Though topped by the tiled domes and twin towers of burnt orange coloured 16th-century church, the hill does not seem extraordinary from a distance.
The promise of a good view of the spreading metropolis of Puebla, Mexico, 10 kilometres to the east, might be enough to entice one to climb to the summit, as it did my son and I three weeks ago.
The steep hike up the 60, or so, metres to the sanctuary of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios requires a bit more effort since your starting point already rests some 2,100 metres above sea level. Actually, though, for the more than 21 million inhabitants of greater Mexico City, roughly a two-hour bus ride to the west, this is about a 100 metres shy of their average street level.
The hill’s grassy flanks shaded with trees and shrubs make it more difficult to imagine what lay beneath our feet. But Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist and explorer, knew what he was walking on back in 1804.
His calculation of the base and height of the Piramide Tepanapa, or the Great Pyramid of Cholula, clearly established this “hill” as the biggest pyramid in the Americas and larger in volume than the mighty Giza in Egypt, though not as high.
In a mid-19th century book on von Humboldt’s travels, the American poet Richard Stoddard remarks “Cholula in its glory was one of “The Delphian vales, the Palestines, The Meccas of the mind.”
Many Meso-american cultures left their physical mark on this holy place before friars in the train of Spanish conquistadors built a Christian temple on its broad summit.
A museum in the shadow of the Cholula pyramid offers displays of Olmec, Totonac, Tajin, Toltec and Aztec and other cultural artifacts found on the site and discovered in system of tunnels archeologists have dug underneath it.
Later peoples superimposed their pyramids over earlier efforts of their predecessors, just as the Spanish finally did with their church. Buried deep lay the first modest structure that some believe marked the site of a life-giving spring for early inhabitants some 25 centuries ago.
One of the area guides told us the site had been crowded with people for the spring equinox the weekend before our visit.
I had heard it was the same for other pre-Columbian sites in the central valley of Mexico. Many appear spiritually drawn to this pyramid, and other sites, by the belief in a heightened life energy at them during this special time of year.
The church atop the pyramid holds the image of the Virgin of the Remedies. It also holds a special place in the spiritual life of Cholulans. In late May and early June, the statue ‘comes down’ and is paraded through neighbourhoods of Cholula.
Again, on September 7th, pilgrims make their way up with lanterns to prepare ‘greet’ the Virgin at dawn on the 8th. Not surprisingly that date appears to have been chosen centuries ago by the early Catholic missionaries because it coincided with the gatherings that occurred then at that very pyramid venerating the Aztec rain goddess.
“The spiritual experience of the human being is permanent, and it continues to deepen,” remarked the Panamanian theologian Jose Maria Vigil in an article entitled Theism, A Useful But Not Absolute Model To Imagine God. However he agrees with the authors of Gaudium and Spes a document of Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which focused on the renewal of the Catholic church. They noted that “We Christians have obscured more than revealed the face of God.”
Vigil continues, “In general, we lack new images, new metaphors for God; the traditional ones are being spent and no longer work for many people.
“Today, an increasing number of people are discovering that theism is incompatible with their actual perception of the world, and that outside of theism, paradoxically, they reconcile themselves with the divine dimension of reality, with the Divine Reality, a new name they are more respectful of than God.”
Passover and Easter are upon us. The notes below this column always point out times important to peoples of varied spiritual traditions.
How and by whichever path we choose up our own spiritual pyramid, the key human quest is for the understanding and wisdom we gain on the climb.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.