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?
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