Living in a World of Wonder

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on November 12, 2007.

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice.

—Wendell Berry, from “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”

As a clergyman, I have grown used to the fact that no matter what else a person may say about my vocation, it really isn’t cool to be a man or a woman of the cloth. Oh, being a minister is dignified, but no matter how well you accessorize, a clerical collar never is hip.

So imagine my surprise when a kid from two doors down showed up to play at our house wearing a tee shirt bearing the image of a handsome young man in a dog collar.

I almost fell down and kissed his feet. “Bless your three-year-old heart! Maybe my kids will grow up thinking I’m not a dork after all. Someone like me is on a shirt!”

I restrained myself, but I did get interested enough to do a little research on the colleague of mine whose luck is sufficient that he has been made immortal on a child’s garment.

It turns out that the cleric adorning my neighbor’s shirt is Father Toribio Romo, an honest-to-goodness Roman Catholic saint from the Mexican state of Jalisco, a martyr from the days of anti-clerical repressions following the Mexican revolution, and a figure of increasing religious importance among those who have made their way to el norte without the proper paperwork.

According to the stories (and there are many), Father Romo has a soft spot in his canonized heart for illegal immigrants who have fallen on hard times. Typically, reports of Fr. Romo’s miracles involve an undocumented migrant who is lost in the desert. He or she is cold and hungry, and is found by a kind stranger who offers help in the way of food, money, and perhaps a warm blanket. Often the stranger will tell the migrant where work can be found. When the beneficiary of the kindness offers someday to repay the stranger, the response goes something like this: “don’t worry about it, but when you return to Mexico, look me up in my home town, Santa Ana de Guadalupe, in Jalicso.” Later, when the recipient of the stranger’s kindness returns to Mexico and travels to Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a search for the kindhearted stranger inevitably leads to a shrine honoring Father Toribo Romo, the hometown saint.

I am a Presbyterian. My forbearers in Protestant piety have passed on to me a tradition lacking a theology of saints, and having little room for magic. Calvinists don’t pray to saints, and we certainly do not expect to find them lending a helping hand to migrants lost in the Sonoran desert. Nonetheless, I want to believe the stories about St. Toribio Romo.

I want to believe in Father Romo because, if God is sending one of His saints to the US/Mexican border to help illegal immigrants, then that means God truly is on the side of the powerless. If the reports about Toribio Romo are true, then the poor indeed are blessed and the meek are bound to inherit the earth. It would confirm all of my theologically and politically progressive proclivities.

But more than that, I want to live in a world where the heaven-sent ghost of a martyred Catholic priest is able to help a fellow countryman who has fallen on hard times. I want to live in a world of wonders, a place of magic and of mystery, where not everything that is true can be measured. I want for there to be more things in heaven and on earth than can be found in my books.

I don’t want everything to be explained by science. I want to walk through a wardrobe and have tea with Tumnus the Faun. I want to feel pixie dust on my shoulders and to fly. I want to trade in my Honda for Chitty-chitty-bang-bang.

Even as I write these words I feel the weight and judgment of Holy Writ: “When I was a child I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.” I am careful to adhere to the Biblical admonition and to be a man, but learning about Father Toribio Romo has given me hope that the grace of magic may be embraced well into adulthood.

Please, God, let it be so!

4 thoughts on “Living in a World of Wonder

  1. Ben–

    Another great column. Don’t worry about Santo Toribio and magic. It’s not magic, it’s just that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we can imagine. “Mystery” is the right word–not something to figured out or solved, as in a murder mystery, but something beyond human comprehension, as in “God works in mysterious ways.” It’s true that not everything that’s true can be measured; unfortunately, after the Scientific Revolution, we make the mistake of thinking that facts and truth are synonymous. Truth, though, transcends facts. So we don’t have to be able to explain how God uses holy people who are no longer alive in this world to help those who are alive in this world. In fact, expecting that we could explain it would be blasphemous. But it isn’t about make-believe or fantasy, either; to say so would be equally blasphemous. If all are alive in God, then God can use us all in ways beyond our comprehension. And that is certainly cause for joy and thanksgiving.

    Peace always,

  2. Thank you James. Your post calls to mind that creedal clause that many Protestants ignore: I believe in…the communion of saints,” and its link to the final clause: “…and the life everlasting.”



  3. I met Father Toribio briefly while he was serving the Comptche Catholic Community in the 70’s. He spoke impeccable Spanish, English and Nahautl. On his chest was a glowing image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that only true believers could see, and then only after taking the Host. On his face was a clear expression of the grace of God and all that is good. He words were few, but his deeds multiplied them. He only sang hymns and an occasional chorus. He lived simply in a tree house on the Navarro Ridge road near the Lord’s Land. He was a vegan. He taught Bible for a short spell at the Whale School and coached soccer at the Mendocino Middle School. Some say that he was the Patron Saint of the local crops.

    Oh I remember him well. When the Albion Community seceeded from the Union, he was the first to recognize the new Albion Nation. I believe he held a Service of Blessing at the Albion Chapel with Michael Boyland assisting him. There is a statue of him on the Albion Bluffs, which only the faithful can see.

    On his seasonal travel back and forth to Guadalajara, he stayed at the California missions along the old Camino Real (known to later generations as Highway 101). He always crossed the USA/EEUU border with grace and dignity, in a Green manner, leaving no footprints or litter whatsoever. He was the Good Coyote, leading many a mother and child through the Sonoran Desert, stopping at little known oasis along the way. No one who travelled with him went hungry or thirsty. Manna was his first miracle.

    He had one unique Mexican dream. He longed for the day to come, when California would be returned to Mexico, or at least merged in a way that the border would no longer be necessary. To that end, we also, pray! Yes, Father Toribio. Your best work is yet to be done. Bring us together as brothers and sisters….without borders. Gracias Santo Toribio Romo.

  4. There was a lot of magical realism to be found on the Mendocino coast in those days! Maybe that’s were I got my heart’s soft spot for the wondrous and the mysterious.


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