It is the first time I’ve driven up the long driveway leading to the monastery. For years I’ve imagined visiting, but life’s busyness never allowed the time. Now I am desperate for quiet. The desire to escape is strong—much like my childhood desire for invisibility to avoid my father’s bullying. With a lull in life’s activity, the beautiful abbey promises solace.
As the volunteer at the registration desk prepares to show me around, she offhandedly says, “of course growing up Catholic you are familiar with the mass.” I nod in agreement but am taken aback. I haven’t told her I was baptized Catholic nor that I haven’t practiced the religion in over 40 years.
Actually, for decades I’ve connected with Eastern wisdom practices and find extraordinary comfort in Kwan Yin—the goddess of mercy and compassion. In my daily surroundings, I am surprised to realize that I’ve amassed quite a collection of Kwan Yin statues. A tiny one lives next to my bedside. It is the first thing I see in the morning, the last thing I see at night. A slightly larger version sits at the center of the small altar in our home. A beautiful rendition in translucent purple presides on the windowsill. To the right of my computer screen, again there is Kwan Yin, standing in front of a large portrait of my deceased mother. Until recently, I’ve never considered the close association of Kwan Yin with my mother, who lived her life mitigating my father’s emotional toll on me and my siblings.
Remembering this inventory, I am surprised by the obvious role Kwan Yin, the comforting mother figure, plays in my home life. At the abbey, I’m even more surprised to realize that I have arrived, as a grateful short-term resident, at a place that venerates another mother figure— the Hispanic version of the mother of Jesus—Our Lady of Guadalupe (the Virgin of Guadalupe).
I’ve long been attracted to this particular religious icon. In my eyes, she is more earthy and energetically compassionate than the light-blue robed virgin depicted on holy cards I grew up with. In fact, as I study Guadalupe more closely, she seems like a relative of Kwan Yin.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated throughout the world and especially throughout the Americas. Beginning as an appearance to a humble peasant, the Virgin of Guadalupe was eventually crowned patroness of Nueva España at the time my Spanish ancestors came to the continent, pillaging and laying claim to land they named New Spain. And now here, as the patroness of this beautiful monastery, she plays a role in leading me to sit with the grief of my relationship with my deceased father, and with conflicted feelings associated with my Spanish ancestry.
The Virgin’s mysterious eyes evoke the mysteries of my heritage. Some say that on close inspection, her eyes reflect a figure. Others contend that it’s not a single figure, but a host of 14 figures—those present at her first miraculous appearance. Her enigmatic eyes beckon me to be quiet, courageous and contemplative, while encouraging me to dive deep into my questions.
Indeed it is no mystery why I am here. I have carried the burden of the circumstances of my father’s death for five years, and for years have grappled with the aggression of my Spanish ancestors—often feeling I carry a curse. Away from the distraction of daily routines, my heavy heart seeks solace and forgiveness.
A stay at the monastery includes an open invitation to attend the monk’s worship services called “divine office.” Multiple times per day the monks gather in the church to chant. Having experienced the heart-opening quality of chant, I make a point to attend several sessions of the divine office while on retreat. As I attend evening “compline” for the first time (the final office of the day), I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the enormous tapestry of the Virgin lit by candles and saturated by decades of devotion. As the procession of monks line up to chant and pray to her as their last reverent act of the day, I welcome the Virgin’s mercy and compassion. Without warning, my heart gently opens for the first time in years.
During the day, as I hike trails, sit by ponds and waterfalls, and take meals in silence—all surrounded by the potency of the Virgin and the chanting of the monks, I hold visceral hope that forgiveness might be possible. Still, I sense the harsh presence of my father, extending to me a hand of forgiveness, only to quickly pull it away. Or maybe it’s my own critical inner voice. Can we forgive each other? Am I willing to forgive myself?
The morning comes when I must leave the monastery and return to life’s demands. I pack up, clean my room and head to the guest desk to check out. I am surprised to see a monk on duty. During my retreat, I hadn’t had interactions with the cloistered monks and had only seen them in the church. This monk is laughing and talking to other retreatants, and beckons me to the desk.
I hand him the slip of paper with my name and room number. He looks at the name on the slip and then back at me. He does this several times, finally saying, “Where did you get a name like Ortiz?”
“It was my father’s name,” I tell him.
He grows silent a moment. Then, speaking in Spanish, he asks if my father was a teacher.
I answer in English, “No, he wasn’t a teacher. He was a baseball player.”
The monk pauses for a moment and then says, “I grew up in San Diego with a guy who played baseball named Lou Ortiz.”
“That was my father,” I answer, beyond stunned. It is impossible.
Inspired by this miraculous coincidence, the monk proceeds to share information about the father I thought I knew. Can this be happening? I ask myself. In full-blown amazement, I allow the possibility of forgiveness to wash over me again. As I find myself starring in my own drama, Kwan Yin remains steady in her compassionate witness for all who seek forgiveness. And next to me, in the lobby of the monastery, the Virgin of Guadalupe gazes on the scene and holds within her eyes the mystery of it all.
Meeting this 90-year-old monk who knew my father as a boy becomes an entry point on the path of understanding and forgiveness. As he and I begin a friendship, his willingness to have meaningful conversations offers me the honest experience I am starving for.
Brother Martin advises me “to give my father a break,” and I wonder if this might imply permission to give myself a break as well. So I begin a cautious silent communication with my father. In the process, I discover we are alike in many ways and could have been good friends. This truth saddens me all over again, regarding what had to have been an equally disappointing relationship for us both.
Kwan Yin has provided a reliable presence in my daily life. Now enter Guadalupe, appearing at every turn. Knowing the big forgiveness job I have ahead of me, I can only assume she arrives to help.
Over the course of the next few days, I find Guadalupe in the office of my massage therapist, in a shop filled with vintage treasures, and in an article in the New York Times. Attending an African grief ritual where I learn that we inherit the mortgage of our ancestor’s undealt-with grief, Guadalupe holds her place next to a photo of my father on the rich “ancestors altar,” while Kwan Yin is patient and steadfast next to my mother’s photo on the “forgiveness altar.”
Guadalupe’s newly magnetic presence guides me to attend, at a local church, a special event in her honor where we sing to her in Spanish, hearing her story and chanting a litany. An excursion to Mexico becomes an adventure to find a sterling silver medal with Guadalupe’s likeness for Brother Martin, and on the search I encounter her image everywhere I turn. From the golden-crowned cathedral in the plaza where she graces the interior in paintings and sculptures to her facsimile on trailside altars, doorways, murals, portraits, t-shirts, baseball caps, shopping bags, and all manner of religious tchotchkes, I bask in the warm and generous companionship of Guadalupe and her understanding eyes.
The path of forgiveness is yet before me. But as I cautiously proceed, I sense my mother listening to my silent communications with my father and standing in ready witness, having lived her life surrounded by this familiar grief. Still, somehow, my mother’s light found places to shine, allowing her children to feel her love. I miss my mother. I can feel that the forgiveness I seek is like a mother’s love. A mother’s love is light. Guadalupe is light. Kwan Yin is light. Grateful for this luminous support guiding me on my path, I willingly walk toward forgiveness and all that awaits.