A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

–Philip Larkin, "Church Going"

Meditation in ¡tzcuaro


In late Octo­ber my wife Car­men and I spent a week in the cen­tral Mex­i­can town of ¡tzcuaro, well-known as a site for Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions. We were blessed to stay with a Mex­i­can fam­i­ly only a block from the cen­tral plaza in a house built over two hun­dred years old.

By day we wan­dered the shops and the muse­um, ate in the restau­rants and watched as peo­ple put up their dec­o­ra­tions. Long strings of cut paper, papel pic­a­do, hung across the streets. Beneath them altars of marigolds sprang up to hon­or the dead. A hun­dred tent-cov­ered arti­san and food stalls trans­formed the town plaza into a crowd­ed fes­ti­val. Through the aisles of ven­dors, La Cat­ri­na, that “ref­er­en­tial image of Death in Mex­i­co” walked on stilts, stop­ping if one gave her a few pesos to let her pic­ture be taken.

At night, on a stage built to one side of the plaza foun­tain, troupes danced and sang and bands played. Chil­dren with paint­ed skull faces made their way through the throng look­ing for any­one who might drop can­dy or a coin into their bas­kets. Behind them table after table of sweet, paint­ed sug­ar skulls looked on.

On one spe­cial night we vis­it­ed the grave­yards in near­by vil­lages where fam­i­lies kept vig­il and remem­bered those who have passed to the oth­er side. Bas­kets of favorite foods and thou­sands more marigolds adorned the graves. Peo­ple built small fires in the nar­row pas­sage­ways between the graves to keep them­selves warm so that the air smelled of wood smoke mixed with the tal­low of the can­dles. It was a strange­ly beau­ti­ful, touch­ing and somber experience.


I asked a mem­ber of our host fam­i­ly about the tourists over­whelm­ing such places and events, as it seemed their pres­ence (like my own) could fade quick­ly into a form of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion and exploita­tion. I received back the answer that yes, there were indeed too many tourists and too much busi­ness. But, on the oth­er hand, she said to me, keep in mind that this may be the one day of the year this par­tic­u­lar vil­lage makes money.

So there were lay­ers of expe­ri­ence to take in, a new­ly appre­ci­at­ed complexity.

After­ward, as time grew short on our trip, we wan­dered the shops of ¡tzcuaro look­ing for some small keep­sakes and for gifts we could take home to mem­bers of our own fam­i­ly. Sou­venirs, memen­tos, remem­brances of a place. Things that might hold the magic.

Indeed, the wall between the worlds had grown thin. Our dreams at night had changed. And on that last day, we sat qui­et­ly in the big space of a cathe­dral as it began to rain out­side. I’m not Catholic, not reli­gious at all, real­ly, but the space was sacred nev­er­the­less. As far as I’m con­cerned you can take away the cru­ci­fix­es and the priests, the rit­u­als and cer­e­monies, the stat­ues and relics and reli­gious paint­ings (except maybe for the images of angels) and the numi­nous is still there. Peace is there.

You can just sit in one of the pews at the back. Life and death come to you inter­twined, full of res­o­nances and unex­plored pas­sage­ways, gate­ways to what­ev­er is beyond. You feel in that moment how all the inner truths are welling up in you and are so very close — before you pack up, hur­ry home and lose touch with them again.


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  • Byron Murray wrote:

    Dan. Quite a med­i­ta­tion. Two years ago we were in Belfast. I took a taxi cab tour of the murals. The dri­ver showed var­i­ous parts of the city that still had walls divid­ing neigh­bor­hoods. I took if all in and one of the last stops was at a small Catholic Church. As I walked in it seem to wrap me in a qui­et med­i­ta­tion. It wasn’t a reli­gious expe­ri­ence, But there seem to be a small whis­per or feel­ing that this was home. A place for com­mu­ni­ty. An old friend. It was fleet­ing but not for­got­ten. I go there in my mind fre­quent­ly and use that mem­o­ry and feel­ing to help me focus a meditation.

  • Hi Byron~

    It’s clear from your sto­ry about Belfast that you under­stand the feel­ing I am describ­ing! Thank you, Byron, your words con­firm the expe­ri­ence. How great that con­ti­nents away, the same sacred space shows up.

    All the best to you and best wish­es of the sea­son, too!


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