Virgilio Elizondo’s Spiritual Writings is accurately titled, but that shouldn’t dissuade the professional sociologist from taking a close look at it, and especially one who includes a sociology or anthropology of religion section in one of her courses. Elizondo is the most recent in Orbis’ Modern Spiritual Masters series, most of whom are far more prominent than he ( for example, Bonhoeffer, Weil, Nouwen, de Chardin, Romero, Merton, Gandhi, Berrigan, John XXIII, the Dalai Lama). But for a social science class on religion with course time and space for only one Modern Spiritual Master, I’d reach for Elizondo.
Elizondo was born on August 26, 1935 in San Antonio to Mexican-American parents who ran a small grocery store. In lasting formative ways, Elizondo never left San Antonio or the grocery store, though he certainly went on to more cosmopolitan places. He was ordained during the years of the Second Vatican Council, achieved a doctorate at the Institut Catholique, founded the Mexican American Cultural Center, and is a faculty member at Notre Dame. Fully embodying the theology must be embodied perspective , Elizondo can claim both Yves Congar, O.P. and Cesar Chavez as his teachers. His underlying premises include, that: Spirituality precedes theology; theology is faith seeking understanding; spirituality is mediated through community, culture, and church; and, above all, theology is spiritual discernment, a dialogical examination of the human condition in the light of the Gospels that focuses on what is obscuring the beauty of the human and the narrowing of solidarity.
Elizondo is one of the founding fathers of U.S. Latino theology and a superb communicator of the mestizo embodiment of the incarnational mystery of the Galilean origin of the Christ. Influenced by Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, he has written extensively on Our Lady of Guadalupe and the extraordinary ongoing and liberating power of this festive remembrance. For teachers trying to communicate the sheer power of an embodied narrative of personal transformation and collective identity, I highly recommend reading a few of Elizondo’s passages. They are Durkheim on wings. He recalls visiting the Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City as a youngster with his family and when they stepped out of the midday sun and into the cool interior “it was as if we were all entering together into the common womb of the Americas. As we gradually walked toward the luminous image, she appeared to be coming towards us, as if she were descending to greet each one of us personally. Through the darkness we walked toward the light, the warmth, and the beauty of La Virgen Morena. We could not stop; the crowd simply moved us on. We were never pushed or shoved; we all simply walked in deep mystical union with one another. We were in the rhythmic movement of the universe—indeed, at this moment we were in contact with the very source of life and movement. I needed no explanation for my experience. I had lived it” (114).
On the deepening of early formative memory: “Because of her appearance, there is no doubt that she is of the highest nobility, but she does not sit on a throne or stool as, respectively, the Spanish or Indian nobility often did when presiding over their subjects. There are no pretenses of superiority, she simply wants to be among her people. She simply stands before Juan Diego as an equal, invites him to her side, and initiates the conversation in a very friendly and egalitarian way… she is divinely beautiful and definitely one of his own brown-skinned, brown eyed, and black-haired people …We speak about Guadalupe as an apparition, but it is really much more of an encuentro, a coming together of two friends… a person-to-person conversation..” (124-5).
Besides his marvelous renderings of the personal and collective experiences of the celebrations of Guadalupe, Elizondo also does the requisite analytical theology. He puts the mestizo experience into dialogue with other cultural and social marginalities, he enumerates some of the self-serving rationalizations masked by a too immediate use of colonization memory, and, above all, he draws attention to the challenge of non-violence taught in the earliest Christian remembrances of the meaning of discipleship. But, for sociology of religion class, the suggestion here is to first let the students hear Elizondo remember his own village and its liturgical experiences of Our Lady of Guadalupe. If they don’t already, they will forever grasp what Durkheim means by the primordial distinction between the sacred and the profane and, even more mysterious, how they comingle.