ernesto wanted to exchange an interview for bringing me back to the church, so into that ear that seemed too big, that seemed imposing enough to make demands of its own, my mouth delivered the awkward phrase, “Let’s talk later.” Father Ernesto nodded, as though in agreement, and I was relieved. A reprieve. But then he pulled me in again by the shoulder, hugging me close, for an unexpected, unearned, unorthodox absolution: “I forgive all of your sins, past present, and future. You can eat the body of Christ in any church in the world.”

Afterwards I wandered dazed through the streets of Oaxaca, trying to walk off the mood of the mass and my strange exchange with Father Ernesto. In some sense I had shared in a devotion that rocked the vacuous pretense of my world, but at the same time I was an impostor, a spy, the undercover infiltrator who had no faith in miraculous images or in anything, really, not even pious surrender or the absolution that Father Ernesto had so generously—so mysteriously—granted.

“Without faith in something life has no meaning,” Mayuela later told me, and Miguel said, “if you lose faith you don’t have anything.” So there I was: no meaning and no anything, doomed to the empty routine of disbelief. But the feeling was strong, and I wondered if devotees were drawn back to church less by the meaning than the feeling of devotion, the woeful joy, the solemn serenity, the gentle sense of solace that carries implicit significance. The meaning comes through feeling, in the same way that the miracle comes through faith. It must be something like a novel or film that summons you back, that draws you toward it not with the pull of its content—you’ve forgotten that—but rather with a lingering feeling that you’ve lost and want to regain. You go back for the feeling, you re-enter through the mood, and once inside you rediscover that you love the plot and characters too.[3]


[1] Luz’s reference to expense in relation to medical miracles is common in Mexico today and has a long history. The hemorrhaging woman in Mark 25-34 “had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had” before she was cured by touching Jesus’s cloak (Mark 5:26).

[2] The quoted phrase is from Luis Castañeda Guzmán, “Breve historia de la imagen del ‘Señor del Rayo’ que se venera en la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Oaxaca,” a photocopied pamphlet written in 1992 and acquired at the cathedral office.

[3] See Gerald L. Clore, “Psychology and the Rationality of Emotion,” Modern Theology 27:2 (2011): 331, where “actions are motivated by anticipated affect.”