Mary Beth Writes

Holy. Sanctified. Spiritual. Words we use in our religious lives. Words used by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow selling vagina candles (I made this up to be funny and then I looked, and THEY EXIST!) to megachurches selling peace of mind seminars. We live in a secular world that uses spiritual words like used car lot flags - to sell us eccentric philosophies, theologies, experiences, and stuff.

We drove thirty miles north out of Santa Fe to Santuario de Chimayo. We’d read that the place is an old church that is/was home to reputed miracles. It was also, since the early 1800’s, a way-stop for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Back then, nineteen Spanish families lived in that area, including Don Bernardo Abeyta who was a member of a pious lay society for Christians. Don Abeyta was devoted to the Christ of Esquipulas. Esquipulas is a pilgrimage site in Guatemala and here’s the thing. I’VE BEEN THERE!

(I’ve been waiting a long time to use these photos…)

Those candles are, I’m not kidding, stuck to the floor. People make pilgrimages to the Basilica of Esquipulas; you can see some of them crawling on their knees through town. The people buy and light candles, drip a little wax on the floor and stick the candle into the wax; the scent and heat are overwhelming. People go close to the altar where the Black Christ crucifix, carved in the late 1500’s and the locus of reputed miracles, hangs. They pray.

Esquipulas, of all holy Catholic shrines in north and south America, is second only to the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

So, the little chapel at Chimayo in New Mexico was inspired in the heart of a farmer who had heard of Esquipulas with its Black Christ crucifix. He wanted to build a similar place for healing and faith. There are claims that he or someone else in his era dug up a crucifix while farming. It was illuminated and powerful and some people were healed from diseases by praying to it. Some of the stories get a little romantic through the ages.

Still, it is interesting to notice how and where sacred places start. Generally, visions and miracles and the passion to honor those places and times arise in the imaginations of unpowerful people in unlikely places. People who yearn. People who are desperate. People who have a need to say something from themselves to their world.

Anyway, Don Abeyta asked his priest to ask Catholic authorities if he could build this small church. The answer was yes. It stands there now. It’s where we went. This small church and shrine have been in this place since 1816.

Like I say, it’s small. It’s also un-powerfully beautiful. This place was not built with money and might; this is the dream of a pious farmer. When you enter, the air is cool and quiet, the three-foot thick stucco walls change the way the world feels against your skin. There is very little metal or shining or glinting things inside, almost everything is carved and painted wood. The colors are true but not bright, the place feels used and respected. It looked to me like antique wooden circus toys. Spiraled wood painted white and red. Lots of carved figures in lavenders, pinks, and yellows. Each pew is carved slightly differently, some are dedicated to a person or family.

 To the left of the chancel, presbytery, altar (whatever you call it in your tradition, my tradition is to call it the front…) there are two more small rooms. One is filled with thousands of snapshots of people that others have prayed for. As well, this room contains hundreds of crutches and other remnants of miracles.

The other room has a hole in the middle of the floor. In the hole is reddish dirt, which the local priest replenishes and blesses frequently. Kneeling people dig out handfuls of the dirt. Some take it back to their loved ones to spread on whatever part of them is ill. The dirt is reputed to heal.

Outside runs a little brook, a bubbly offshoot of the Sant Cruz River. People wash their hands and faces in that water.

Santuario de Chimayo is a powerful place and is one of the most visited shrines in the US, with 300,000 visitors each year.

It felt, to me, both desperate and holy. There are chain-link fences around the property; crosses made from sticks are woven into the fence. People making pilgrimages sometimes bring crosses they made at their homes. Those crosses are piled against each other.

We visited on a weekday morning when only a few other people were there. I watched two young families that I bet were Guatemalan Mayan immigrants. Two young women, their husbands, some little kids. Everyone was dressed in new, clean jeans, fresh shirts and jackets, their black hair shining. The adults were carrying cellophane-wrapped bouquets of flowers. White asters, white daisies, and a huge bouquet of calla lilies. What I saw in my mind’s eye was the afternoon the MayaWorks weaving family with whom I was visiting, took me with them to the cemetery where their people were buried. That afternoon the adults cleaned the graves while the kids played with their cousins. When everything was as good as it could be, the women arranged on those tombs huge bouquets of callas that they had picked along mountain streams that morning.

These are two things I have been thinking about Santuario de Chimayo.

1. Life is very scary and very hard. People we love and need get sick and sometimes they die. It’s not illogical to become paralyzed with sorrow and fear, right? How do we go on when our lives are decimated by injustice, exploitation, disease, illness, and loss?

Religion is a tool most of us need. We need to know there is a place where we can take our deepest feelings. We need rituals we can perform. We need crazy things that can give us enough hope and solace so that we can go back home or go on to the next unknown place to work, think, build, and nurture our vulnerable ones. To survive.

So much of religion feels nuts and made-up, but I don’t think its roots are foolish. We need a way to get up in the morning. Believing there is a savior who suffered, who shares the color of our skin and the tenderness of our heart – and that he invites us to believe there will be joy and recompense someday – this is not a fool’s story. This is, for so many, breathing.

I am imagining the two young women I saw were sisters far from their altiplano home. Someone called; their mother or father is very ill and getting worse. They can’t go back. There is nothing they can do. They are sad and scared, and their hearts are scattering like meteors. So they do the thing their mother taught them when they were young, and she was losing the people she needed.

Clean up the family. Buy everyone new shoes. Make the effort to get to a shrine. Bring flowers. Pray. If there are holy relics to bring to that place or to carry back home, get them. If there is water, splash some on one’s hands and faces and kids. Spend time and money because that energy will fly through time and space to the heart of the loved one. And it will also, somehow, lift the burden in the pilgrim.

It isn’t sentimentality. It’s a way to survive.

2. The shrine isn’t holy and then people go there. People going there make it holy. As my dogmatics professor, Paul Hessert, once said and I never forgot. “Places are made hallowed by use.”

 ...

Another person’s remembrance of Santuario de Chimayo. https://metastudio7.wixsite.com/stevonluceroarchives/the-santuario-chimayo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Thank you for the insights...

Thank you. Patricia

Just so beautiful

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