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Good Letters

chimayo by bob denst“I want a holy experience!” I say to my companions, Amy and Danielle, leaning toward them in the cafeteria of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. We are all spending a week away from our children and husbands at the Glen Workshop to get some time to write and explore the area.

They seem mildly amused by my outburst, possibly because they are used to my naive, idealistic longing for a mystical encounter. We continue discussing a place called Chimayo—about a forty-five minute drive away—that is supposed to have holy dust.

Ooh, holy dust, I think. I want to touch it. I want to feel the holy.

Having been raised in a Christian tradition that was wary of saints, mystics, and anything Catholic (beyond a high view of worship), over the past few years I’ve been carefully releasing my skepticism, backed up too long in a tight intellectual faucet.

Each year, I turn the faucet harder and things began to dump out more freely. But there is a measure of fear in this release. After all, if you open the flow too wide, anything can come out.

This release of my skepticism, all of my writings about mystics, all of my recent challenges, griefs, and anxieties, I long for them to lead me to something at Chimayo—considered the “Lourdes of America,” a place of healing that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year—perhaps an unmistakable encounter that is deep and profound.

What I notice first about Chimayo when we arrive are the crosses. Of various colors, shapes, and materials, the crosses are attached to and leaned up against the chain-link fences, draped over the towering red clay crosses, and even over the statues of Mary, a Native American chief, baby Jesus, and a conquistador.

I sense that these are gifts given with grief and hope, but like many things about the Catholic faith, I don’t really understand their precise meaning. Still, I am moved by the vulnerability of such offerings, one a child’s sippy cup, one a lone sneaker filled with human hair, and thousands of photos lined along the back walls behind statues of Jesus and the saints. So many faces of the suffering, the wounded, the hopeful.

We trudge up the hill past more monuments that are nearly hidden behind the offerings of pilgrims, some bought from the nearby gift shop. I admire how Catholics are able to hold the kitsch and the sacred together, not in either hand, unknown to each other, but as if they belong together. Maybe they understand that a human offering to God will always look like kitsch in the face of the beauty and terror of the truly holy and sacred.

When we reach the small adobe chapel that houses the crucifix and the holy dust, we duck underneath the doorway into the narrow entryway crowded with those praying toward the wall of silver crutches and an altar. Some of these pilgrims are clearly looking for healing.

A tinier room, barely able to hold more than five people at once, is the location of the holy dust, a small hole in the stone floor filled with sand. When it’s my turn, I take a deep breath. This is it, I think, the moment I feel the holy. I kneel down and use the orange plastic scoop to fill my hands with the sacredness.

As I rub the grit over my hands, I’m warmed by a momentary depth of feeling, a sensation so slight that it might be the longing to feel as much as an actual experience. But when I sit in a pew of the larger chapel where the crucifix is displayed and close my eyes to pray for healing, my mind is blank. I feel so unwounded, so unscarred, so far from needing what these pilgrims seek.

The coo of a pigeon breaks the silence and I make my way to the back of the sanctuary where there is a life-sized replica of the crucified Jesus. But instead of being on a cross, his nearly naked body is in an open coffin, laid out like a saint.

What draws me most, though, are his wounds. Besides the ones on his hands, feet, and side, round bloody wounds, so deep they almost hit the bone, cover each kneecap. I am cut by them and stare at the scab-like colors inside the circles.

Outside the official Chimayo chapel, another, brighter chapel beckons. I hear someone say that this is a chapel for children. How sweet, I think, and I’m captured by the colorful carvings on the backs of benches, and characters hanging from the ceiling, from wooden trees, and the murals. What a lovely place for kids to visit and learn about the saints.

Then, I see a tiny pair of blue baby shoes, lonely on the white cloth of the altar.

And I realize that this is a chapel for children—for their healing.

I drift into a side prayer room and there I close my eyes to conjure my own healthy babies’ faces, bodies, fingers, and toes, safe at home. I am overwhelmed by the sweet pictures of thousands of other children’s faces and hundreds of baby shoes neatly tacked to the wall. I stay for a moment, trying to pray for those unknown babes, trying to understand how so many need healing.

Later, Danielle tells me that these shoes are for the baby Jesus who wanders the streets of the area at night, bringing water and healing. When I tell them of my fascination with Jesus’s bloody knees, Amy explains that some pilgrims walk to Chimayo from Santa Fe or Albuquerque, making some portions of the pilgrimage on their knees.

In the last chapel we visit, there are more baby shoes on the wall. But this time, there is a statue watching over them, a wooden Elizabeth, her blue pregnant body twisted, as if this birth will bring her both sorrow and pain. And I begin to understand why the Catholics sainted her and venerated her cousin Mary.

Mary, so small and humble, knew as intimately as blood the breaking in of this Son of man, this bloody-kneed Jesus who broke her womb first before he broke her heart.

When I step out of the children’s chapel into the sunlight again, there are a half-dozen children playing in the square.

“Get down from there!” one mother cautions her young child who is my own son’s age.

That’s when they come—these un-longed for, un-manipulated, un-moored tears rise up from my chest, and I have to take deep heavy breaths as we walk back toward the car.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Christiana N. Peterson

Christiana N. Peterson lives with her family in intentional community in the rural Midwest. Her forthcoming book with Herald Press is about the Christian mystics and life in community. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.

Image above by Bob Denst, used with permission.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Chistriana, I’ve been to Chimayo several times (I once lived in Santa Fe). I can deeply connect with the complexities of your experience of being there. Though I’m Catholic, the mix of kitsch and holiness stirs me as well. Catholic kitsch has always turned me off; yet here something more is going on. I’ve sensed that within the kitsch–within everything about Chimayo–the longing for healing is real and profound and universal. (BTW, I think that it’s on Good Friday that some pilgrims journey to Chimayo on their knees.)

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Peggy. Yes, I have often found the kitsch weird until that experience. I didn’t understand it but it stirred me.

  • Jessica

    Beautiful. I would have been right there with you. Love what you say about holding the kitsch in the transcendent in tension.

    • That means a lot, Jessica. I wish you could’ve been there!

  • Gorgeous prose, Christiana. Love this story and your rendering of it.

  • So beautiful, Christiana.

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