Blessed Gregory Lopez
The hermit prince
Join me today as we meet a man who turned his own inquisitor into his student.
Name: Gregory Lopez
Life: 1542 - 1596
Feast: July 20
In 1568, an earthquake shook Mexico. The tremors brought down the roof of a little hut in a Spanish village. For several years, it had been the home of the hermit Gregory Lopez. But if you had been watching, you would have noticed that Gregory Lopez had begun packing his few belongings before the earthquake began.
Lopez had only been there to reassure locals that he was really a Christian. That had been done, and when his hut fell apart he was already moving on.
That was how it had been for Gregory Lopez, Mexico’s travelling hermit. When he arrived in Mexico, God had brought a fragment of a Bible verse to his mind, a piece of John 21:18 in which Jesus tells Peter of the martyrdom that awaits him: “another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” Gregory understood that this meant his life as a hermit would be one of constant displacement.
Although he was often among people, Gregory Lopez was a hermit because he lived a life focussed on God. He kept to himself. He did small work to cover his very limited expenses. In physical terms, he was middling in height, with brown hair and small dark eyes looking over a large nose. It should have been very easy to live unnoticed, even in the middle of a city.
But wherever Gregory Lopez moved, people did notice him. Something about his life tended to shine through. People would begin to notice, and the act of noticing would change them. Like wandering planets, these people would fall into a kind of orbit around Lopez. And then their lives would begin to change.
By the time of the earthquake, Lopez had been in Mexico for seven years. We know he came from Spain and that when he arrived, he was twenty years old. It seems that Lopez had tried to be a hermit in Spain, but his family had not approved. They had found him, taken him home, and put him to work.
Later, Lopez always refused to discuss his family. There was a persistent rumour that he was a prince and that his father had been Philip II, king of Spain. This would help to explain a few puzzling details about Lopez’ life. The way he spoke was odd. He was confident and easy going even among those far above his rank. And then there was the job his family had found him, half to punish him and half to set him straight after his first attempt to be a hermit.
They had set him up as a page at the court of Philip II. Many aristocrats would have found it difficult to get such a position for their sons, but Lopez’ family were able to give it to their wayward son. If the king was his father, making Lopez a page would be a punishment and would still help to prepare him for the kind of life his family had planned.
But young Lopez was not discouraged. Despite his family’s power, Lopez had set his mind on a different kind of life. As he prayed, he began to discern that his future as a hermit was not in Spain but in New Spain in the new world. And that was why he boarded a boat for the new world, arriving in Vera Cruz in 1562. He never looked back, and the secret of his origins died with him.
From Vera Cruz Lopez set off overland. When they arrived, the Spanish were pleased to discover that New Spain reminded them of old Spain, although somewhat more forbidding. As one anonymous conquistador recorded, “it has almost the same kind of mountains, valleys and fields, except that its mountains are more formidable and rugged, and cannot be climbed without the greatest difficulty.” (Patricia de Fuentes translator)
As for the wildlife, well, that was quite different.
There are many different kinds of animals, such as lions, tigers and wolves; and also jackals, some of which are between a fox and a dog, and others between a lion and a wolf. The tigers are about the same size or perhaps a little larger than the lions, but they are heavier and stronger, and more fierce. Their bodies are covered with white spots.
It was through this familiar and yet strange landscape, menaced by ‘spotted tigers’ and by the defeated but not subdued native population that young Gregory made his way on foot.
His first stop was Mexico city, conquered only a few decades earlier. It already had a thriving church, with a bishop and priests, like Father Francisco Losa who had a parish in the city. Gregory passed through the city, barely noticed, working to raise the small amount of money he would need to begin life as a hermit.
Once he was ready, he found a spot and spoke to the local officer. The Spanish colonies operated on a centralized model, with control exerted through military bases. Gregory spoke to the local official about setting up a hermitage, and received permission to do so.
Even though he was on the border of the area the Spanish actually controlled, and despite the ongoing hostilities there, Lopez remained safe. He lived in poverty, sleeping on the ground with a blanket over him, his head on a stone. He ate sparingly and used natural light for all his needs.
One day a Spanish hunter called Martin Mroena happened to find himself in Lopez’ part of the desert. He watched Lopez working on his small garden, and as he did the hunter realized that the little hut was guarded by angels, standing silent and watchful nearby as Lopez worked. His wife found out about the vision later, when she was trying to figure out what had changed her husband. He had become a more serious man.
For the first three years he spent in the desert, his biographer tells us, Lopez kept his mind fixed on one line of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done”. He repeated it with every breath, never taking two breaths after waking up without starting into the rhythm. The idea came from the desert fathers, who understood that a hermit’s goal was the imitation of Christ, the subordination of one’s will to that of the Father. That must have been what he was saying to himself when, without even meaning to, he changed the life of Martin Mroena.
To the philosopher in me, Lopez’ life is an illustration of the Aristotelian idea of a final cause. A final cause is the goal or purpose of thing. It it is a cause since it can be used to answer a because question.
If I show you a statue of a famous king, and you ask why the statue is there, I could tell you that it is there because it was sculpted. But I could also tell you that it is there because the king was great: the actions of the king is what gives the statue a purpose. The king, Aristotle would say, is the final cause of the statue.
Final causes don’t push us forward, they draw us toward themselves. That is why the pretty girl who doesn’t know you exist can still be the final cause of your taking more care with your clothes.
This was the effect that Gregory Lopez had on the people around him. The more he turned inward to focus on God, the more people who met him wanted to improve their lives. That’s also why Lopez is a manly saint, or at least a manly blessed. He is the model of how a man can be a model of Christ for others, for his family and friends.
As he moved from place to place, Lopez took on different jobs. He did odd jobs. He was a tutor for the children of a rich man. The rich man who hired him started talking to Lopez, and soon it was noticed that the man no longer wore the expensive clothes he used to enjoy. He had started dressing simply, the way Lopez did. We don’t know what Lopez told him, but perhaps it was what he often said to those who asked him for advice.
“Do what you do now, out of love of God, and it will be sufficient.”
Wherever Lopez went, he carried the silence of the desert with him. He was famous for never uttering more words than necessary. But those who asked him the right questions soon found that his mind was extraordinary. He wasn’t educated in the traditional way - he couldn’t read Latin, for example. But he read constantly, flipping through large books in a few hours, and then recalling everything in photographic detail. His grasp of history was encyclopedic. He could talk theology with anyone. He knew so much about medicine that he wrote a book on herbal remedies. When one noble sent him a big map of the world that he had had made, Lopez sent it back. A hermit had no use for a map. But when the noble unpacked it, he found that Lopez had written on it to correct several errors in geography.
As Lopez moved around, his fame grew. People in Mexico city began to talk about this puzzling man. Father Francisco Losa first heard about Lopez from someone in his parish. The man was saying that Lopez must be some sort of heretic, not because he did or said anything unchristian, but because he was strange. Losa wasn’t convinced.
The rumours that surrounded Lopez’ unusual life, though, pretty much guaranteed that he would have a run in with the Inquisition, which had taken root in Mexico by 1571.
The first priest sent to examine Lopez was in fact Father Francisco Losa. When Losa spoke to Lopez, he was impressed. He reported back to the Bishop that he could find nothing unorthodox in the hermit. Still not convinced, the Bishop sent a more experienced inquisitor.
When the second inquisitor began asking him questions, at first Lopez thought the priest was merely passing the time. Lopez did not like idle conversation, so he gave vague answers. That was when the second inquisitor explained that this was an official interview - and encountered the full force of Lopez’ mind. The inquisitor was so unsettled that he told the bishop,
“In truth, my Lord, I am obliged to acknowledge, that in comparison of this man, I had not yet begun to learn my spiritual A, B, C.” (John Eyre translation)
For Father Losa, the effects of the encounter would become apparent more slowly. Over the years, he kept tabs on Lopez, as Lopez moved through his usual cycle: go to a new place, be anonymous, become noticed, change lives, and move on. Losa learned something that not many people knew. Lopez was sick, almost all the time. He forced himself to continue his discipline. When sheer willpower wasn’t enough and Lopez collapsed, Losa made sure he got medical treatment.
By now even the wife of the viceroy, the King’s representative in Mexico City who famously had her husband wrapped around her finger, was trying to meet the famous hermit. Lopez simply declined her invitations. He told Losa that he didn’t need to see her, nor she him. Everyone waited for the explosion of anger, but it never came. In other cases, Lopez was more free with his time. He met several times with a noble lady who was on the cusp of changing her life. Every time they spoke, she went away determined to improve, but then life got in the way.
The more time Losa spent with Lopez, the more convinced he became that this man whom he had once examined was destined to be a saint. Eventually, Losa received permission to leave his parish to work with Lopez full time. For one thing, Lopez was now almost constantly sick, and Losa thought he could help. Lopez didn’t make that easy. On one occasion, Losa noticed that Lopez was in agony and could barely walk. Losa asked him if he was getting sick. It was day 15 of the illness, Lopez told him. With Losa’s help, Lopez made it to Santa Fe, now a district of Mexico City, then a small town. It was where Lopez would spend his last years.
The more he spoke to the man, the more Losa felt like a student. Lopez was showing him the way of silence, passing over what people said and getting to the heart of things: “I see that many talk well, but let us live well.”
Losa wondered if he too should be a hermit and retreat into the desert. Lopez gently told him no. Losa was still not understanding the way that Lopez was a hermit wherever he was. And so Lopez advised his former inquisitor to be a hermit, in Mexico City. Losa was disappointed. This sounded like a contradiction in terms, like being a pacifist in the army. But he decided to try it anyway. He found that it was possible after all, living apart from the world, and yet in the world.
Lopez was dying. Someone needed to keep a record of his remarkable life, and Losa realized that duty was falling to him. By now he was asking Lopez questions to build a coherent picture of his thinking. At times, it must be admitted, he got a bit carried away in the ideas he attributed to the hermit who had become his hero. Lopez never wore a hat. Obviously, Losa reasoned, this was symbolic. It was reminding him that God was always there, above him. He was pretty sure Lopez would agree, so he asked him to be sure. Lopez told him he just didn’t see the point of a hat.
Between conversations, Lopez had visitors. The aristocratic lady who had come to him many times already came to say goodbye. Losa turned her away at first, but she was persistent and he gave in. When she arrived, Losa realized that Lopez’ teachings had at last taken root.
And so when Gregory Lopez, the travelling hermit died at the age of 54, Father Fransisco Losa started the process for Lopez’ canonization, a process which has not yet reached its end. And he set out to tell the story of his teacher and friend, a man who said so much with silence, and who showed how that contemplative silence could be found even in the noise of the city.
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