El Santuario (The Shrine) was built between l8l4 and l8l6. The “miraculous” crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas was found around l8l0. There is no written testimony concerning the apparition of Our Lord in the Chimayo area. What we have is tradition passed from one generation to another by the people of El Potrero. Here is one account of a “true” story as told by the storyteller.
One tradition recalls that during Holy Week on the night of Good Friday, Don Bernardo Abeyta, who was a member in good standing of the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jes6s el Nazareno (Penitentes) was performing the customary penances of the Society around the hills of El Potrero. Suddenly he saw a light springing from one of the slopes of the hills near the Santa Cruz River. Don Bernardo went to the spot and noticed that the shining light was coming from the ground. He started to dig with his bare hands, and there he found a Crucifix. He left it there and called the neighbors to come and venerate the precious finding. A group of men was sent to notify the priest, Fr. Sebastian Alvarez at Santa Cruz.
Upon hearing the extraordinary news, the priest and people set out for Chimayo. When they arrived at the place where the Crucifix was, Fr. Sebastian picked it up and carried it in a joyful procession back to the church. Once in the church, the Crucifix was placed in the niche of the main altar. The next morning, the Crucifix was gone, only to be found in its original location. A second procession was organized and the Crucifix was returned to Santa Cruz, but once again it disappeared, The same thing happened a third time. By then, everyone understood that El Sefior de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo, and so a small chapel was built.
And so, today, El Santuario is a place of pilgrimage – especially on Good Friday, when thousands come, many on their hands and knees. The “Holy Dirt” taken from a nearby hillside and placed in the chapel is scooped up by pilgrims and taken in prayerful hope – much like the water at Lourdes.
What can it “do?” Who knows? Our stance towards the dirt, the water, might vacillate between superstition and disbelief, with the middle ground of open trust and humility right in the middle. What is a pill, anyway? A hardened mixture of matter, matter created by God that God uses to heal me in one way, a way that heavily involves human ingenuity and creativity. God graciously uses the middle man, but God doesn’t need him, does he?
The sanctuary is nestled in a valley a bit east and north of Santa Fe. We arrived there in the middle of what would be a very long day. I don’t say that with regret. It’s just a fact. It was a long day.
We had begun in our own back yard. They’d said they might want to climb the Black Mesa which loomed behind our rental home, but I told them that we try another rise first – a hill which would certainly be a hike for us, but was not nearly the challenge as the Mesa. Once we scrambled to the top of this first height, what we could see was that the Black Mesa itself was much steeper than it appeared from the ground. It would be chore to go up and would probably give me a nervous breakdown trying to prevent them from just sliding down.
So we did that, and then we went to Tsanawki, since it had been rained out the previous afternoon.
Then to the Sanctuary – the plan was to eat lunch in the area (we did) and for this to be the first stop on the High Road toTaos(it was.)
Lunch was a little more refined than I was prepared for – the Rancho isn’t just a roadside stand. The green chile stew was really excellent, though (should I have said, “though?” Why did I say that?) and in between listening to the boys, I was entertained and educated by the speechifying from the next table: a fellow in his late 50’s or early 60’s, longish gray hair, various jewelry pieces on his limbs and around his head area, wearing a t-shirt that said “FBI – Fry Bread Inspector” – who was accompanying three women – one about his age, and then two elderly British women. He could have been a relation or he could have been a hired guide – they had just finished at the Sanctuary and were on their way toTaos, and he was full of all kinds of information ranging from the culinary to the archaeological. Which he shared with all of us, whether he intended to or not.
As I said, the Shrine itself is in a little hollow, and there is really quite a lot to it. The Sanctuary area is spacious, but hemmed in by many shops selling retablos, other pieces of local art, religious goods and, of course, spices. I bought a mix from a guy selling outside one of the art shops, a guy with no teeth who left the painting he was working on to open up the various bags of greenish and reddish powders and seeds, assuring me that each was the best, and that when I ran out (which I would, soon, because I would not be able to stop using it) I could call him and he would send me more.
I bought some, and then the next shop I walked into, saw the exact same bags with the exact same mixes for half what I had paid him.
Ah well. He earned it.
Aside from the chapel itself, there are various other oratories and statues at the Sanctuary, an outdoor Stations of the Cross,
and a lovely little children’s chapel, dedicated to Santo Nino – see interior photos at the link. No photos are allowed inside any of the chapels.
There’s the primary chapel itself, shiny (as much as adobe can be) on the outside, but pleasantly darkened, cramped and ramshackle on the inside. The room with the dirt in the floor is connected to the sanctuary of the chapel, to the left as you walk in. The walls are lined with crutches, baby shoes, and photographs. Testimony.
I had read about Chimayo in some spiritual memoir years ago – a searcher on a journey who was surprised by her reaction to what she thought would be nothing more than a ridiculous, superstitious spot full of people performing useless actions which would be nothing more than another kind of testimony: a testimony to the ultimate hopelessness of it all.
But, as I recall, she was affected by the experience in surprising ways.
I didn’t expect anything, and I didn’t go with any kind of critical or evaluative or even expectant spirit, either. I just went, took out the plastic bags I’d brought, scooped dirt into mine, and then handed the plastic scoop to the boys in their turn, and helped them. I wrote our names on the bags with the Sharpies I’d brought, we went into the gift shop to buy containers for our dirt, and we continued to look around.
Neither anxious analysis nor desperate need. Just being, trusting that God acts when He chooses, and sometimes He might use some dirt.