“Sure. I’ll pray for you,” I told my friend, a lawyer turned late-vocation seminarian, who was facing a final exam the following day. He’d been struggling with a course in metaphysics and studying for the final had him knotted with anxiety.
The following day was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Driving to work that morning, I routinely made my mental plan for the day. As I did so, I remembered my promise to pray for my friend.
I could say a quick prayer right here in my car, I thought, or I could go someplace special …
The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois, is located only six miles from my office, but I had never visited it. So I resolved to go there during my lunch hour and present my seminarian friend to the Blessed Mother.
It turned out to be a busier morning at work than expected. My job includes various curriculum responsibilities for the schools in Park Ridge, Illinois. One of those is the administration of the science curriculum, which includes lessons in basic astronomy. (I mention that only to illuminate what was about to occur during my visit to the shrine.)
By the time I arrived, it was a quarter to one. The temperature was just 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the sky was clear and very blue. I asked a pedestrian to point me in the direction of the shrine. Soon I found myself in a line with a few thousand other pilgrims there for the feast day celebrations. The sunbathed shrine basked in the light, and the air felt suddenly warm. Pilgrims presented colorful bouquets to workers who positioned the flowers around the encased replica of the tilma.
The place was soaked with silence and utter tranquility. I suddenly remembered why I was there. I looked upward at the tilma and found myself pouring out my heart to Our Lady. Child-like, I told her of my seminarian friend and his anxiety over his final exams. Then I spoke of other concerns, individually mentioning my loved ones. When I was done, I looked around. Thousands of other pilgrims had been doing the same thing: pouring out their hearts to one and the same Mother. We were all her children, and we had all come to be with her.
I looked back toward the tilma. The glass encasement was reflecting the sphere of the sun precisely where I would have seen Mary’s head. Instead, of seeing her face gently tilted to the side, I could see only the glare of the reflection. In fact, I noted, the flare of light radiating from the top of the reflected sphere bore the same tilt as her head. I took a picture of what I saw, recalling a basic fact of astrophysics. The Earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees in relation to the sun.
Walking back to the parking lot, I looked upward at the sun. I saw the same vertical flare tilted toward the Earth. I took another picture. How many degrees does Our Lady of the tilma tilt her head? I wondered.
The following day, I decided to take a look. Using a digital version of Our Lady’s image as seen on the original tilma, I drew one straight, vertical line starting at the top of her head. Then I drew a second line that traveled the angle at which the head was tilted. I placed a protractor over the point where the two lines intersected. 23.5 degrees!
My drawing was rudimentary, and my knowledge of astronomy still only basic. I did not then know that another person, Dr. Juan Hernández Illescas, had already made this discovery in 1981. But with child-like fascination, I wondered what this discovery could mean.
I had heard various commentators speculate that the tilt of Mary’s head signified her humility. That could very well be. But now I have a new take on the matter: From her place in heaven and robed in the sun, Our Lady of Guadalupe orients her gaze 23.5 degrees in order to capture all of humanity—a humanity that has tilted itself away from God. With all her children now in full view, she calls out to each and every one: Christian and Muslim, Protestant and Catholic, atheist and deist, New Age spiritualist, Hindu, Buddhist and Jew. She invites us all to pour out our hearts to her.
If Our Lady of Guadalupe has a central message, it is to let us know that the entire world has a mother. And if this is true, then the child to Whom she is about to give birth—as depicted on the tilma—comes to us in this season as the Savior of the entire world. The Incarnation. God becomes man. What thought could be more consoling?
From now on and for my part, I will always remember the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as my 23.5 degrees of consolation.
[Ignatius Press released this year a book called Guadalupe Mysteries, which goes more in-depth into the various astrological elements of Our Lady’s image, including the tilt of her head, as well as other phenomena related to the Guadalupe apparition.]