Sacred Space at San Xavier del Bac


I love to see connections between different cultures and times across the planet. This Man in the Maze pattern in the American Southwest is identical to the ancient Cretan labyrinth symbol of pre-Hellenic Greece, except its corners are squared instead of rounded, and the figure of the man is included, making the reference to the labyrinth as a life journey even more clear. This one is painted on the plaster wall of the small museum to the side of the church known as San Xavier del Bac, on the Tohono O’odham reservation just south of Tucson, Arizona. The plant paintings on the walls remind me of the natural forms on the Knossos walls in Crete as well. Exploring the labyrinth form has been very intriguing for me.

San Xavier del Bac corn plant painting

The walls are artfully painted throughout the building, here showing the ever-sacred corn plant.

San Xavier del Bac Harvesting the Saguaro Fruit

Here is a sweet silhouette drawing of the harvest of the saguaro fruit, the “nawait,” from whose red juice is made the sacred wine for the ceremony to make the rains come. The picking stick is often twelve or fifteen feet high, made of the lashed together dried ribs of the saguaro cactus itself.

San Xavier del Bac vestments

In this display case are mingled the sacred vestments and objects of the old and the new religions of the people.

San Xavier del Bac Basket Monstrance

This extraordinary monstrance is embedded into an O’odham Man in the Maze basket. The sun-rayed golden monstrance is used to carry the most sacred symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Here it is combined with the most sacred symbol of the people of this land.

San Xavier del Bac Facade Tucson

The brown baroque facade of the central entrance contrasts with the bright white towers. The two towers and dome can be seen from a great distance across the desert. This church is also known as the White Dove of the Desert.

The cathedral sits next to a great mound of earth. We saw people in a steady stream trudging up and down the hill in the triple digit heat. Clearly a sacred site, it is identified in the museum as NOT being on mission property. A natural grotto in the hillside was sanctified by the Bishop of Tucson in 1908 in homage to the miracle of the Blessed Virgin Mother at Lourdes in France fifty years earlier. Perhaps the hill has an even older sacred meaning to the people who lived here before the missionaries came. I was pretty sure it must be a shrine to the Mother. She receives the most faithful and heartfelt worship in almost any Catholic church. I would have liked to see it but couldn’t manage the wilting heat AND the hill.

San Xavier del Back Virgin of Guadalupe Mosaic

Still, She is in evidence everywhere in the church and environs, all the candles lit for Her at the side of the church, and inside the museum, a carved wooden Virgin with the Latin for Peace, Pax, made of metal letters underneath.

The inside of the dome in the church is beautifully painted, roundish and lovely as a womb.

San Xavier del Back inside dome

The mass was sweet with singing. Our pew was right next to the small basin of holy water at our side of the church, so we witnessed everyone blessing themselves as they came and went. Holy water is something I completely understand, especially in a desert. A big terrier lay panting on the cool tile of the aisle, making everyone, priest and communicants alike, walk around him, until a woman in a wheelchair arrived, and someone gently slid the unconcerned dog aside to make room.

It was a sweltering but unforgettable Sunday morning in southern Arizona in August. Even though this church is for a religion not my own, it was deeply soothing to be in sacred space, made so by centuries of devotion that wholly suffuses this sanctuary.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Greenconsciousness 09/04/2011, 5:59 am

    I loved this post. And all the links went to even more wonderful posts. This post was both very beautiful and answered many questions I had about labyrinths. I had never seen the (wo)man in the labyrinth symbol before. Thank you.

  • Margaret O'Brien 09/04/2011, 8:04 am

    I love this post too. Cari, you have such a wonderful, respectful, loving way of describing things. Labyrinths have intrigued me too, and I have wanted to use them in my quilts. They are harder to draw then they look! :o)

    Thank you!

  • Amitofa 09/05/2011, 2:02 pm

    Just beautiful…so inspiring. Thank you.

  • David McGrath 03/15/2014, 12:39 pm

    Cari: Thank you for posting these beautiful photos and your thoughts about them. I visited San Xavier Del Bac and immediately noticed the mound outside the church. Walking around it and peering into the grotto, I was filled with the love and peace of Mom. A number of Tohono people were in the parking lot of the mission, selling souvenirs and fried bread. I asked them a few questions about their popular music, which is also a syncretic mix of European and American tunes and dances. The man I spoke with was somewhat reserved about sharing any information about it, and I get the feeling he has become tired of hearing the same questions over and over. I didn’t ask him about the mound and whether it had any special spiritual meaning to him. I get the feeling that his reply would have been something like, “What mound?”

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