Chasing Miracles and Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos

Religious shrines cast a peculiar spell over me, irrespective of the tradition. They exude a special energy, each faith producing its own unique flavor. The Basilica Cathedral of San Juan de los Lagos—located 76 miles northeast of Guadalajara, in Jalisco state—proved no exception in this regard. It contains the diminutive statue of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos (Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes), who reportedly first performed a miracle here in 1623, and is credited with countless miracles and favors since.

My interest was piqued by the Netflix film, Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, Four Centuries of Miracles, and I decided to make the trip to the town of 79,000.

In 1623, a small itinerant family of acrobats arrive in San Juan de los Lagos en route to Guadalajara. They stop for a few days of rest and sustenance and subsequently put on a performance for the villagers. For added drama, they position upward-facing daggers below the tightrope used in the show. During the performance, one of the family’s two daughters, six or seven years old, falls from the tightrope and mortally impales herself on a dagger. History and eyewitnesses have continued with the following: The deceased daughter lay in state as her devastated parents looked on. A local village woman, the caretaker of the simple shrine, retrieved an all-but-forgotten statue of the Virgin Mary from the shrine’s sacristy and places it on the child. The young girl stirs and begins to breathe, returning to life. Thus commenced four hundred years of miracles attributed to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos.

I step inside the city’s majestic Basilica Cathedral and unexpectedly confront a family just beyond the entrance at the head of the long, central aisle. They are on their knees. I take a seat in the very last pew and fight back tears of emotion as I watch them slowly make their way towards the altar, still on their knees. This moving display of supplication repeats itself again and again as individuals and families enter the cathedral. The centerpiece of this adoration and devotion that reportedly attracts seven million visitors a year to San Juan de los Lagos stands barely a foot tall.

Restored and bedecked in an ornate garment, the same figure recognized as the source of a miracle some four hundred years ago, now peers out from a gold encasement set above the cathedral’s altar. The statue suggests innocence and simplicity, yet seems to exert a riveting force first prevalent in 1623.

Petitionary devotion entails more than one’s request for divine intervention. It also includes a commitment. With the fulfillment of one’s prayers, the granting of one’s petition, the petitioner commits to a pilgrimage to thank and honor the petitioned entity, and in Mexican culture, the creation of a retablo.

A retablo is a small devotional painting depicting a religious figure—Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a revered saint. They are often ex-votos (“from a vow”), created as a gesture of appreciation for the divine intercession of the petitioned figure. The retablo typically includes brief words of gratitude and a visual representation of the situation—often dangerous or life-threatening—which called for the intercession. Accompanying letters of testimony and tribute are common. The pilgrim brings the retabloto the pilgrimage site and leaves it there to acknowledge and confirm the event.

I join the throng that converges in front of the altar following one of the many daily masses at the cathedral. They are smiling, joyous, snapping photos of each other. Above, the calm and watchful eye of the Virgin Mother looks on. Drifting through a doorway to the right, I encounter an upward sweep of high walls in a three-tiered room. The walls are bedecked from floor to ceiling with retablos, hundreds upon hundreds of them. It is a kaleidoscope of words, form and color reflecting heartfelt gratitude for the divine intercession of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. Many relate instances of health-related situations or conditions to which one’s prayers were answered, but there are also bicycles, trophies, team jerseys and other artifacts suggesting their own story. Later, a hotel worker shares that batches of retablos are periodically removed to make space for new arrivals.

One is left to ponder the actuality of a miracle. What mysterious interplay of faith, petition and divinity leads to such an event? Some traditions assert that all phenomena are products of the mind and that no distinction between them need be drawn. Skeptics might argue that the real miracle of San Juan de los Lagos is the petite figure driving the city’s economy. Undeniable, though, is the opening of hearts and uplifting of spirit that permeates the Basilica Cathedral of San Juan de los Lagos, and perhaps this is explanation enough.

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