So they take the high road to Taos, winding through the Sangre de Cristo foothills to the small adobe town of Chimayo, set in one of the more lush valleys in the northern New Mexico mountains. A constant stream of them pulls into the santuario parking lot in shiny rent cars and disembarks with cameras slung over shoulders to investigate the place. The small church of clay, with thick square sides and broad flat roof, rests near a waterway where tall cottonwoods prosper. On this spring morning, winds building up for afternoon storms blow the downy pollen like snow.
Drawn to the place by a vision, in the early 1800s a desperately ill Spanish friar named Bernardo Abeyta fell upon the soil and was instantly healed. Or perhaps he saw a blinding light emerge from the ground and unearthed a miraculous crucifix of a dark-skinned Christ on the cross. Stories vary. Some say the site was once sacred to the Tewa Indians, a hot healing spring that dwindled into mud and then dried into dirt. Like any holy spot of healing under Spanish dominion, a Catholic edifice was built upon it, first a shrine and then, as miracles continued, the present church. In a small antechamber next to the sanctuary, a foot wide hole — El Posito —was left in the floor to retain access to the sacred soil.
I am one of 300,000 who come to Santuario de Chimayo each year, some tourists, some travelers, some pilgrims. On Easter weekend, between ten and thirty-thousand of the latter walk and even crawl here from all parts of New Mexico, a massive pilgrimage dating over a century. They come to rub the soil upon their wounded bodies or take a tablespoon back to the sick at home. Each April for the past 20 years, peace activists make a pilgrimage of their own, relaying bits of El Posito soil to an area near the atomic center of Los Alamos in hopes that its healing power can spread.
Each of us, regardless of our agenda, paces through the adobe wall courtyard, where old graves pitch and sink into the sandy soil, and past the old double wooden doors into the chapel, with the usual Virgin Mary icons in the back. Colorful and ornate folk paintings of Jesus and saints decorate the sides and front of the dim sanctuary, lit by sunbeams wincing past high windows. The sound of doves cooing beneath the eaves and dogs barking in the distance pulses though the thick mud walls. Local faithfuls sit in the pews and wait for midday mass, trying to ignore the tourists who stumble obliviously around them. It’s not easy.
The chancel altar shelters Abeyta’s dark and crying crucifix — dubbed El Señor de Esquipulas, just like the one that materialized 200 years prior in Guatemala. To the left, a small stooped entryway leads into a chamber cobbled onto the chapel’s side. In the long narrow room, icons of Christian saints and such are interspersed with mementos of those whom the magic of Chimayo healed: cast aside crutches, photos of children now free of their ailments, eye patches the blind no longer need. Attached is the El Posito antechamber, accessible by an even smaller doorway piercing tunnel-like into the adobe wall.
Through the entry I watch a young woman kneeling next to El Posito, obviously moved by its miracles. In her face I can see that she waits for one herself. She touches the dirt, sifting the grains through her fingers, and rubs her face and arms. Two laughing tourists jostle each other trying to squeeze at once through the antechamber’s small opening, flustering the devotee who flees in a panic, her saved portion of the soil spilling onto the floor.
I take a seat on a rustic wooden bench and watch the constant march of people into the antechamber, hoping for an ebb in the flow. Sitting here, peeved at the idiot tourists, I realize that I am one myself. I came hundreds of miles for a tablespoon of dirt to heal a tree in my backyard, yet neglected to bring a bag. I remembered many pilgrim tools — prayer shawl, smudge stick, herb offering, silver milagros, compass, pendulum and bell — but not a bag. I improvise.
And then I get my chance. Somewhere after the gaggle of California tourists discussing resorts while standing around El Posito as if it were a cocktail table, and before the busload of camera enthusiasts on tour snapping photos of anything or anyone not moving at a dead heat, a moment opens up. I duck through the doorway into the antechamber.
The small, womb-like room holds a concentrated reverence, its thick walls sheltering the prayers of thousands. I quickly kneel to collect my own tablespoon from El Posito and give thanks for the earthy gift’s potential. Santuario de Chimayo was built to house Abeyta’s crucifix, yet it is this simple room, this lowly dirt, which garners the most patronage. Then I notice all the pictures on the walls. Unlike the other rooms where images of Christ and male saints abound, half of them here are of the Virgin Mary and most of those are the Virgin of Tepeyac. From dust to dust, the Christian creed says, and in between some come here for a refill from the Mother.
As if magnetic, I am pulled to the north and end up facing a blank spot on the wall like a cat. A sigh instinctively spills out and a sense of peace cascades down my spine. Relaxing first the muscles of my face, my shoulders drop and chest lifts up, my stomach softens and knees bend, settling the weight fully into my feet, my pilgrim’s feet. No thunderbolt of healing, no transcendent revelation. Just a moment of ease, as if the fear of death at the back of my mind abated for a moment, soothed by the one thing that seems eternal — the dirt beneath my feet, the leavings of erosion as even the greatest mountains crumble into dust. This mundane dirt, into its deep bedrock we pierce the supports that hold our structures, from its dark humus we draw the fertility to grow our food, and to its subterranean realm we give our bodies after death. Why wouldn’t it be sacred?
Suddenly I feel the presence of someone else in the room. I turn to see a woman of about 50 pressed against the wall in the opposite corner. Though silent, she seems apologetic for intruding, yet desperate to escape the shutterbug melee outside. She probably wonders why I was staring at the wall. I quickly leave her to the place. Pausing outside the doorway to adjust my clothes, I block the flow of tourists so that she might have her moment, too.
It seems to me that a moment, this present moment, is all we ever have. This moment of life between the cataclysmic beginnings of a volcanic planet turning itself inside out and the cold hard rock of an Earth we’ll be when the Sun cools in millions of years. Humanity’s moment between the animal of our origins and the mankind we have yet to be. Our own moment between birth and death, between waking and falling asleep, between inhale and exhale. The moment that is only a moment, but after which nothing is ever the same. Even the bothersome flotilla of photographers outside is just trying to capture that moment their own way.
Down in the fertile folds of the Sangre de Cristo foothills, among the ridges reaching toward high, the air retains a touch of humidity, protected against the constant wind that whips moisture from the soil. Here life is enclosed and nurtured, in high contrast to the desert just a few miles away. Someone two hundred years ago sensed this land was sacred and now the santuario stands here. But is it any more sacred than a thousand places like it, where land opens up to offer succor to those who need? In these folded foothills there are a thousand Chimayos, needing only their own weary pilgrim to fall in faith upon the ground.