Many pilgrims walk for miles. Some make the trek on their knees. We come by rental car, drive through the county with the highest rates of heroin use in North America, park in the shade just outside the holy place: Chimayo. We are here because we believe, but also because we don’t believe and wish we did. My friends want to have a mystical experience. I’m afraid of mystical experiences. I’m here to witness and to question.
The path is dirt, the air piñon and chiles and green heat. Crosses left by previous pilgrims cover the chain metal fence on either side of us: crosses made of hair, made of straw, costume jewels, mosaic, wood. Sweat gathers and drips down the small of my back, and I duck into the first shelter I see, a three-sided wooden structure. There the magnificent savior presides over a populace of anguish. Christ stretches on a hard beam; photos, wrinkled and faded, plaster the dark wooden wall behind him. The people he suffers for stare out at me.
“Your ironic visit to the holy site is all fun and games until you see the person who has legit come to be healed,” Danielle says, serious in her activist t-shirt (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise”) and bleached pixie cut. Left unsaid, understood: such healings rarely happen. Christiana’s bare shoulders begin to pink as the path into El Santuario de Chimayo curves, and we pass an unsettling trio of statues. A tribute to historical abuses of power? A rosy vision of forced assimilations? Repentance? We see a Spaniard, kneeling; a Native American, praying; a cowboy with an open book. Behind these white stone figures the sculpted face of Mary peers out of the rock. She is “our lady of peace,” but formerly, the sign tells us, known as “la conquistadora.”
We have a heritage here, unhidden, unpretty. Somehow conquest and peace reside in the same body. Three cultures come together, not cleanly. We search for good in the evil.
This cathedral bears little likeness to those soaring marble churches I visited in Rome last winter. Inside, adobe walls lean unsteadily toward a low roof, and Danielle, Christiana*, and I hover over a well of dirt jutted with two plastic spades. This dirt is blessed. We don’t know what that means, exactly, or if we believe it. We only know that people seek healing here, and apparently some find it: the walls are lined with crutches, no longer needed. I spade a small amount of the dirt into my hand, let it run through my fingers, then rub the remaining dust into my palms, my calves, my forearms. I don’t know that it is holy except in the way that all dust is holy, all created and blessed by the creator, called good, breathed into life, rubbed with spit to open eyes, magic. Bright folk art paintings depict saints and scenes from Jesus’ life on each side of the sanctuary, and we follow them out of the main church and into a small adjacent chapel.
The three of us walk into the next chapel together, and gasp a little. We are all mothers of young children, bearing still in our hips the weight of their lives. We are unprepared for this: adobe walls papered with photographs of infants and toddlers, shelves lined with the tiniest shoes. We are prepared, perhaps, to accept the inscrutability of human suffering, but not the suffering of babies, so many babies.
And so time for the gift shop. Shuddery breaths and we wipe our eyes, peruse the tin icons, wooden figures, local chili powders in mild, medium, and hot. There are actually several gift shops, and on the dirt road between them, I feel suddenly displaced. This is not America. This is not the twenty-first century. This is Tegucigalpa, Saigon, Naples. This is a place where Catholicism is magic and indigenous to the dirt, it is hot and from the belly, it is blood.
I shake my head, clear my vision, walk down the only path I haven’t walked yet. Hip-high concrete statues of children with backpacks and sneakers skip next to me on the trail towards a nativity scene. The Holy Family they’re walking toward are faceless statues. Another pair of tennis shoes, red and silver velcro, sits next to Mary’s feet. To one side, plastic deer of the sort you’d see in a hunting and fishing store look on. Behind them, lush clouds hover heavy over red hills pocked with brush.
How do I handle the promise of the possibility of healing in the face of all that is unhealed? How do the conquistadors proclaim peace? How do I believe in a loving, sovereign God and not let myself look away from those empty baby shoes? How can I learn from the many ways that people worship, however foreign they seem to me? How do I believe that dust is blessed, dust that is our beginning and end, our selves?
The plastic deer and concrete children rest in the shadow of the red dust mountains, but there is no shade in the shadow of the cross. Chimayo does not offer me answers. Chimayo’s gift to me is the friendship of the sacred and the ridiculous, the holy and the kitsch, the healed and the unhealed, the peacemakers and the colonizers; it is the embodiment of the tension of being dust and called good.
*Christiana Peterson also wrote about this experience on the Good Letters blog. Click here to read about her experience.