Entrance to El Santuario de Chimayo located in Chimayo, New Mexico (Brett Lewis/Wikimedia Commons)

Dante in Colorado

A young-adult novel offers unexpected lessons about sin and forgiveness.

I wouldn’t have called myself a pilgrim that morning, heading into the New Mexico desert, but I was looking for something. I was on a weekend trip to check out homes with a friend who was considering moving to Santa Fe, and after three days spent in and around that city’s manicured and curated historic district, I found myself gazing restlessly north, toward mountains transformed by a dusting of early snow. I didn’t know when I’d get back to the Southwest again, and it seemed a shame to spend all the time mulling over oak floors and stucco accents. So I ditched the last day’s proceedings and fueled up the rental car. “The High Road to Taos” had a nice ring to it, I thought.

The route took me up into the hills, past the fabled Opera House into postcard Southwest scenery. Thirty miles north, the road dropped steeply among scrubby trees and sandstone cliffs into a warren of wood and adobe buildings around a churchyard overlooked by a rustic chapel with squat square spires. I had stumbled upon the Santuario de Chimayo.

The chapel dates to the early nineteenth century and was built by Don Bernardo Abeyta, one of the founding members of Los Penitentes, a lay confraternity of Spanish Americans devoted to the Christ of Esquipulas, a Guatemalan pilgrimage site whose clay earth is believed to have healing power. The day I stopped saw only a trickle of off-season visitors. But I later learned that Chimayo is among the most important of our country’s pilgrimage sites; with nearly 300,000 visitors a year, it has been called “the Lourdes of the United States.”

I parked and went in. Inside the chapel, the nave was several steps down from the doorway, giving the space a sense of confinement. An adjacent room’s stone floor had a circular hole that opened onto sandy brown dirt. In the tradition of the original shrine of Esquipulas, the earth at Chimayo is said to have curative power, and over the centuries pilgrims have scooped up portions of it—rubbing it on themselves, bringing it home with them, even eating it—in hopes of harnessing its healing power. At the Visitors Center I bought a plastic petri dish embossed with shrine’s name and returned to el pocito (“the little well”) for a self-serving of tierra bendita, or “blessed dirt.” A nearby room was decorated with the photos, letters, wheelchairs, and crutches—many, many crutches—of the cured who had made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary. Returning to my car, I put my skepticism on the dashboard with my dirt and continued on to Taos, which was all mud and kitsch and left me vaguely depressed. The next day I took my blessed dirt back to Philadelphia.

Miracles have always been a problem for Catholicism. The rubber of faith meets the road of reason, and the skid marks that remain don’t tell us much about what really happened. Life is full of simple coincidences and dumb luck, and science often explains what may seem initially like divine intervention. More problematic still: Are miracles just? Their apparent caprice is hard to reconcile with the notion of a just God. One beggar might be granted a bounty, or one case of cancer might be cured, but what of the faithful who starve for want of a loaf or a fish? The lymphomas that defy all supplication?

 

More problematic still: Are miracles just? Their apparent caprice is hard to reconcile with the notion of a just God.

Not long after that trip, I found the desert enchantment I’d been looking for that day—in a book. Maggie Stiefvater’s 2017 novel, All the Crooked Saints, is a lyrical, atmospheric, and endlessly witty account of a Mexican-American family blessed with the ability to perform miracles. Set in southern Colorado in 1962, it is a winsome novel in which the gift of consciousness extends beyond humans to everything from radio towers to cranky roosters to an egg-yellow 1959 Mercury station wagon. Even the desert has an attitude, with its “blue-tinged, sharp-teethed mountains in the distance that want to have nothing to do with you.” It is a commonplace to have a character fall in love with nature; what’s less common is to have the attention reciprocated. “[Pete] fell in love so fiercely that the desert itself noticed,” Stiefvater writes. “The desert was accustomed to the casual love affairs of strangers passing through, so it cruelly tested his affection by raising a dust storm.”

But it wasn’t only Stiefvater’s sentient landscape that called to mind my desert daytrip. Her setting is close to the locale I had driven through, and her fictional village, Bicho Raro, is a warren of wood and adobe buildings clustered around a shrine. There, the Soria family caters to a flow of pilgrims in need of miracles. The Sorias, like Chimayo founder Bernardo Abeyta, have deep ties to the mystical baroque Catholicism of Mexico and Central America.

If you have never heard of Maggie Stiefvater, ask your teenage daughter. With more than a dozen novels to her credit, she’s a hugely successful author of young-adult fiction. When Disney was looking for a book tie-in to its hit movie Brave, they reached out to Stiefvater—and now have published Bravely, a novel set several years after the time of the film.

But Stiefvater’s renown as a young-adult novelist should not overshadow the seriousness and depth of her work, which is demonstrated in abundance in All the Crooked Saints. Anchoring the novel in a very real place, an oasis somewhere between Antonito and the Great Sand Dunes National Park, she pushes it closer to magical realism than to the more fantastical speculative fiction of her YA oeuvre. The result, in my view, is more serious and profound, a novel that becomes an allegory of almost Dantean complexity and power.

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Stiefvater herself has made no theological claims for the work. Calling it “a book about tackling your internal darkness,” she attributes its origins to fanciful stories spun by a loquacious local whom she met while waiting for her car to be repaired in Alamosa. Such modest disclaimers notwithstanding, the novel, starting on page one, performs a smart and playful dialogue on the coexistence of science and faith. With deceptive simplicity, All the Crooked Saints echoes the Divine Comedy in its treatment of the cosmic mysteries of sin and reconciliation—and the problem of miracles.

Maggie Stiefvater (Wikimedia Commons)

The novel opens with a whimsical treatise on the similarity between radio waves and miracles—both traveling invisibly through space, both landing mysteriously, making it “difficult even for scientists and saints to tell the difference between the two.” A few lines later we are introduced to the novel’s two principals: “On the night this story begins, both a saint and a scientist were listening to miracles.” These are, respectively, the teenaged cousins Daniel and Beatriz Soria. Though it is Daniel who dispenses miracles, Beatriz is the story’s brainy hero. Her strictly logical mindset has earned her the nickname “la chica sin sentimientos”—“the girl without feelings.” While there is no mention of a diagnosis, the unpatronizing and endearing portrait of an autism-spectrum protagonist is another of the book’s admirable feats.

Unlike Chimayo’s visitors down the centuries, the pilgrims to Bicho Raro do not seek cures for ailments or deformities, but rather are drawn by some existential crisis, some “darkness” within them. They pray with Daniel, who asks them to state a sincere desire for change. He then grants them a miracle—one which at first, as the novel slides gently into magical realism, only makes matters worse.

Instead of a cure, the sufferers are beset by a fantastical actualization of their darkness, one that is both physical and symbolic. Tony is a celebrity DJ who despises being famous; he is transformed into a literal giant, a being who will always attract attention. Padre Jimenez, a good and gentle priest held back by his salacious visage, becomes a good and gentle priest with the head of coyote. Sweet schoolteacher Jenny wants to have more opinions of her own; instead, she finds she cannot even form sentences of her own, but only repeat back what is said to her. Sluggish, indecisive Theldon finds himself covered head to toe in moss. And so on.

This is Dante territory, of course: Inferno’s lustful sinners swept by infernal winds, gluttons swimming in garbage, hypocrites shuffling along in shiny sarcophagal overcoats. But Bicho Raro is not hell, and these pilgrims are not damned to live eternally with their deformities. The miracles performed by the Sorias come in pairs. The first one makes manifest the darkness in an extreme form. The second miracle, its cure, is up to individuals to find for themselves, with no help from anyone else. Recovery in this novel is not simply a question of belief; it demands reason, not just resolve. The characters must invent viable lives and overcome their accustomed darkness. Once they have figured it out, their monstrosity melts away, and they may return to the world, healed and happy—or at least happier than when they arrived.

The upright theology of Stiefvater’s novel offers a counternarrative to the biggest problem with the miracle of the forgiveness of sins: that it is all too easy.

This three-part process of reconciliation again recalls the Divine Comedy. The Inferno is the recognition of sin, while Purgatorio is not simply penance, but a new way of being based in human wisdom and logic. (For an exhaustive elucidation of this thesis, see Paul Stern’s brilliant Dante’s Philosophical Life: Politics and Human Wisdom in “Purgatorio.”) Finally, after the journey through these two realms comes the glorious mount of Paradiso, the acceptance of God’s grace. In Stiefvater’s secular framework, this means returning from the desert to a more successful life without darkness.

In the Purgatorio portion resides the central problem of the novel’s plot—namely, that the pilgrims, initially at least, are not figuring it out, not using human wisdom to deal with their darkness. As a result, their second miracle is either delayed or denied. Their deformities linger, and they do not leave Bicho Raro, creating a bottleneck that puts considerable strain on the Soria clan providing them room and board.

What makes All the Crooked Saints particularly Catholic is the sacerdotal role of Daniel Soria. The shrine at Bicho Raro is a kind of confessional, where the sin—or “darkness”—must be spoken aloud to Daniel, who performs the unwelcome first miracle. An aspect of the sacrament of penance that the Church seldom talks about is the tremendous temptation and risk that the priest must face. In possession of people’s darkest secrets and most awful desires, the priest must exercise rigorous self-control, humility, and awe. Risk of recidivism lies on both sides of the confessional screen. Dante knew this; witness all the priests, bishops, and popes in hell.

Stiefvater makes this dynamic a major theme of her novel. At Bicho Raro, none of the Sorias is allowed to so much as talk to any of the pilgrims once the first miracle occurs. They believe that any interaction with the pilgrim is liable to trigger a manifestation of the family’s own darkness. And once loosed, the Soria darkness is far worse than that of any pilgrim. For one reflexive gesture of kindness to a shivering, nearly frozen pilgrim, Daniel’s father, who was the saint at that time, was turned into wood, along with his pregnant wife. Daniel, the gestating future saint, had to be hewn from his mother’s wooden womb. Daniel’s own fall occurs when, moved by love and pity, he gives comfort to the miserable pilgrim Marisita. Knowing what he has done, and afraid of contaminating other Sorias, Daniel self-exiles to the desert to die, leaving the entire Soria clan in danger of tipping into darkness and death should they try to help him.

Resolution of the plot involves making the leap from the realm of the saint to the realm of the scientist. Ultimately it is up to the brave and stubborn logician, Beatrix, to insist that practices fossilized into doctrine be interrogated, and, if necessary, changed. Circumventing the curse with pirate radio broadcasts, Beatrix becomes the catalyst for the restoration of Daniel to sainthood, his happy marriage to Marisita, and the healing of the other pilgrims as well. In the process, Beatrix herself discovers a place for sentimientos and love in her own life—with the aforementioned Pete, who fell in love first with the desert. Happily, it is not only the desert that loves him back.

 

At the Santuario de Chimayo, some believers maintain that the well of blessed dirt, el pocito, is itself a miracle of self-replenishment, never running low no matter how many pilgrims and tourists take their portion, as I did. Wikipedia says the dirt is replaced from nearby hills, to the tune of 25 or 30 tons per year. The Catholic Church has never sought either to authenticate or deny miracles attributed to the shrine at Chimayo. That got me thinking even more about All the Crooked Saints.

The author’s container of dirt from Santuario de Chinmayo (Jon Volkmer).

The upright theology of Stiefvater’s novel offers a counternarrative to the biggest problem with the miracle of the forgiveness of sins: that it is all too easy. Indeed, it is easy to understand the cynic’s smirk at deathbed confessions. A lifetime of depravity, with all its consequential hurts and harms, is wiped away with three words: you are forgiven. Really? Stiefvater, like Dante before her, complicates the sacrament by placing a fundamental interplay between faith and reason at the center of the process of reconciliation.

The clear plastic container from the Santuario de Chimayo resides on my desk, its russet pebbles resembling the tiny escarpments of a miniature desert terrain. In the four years since I scooped it out of the well, I have never asked it for a favor. I have not rubbed it on my skin nor eaten it. But I also haven’t bandied it about as a souvenir of someone else’s quaint superstition. It sits alongside the brass anvil paperweight that was once my father’s and the smooth stone I picked up while hitchhiking across Montana in 1974. Like these personally sacred mementos, the bits of Chimayo sandstone can give me pause and help me deliberate, sometimes in altered ways and across mysteries I would not otherwise have considered—like finding Dante in a young-adult novel of crooked, which is to say fallible, saints. And that is its own small miracle.

Jon Volkmer’s books include a postmodern travel memoir, a collection of poems about grain elevators, and a young adult biography of Roberto Clemente. He teaches literature and creative writing at Ursinus College.

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