I recently walked with some friends of mine on a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Chapi located to the Southwest of Arequipa, Peru. We left Arequipa around 9:30 pm on a Friday night, taking a bus two hours outside the city, where we were dropped off in the middle of the desert to begin the walk across the desert to the Sanctuary, where hundreds of Catholics journey on the eve of the 1st of May. The actual hike took approximately three hours over sandy inclines and steep rocky descents.
As we neared our destination the area surrounding the church, was lit up like a football stadium, and we passed vendor after vendor selling food, bread, rosaries, little Chapi icons, big Chapi icons, blankets, and votive offerings ranging from small tin imprints of the pilgrim's request, to larger more elaborate offerings, such as stacks of money with small figures glued on the top. Once we navigated through the crowd of vendors we climbed up to the sanctuary, and then beyond the sanctuary to where a large platform had been erected and beside the platform Chapi sat on her golden pedestal.
We were surrounded by people sleeping on the cold ground in front of the stage, some who had put a little more thought into their pilgrimage with tents, most everyone else however, wrapped in blankets against the cold. In front of the stage, there were little red velvet trees set up where one was able to attach his or her offering to Chapi, and say a prayer for relief and intervention. At this point in the evening however, I was exhausted and so with my companions found a spot on the ground and tried to rest. The next morning, we walked down the hill until we found a bus that would take us back to Arequipa and our beds for some much needed rest.
During the actual trip I had neither the time nor the inclination to process all that was happening around me, or all that it meant in relation to our work here in Arequipa. Looking back, though, my heart is filled with sorrow, for the hundreds of people, who walk through the middle of the night, over rough terrain in hope that the virgin of Chapi will hear their prayers and grant their requests. Aside from the pagan undertones of votive offerings and icons, my heart breaks because as Christians we have a far better intercessor than that of Chapi, who sees our need, who hears our prayer, and who is the only mediator that has any power to affect change in our lives.
Even as I write this, however, I realize that while I do not pray to Mary, quite often when I am faced with a problem or a worry, I turn first to the people in my life, rather than turning to Jesus Christ, and while I don't think there is anything wrong with sharing my burdens with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I do think there is something wrong with turning to them first.