Neguri, Spain: In the usually mild winter that characterizes parts of northern Spain, I took a trip to Cantabria last January, along with two of my closest Basque friends, avant garde poet Antonio Aguirre and celebrated sculptor Vicente Jáuregui. Near the end of a long day spent exploring various medieval towns and hamlets, we drove to Escalante, site of the Capuchin- run Monastery of San Sebastian de Hano, where we prayed in its chapel.
There, we met Fr. Valentín Martín, the prior of the monastery. When he learned that Vicente is a sculptor, he wanted to ask him to sculpt for him the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Divine Shepherdess, holding the Child Jesus with one lamb on one side and a pair on the other. For twenty years, Fr. Valentín had worked as a missionary in Venezuela, and is partial to artists because he himself is a writer.
Several months later and after a string of email exchanges between Vicente, Antonio and the Capuchin prior, the sculpture of the Divine Shepherdess (Divina Pastora) is set to be installed at the chapel of the Monastery of San Sebastian de Hano in less than two weeks. Fray Valentin has invited me to help him preside over the installation. I readily accepted the invitation, along with Antonio and Vicente who both collaborated to produce the sculpture in time for the August 2 deadline. Antonio helped Vicente look for the appropriate materials at the best prices for the latter’s latest masterpiece, including picking the crown that adorns its head.
Fray Valentin has lined up a number of religious and fundraising activities over several days culminating August 2, when the sculpture of the Divine Shepherdess will be installed. Vicente’s Divina Pastora will be at the head of a procession which will precede its installation. A street market, where people are encouraged to donate furniture, books and other items, will raise funds to help the poor people of Venezuela.
The formal installation coincides with the feast of Our Lady of Porciuncula because this particular cult was started by St. Francis himself near Assisi in Umbria in the 13th century. The Capuchins of Montehano, present-day caratekers of the medieval monastery and Spanish cultural treasure, owe their presence there to the Franciscans.
Founded in 1441 by Beltrán Ladrón de Guevara, the chapel was originally under the advocation of Our Lady of the Mountain and the monastery was inhabited by the Franciscan friars. In 1808, the invading soldiers of Napoleon got their provisions from the friars and in 1835 the liberal Spanish minister Juan de Dios Álvarez Mendizabal, during his rule which opposed clericalism, confiscated the property. In 1879, Countess de la Puente, whose daughter Joquina de la Pezuela is interred in the chapel, donated the property, then under her possession, to the Bishop of Santander who in turn turned it over to the Capuchins in 1909.
The devotion to Divina Pastora, according to Wikipedia, was started in Seville, Spain by a “Capuchin friar, Isidore of Seville,” who “had a dream in which he saw an image of the Divina Pastora. Days later, he gave to the artist Alonso Miguel de Tovar, a detailed description of his vision, so that he could paint it. The painting of the virgin with pastoral hat, covered by a blue mantle, holding a boy in her left hand and a lamb in her right one, was called “Divina Pastora de Almas”. Later, the sculptor Francisco Antonio Ruiz Gijón, made a life-sized sculpture of the Divina Pastora, which was carried in its first procession in 1705.”
Neguri, Spain: True to its advocation, Iglesia del Carmen is a Marian church. Every afternoon, before the six o´clock Mass is said, there is a public recitation of the rosary, aside from the Exposition and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the confessions in between. During the whole month of May a replica of the image of Our Lady of Fatima is displayed for veneration. The flores de mayo practice of offering flowers to the Blessed Virgin Mary supplements the month-long daily Novena to the mother of Jesus who is considered, properly speaking, the first among Christians because she is also the mother of the Second Person of the Triune God as per the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
This year, by coincidence, the last day of the month of May, which is today, happens also to be the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the house of her cousin
Elizabeth. In the gospel for today, the Blessed Virgin Mary intones the Magnificat, her way of singing praise of her Creator. Mary’s Magnificat is undoubtedly the first social document for humanity. Throughout the ages, the Magnificat has since then revolutionized the social system of the world. In spite of the storms and stresses of man´s earthly sojourn, man has always striven time and again to adopt a system that is as human and just as humane as possible. As he stumbles, many times he fails, but he keeps on trying just the same.
Today, we take some photos of the presbytery of Iglesia del Carmen adorned with flowers for the Blessed Virgin Mary. We also take some shots of the image of Our Lady of Fatima being venerated by regular church goer Alfonso Ramirez, a devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Alfonso lost his job during the recession in Spain but not his faith which has only deepened in the face of trials. He has found a better job: taking care of his elderly parents, both ailing. He has no regrets because he loves his job. With the Blessed Virgin Mary, he knows that all this, too, will come to pass. Meanwhile he daily sings to God his own Magnificat.
Bilbao, Spain: Three Augustinian friars, Fathers Lauro Rodriguez Mariscal and Cesareo Miguelez del Rio and myself, minister to the parishioners of Iglesia del Carmen and live in what can be considered as our friary, but we all officially belong to the Augustinian community of San Jose de la Montaña parish located in the heart of Bilbao. Fr. Francisco Pajares Marcos comes every Sunday and when needed, but he lives with the friars of Colegio Andrés de Urdaneta because he belongs to their community.
My birthday last May 19 was celebrated by the three of us friars in our Neguri residence, and today, Sunday, May 29, the community of Bilbao gave a birthday luncheon with all the friars of Bilbao and Neguri plus Fr. Francisco, representing Colegio Andrés de Urdaneta, in attendance. After the celebration, before being driven back to Neguri for the 6 p.m. Mass, I posed for a souvenir photo with one of the paintings of the late Fr. Nicéforo Rojo that adorn the dining room of San José de la Montaña convent.
Still as part of my birthday blessings, artist Vicente Jáuregui Presa has come to give me a birthday gift, his visual interpretation in canvas of my blog Silver Linings. His son Alex, who like his Russian mother is an active member of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bilbao, also tagged along with a copy of my poetry book Getxo and Other Poems. Alex, who has no plans of becoming a priest, wants to follow in the footsteps of his father who lives in Laredo and is considered one of the important visual artists and sculptors of the Basque country.
Neguri, Spain: This year the Catholic liturgical feast of the Most Holy Trinity happened to fall yesterday, May 22, the Sunday immediately following Pentecost Sunday. It was also the feast of Saint Rita, the widow of Cascia who against all odds gained acceptance into an Augustinian monastery to become a nun. She entered the nunnery after undergoing so much suffering with the loss of her husband and later on with the death of her two sons.
She sought refuge in the house of the Lord where, on top of her grief, she suffered physical pain with the appearance of a stigmata on her forehead. She was privileged to share the pain of Christ Crucified with a wound that never healed.
In Iglesia del Carmen, roses were blessed and distributed to the faithful after the final blessing at the end of every Mass. Shortly after dinner, when the church doors were closed, I turned on the lights inside the church. Alone and at peace with the world, I prayed in thanks giving before the image of Saint Rita of Cascia, the patroness of the impossible.