The Hermitage

The Hermitage of St. Michael the Archangel in Tepoztlan dates, I’d guess, from no later than 1995. The small church (there’s no hermit there, nor, I’m sure was there ever one, though there’s a modern house at the back) is rarely open, so when I was passing it today with a camera in my pocket and saw the door wasn’t locked, I went in.

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Ermita de San Miguel Arcangel from the outside.

The curious thing about it is that while it has some standard Catholic iconography, including a shrine at the side to St. Nicholas of Bari, its main feature is that it highlights the Seven Archangels of (I’m sure you’ve heard of this guy) Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Three of these – Raphael, Michael and Gabriel – are mentioned in the Scriptures, and with the non-canonical Uriel, they are sometimes shown in central Mexican churches instead of the Four Evangelists, positioned round a dome over the altar. But Jofiel, Camual and Zadkiel only turn up in Kabbalistic angelologies (usually as Yophiel, Kamael and Tzadqiel), and this particular group of seven are otherwise only written about by Dionysius and a few later occultists such as the Renaissance author Cornelius Agrippa.

 

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The Jofiel window, which echoes Agrippa’s attribution to the realm of Saturn (bottom of image).

I’ve tried to find out who built the chapel, and why, but so far I’ve come across no solid information. There’s nothing in the place to indicate its history or ownership, and the people on the street seem to see it as just a chapel with a suitably big and scary painting of Michael spearing a suitably supine Satan. There’s a parish church 100 yards east of it, so clearly it isn’t one of the neighbourhood chapels that people can pop into in a quiet moment, without having to walk a few blocks to an actual church.

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The Archangel Michael beats up his usual Adversary.

“Tepoz” has had the reputation of being a sacred or mystical place since well before the Spanish came in the 1520s, and part of its attraction for tourists lies in various places where you can have your aura photographed, take a yoga session, acquire a Toltec astrological chart or obtain a personal angel reading. Yet hardly any visitors go to the Ermita, it isn’t mentioned on the websites, and no signposts indicate it.

Mexico’s relationship with Catholicism can be complex and sometimes fraught. Many people in recent years have fled it for the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism, while numerous small sects and groups flourish; for many years, an outpost of Samael Aun Weor’s Gnostic Movement had a meeting place in Tepoz. Mostly, people seek some kind of accommodation with Rome, as with the cult of Holy Death (Santa Muerte), where an extra element is introduced into the mainstream faith that allows people to move back and forth between the two. The Ermita seems to fit with this approach, stressing a Christian orientation, while obviously revering the influence of its Archangelic patrons. And it goes without saying that somebody, or a group of somebodies, spent a fair bit of money on constructing it.

It’s bright and pleasant to sit in, apart from the rather muddy St. Michael painting, and the stained glass windows with their Archangel images are intriguing. The couple of times I’ve been there, I’ve been content to sit in one the short pews for a while, and soak in the atmosphere.

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Zadkiel, who, we’re told below, can help us when we’re coming through distressing situations, and lighten spiritual loads.

The white walls, inside and out, lend a quality of light and airiness, which isn’t always what comes with Mexican Catholicism. There are explanatory texts under the stained glass windows, which is almost unknown in Catholic places of worship. Somebody cleans the place, and presumably some people worship there, but never when I’ve passed by. And no services are announced outside or in.

It remains a neat little mystery, and I’d love to know how it came to be.

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