My Thoughts · New Mexico

A Pilgrimage to Chimayó —A New Mexico Tradition!

El Santuario de Chimayó
El Santuario de Chimayó

Many New Mexicans take part in a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó on Good Friday. Mostly are Catholic and here’s my experience with this amazing tradition.

In the late 80s, I moved to Raton, New Mexico, to teach. I had grown up on the northeast border of New Mexico, but had toured little of the state. When I moved to Raton, I spent many weekends doing day trips to different parts of the northern part of the state. I fell in love with Taos and visited whenever I could.

As I talked to many locals, I learned about the Good Friday pilgrimage to Chimayó. Yes, people as far away as Raton knew about the pilgrimage, and some took part. I’m Episcopalian and share some traditions and rituals with the Catholic church, so it appealed to me. That Lenten season, I sought a unique experience during Holy Week and went to El Santuario de Chimayó, which was the goal of the Good Friday pilgrims.

So, I had the day off from school. I loaded up my ten-pound poodle, Windy, in the car, some snacks and water, and off we went. It was a 200-mile trip, taking us about three hours. I left early in the morning so I would have ample time to look around—before that trip I had only been to Chimayó once with a girlfriend, and we stopped at Ortega’s Weaving Shop, but we didn’t stop at El Santuario de Chimayó. At that time, I did not know the significance it had in New Mexico Christian heritage.

Inside the gate at El Santuario de Chimayó
Inside the gate at El Santuario de Chimayó

“El Santuario de Chimayó is a Roman Catholic church in Chimayó, New Mexico, United States. (Santuario is Spanish for “sanctuary”.) This shrine, a National Historic Landmark, is famous for the story of its founding and as a contemporary pilgrimage site. It receives almost 300,000 visitors per year and has been called “no doubt the most important Catholic pilgrimage center in the United States.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Santuario_de_Chimayo

I remember enjoying the early spring morning ride up I-25 to Santa Fe, knowing this part of the road from trips to Albuquerque to visit my aunt and uncle when they lived there. Then I turned off I-25, and the world changed.

As soon as I drove through Santa Fe, the pilgrims appeared—some with large wooden crosses on their shoulders, many in a small cluster. Then I turned onto Road 503, which is the “High Road to Taos.” I had only been on that road once before, with my girlfriend on our previous trip to travel the High Road and go through Truchas, New Mexico, where The Milagro Beanfield Wars was filmed. Before the release of the film in 1988, I had read the book by John Nichols, howling at some of its hilarious situations and crying at its message about land and water rights. We had a great time on that trip.

The further I went with sage and pinon pines covering the mountainside, the number of pilgrims increased. As I motored by in my car, I glanced at serious faces on a mission. At one point, I felt a little ashamed of being in a car, but then I stopped and applauded myself for the effort.

When I arrived at the small village of Chimayó, I immediately knew the direction of the church. The masses walked towards it. I parked off on the side of the road, rolling down the windows for Windy and providing him with water.

I joined the crowd as it moved towards El Santuario de Chimayó. As we neared the gate in the adobe wall, a line formed and waited. Many people had told me about this part of the attraction to this place: holy dirt that heals.

The Gate into Sanctuario de Chimayó - pilgrimage
The Gate into Sanctuario de Chimayó

So, I waited in line, marveling at the size of the crowd and the age of the attendees—many faithful people ready to receive something special this holy day at this sacred place. Upon entering the church, it had wooden ceiling beams, white-washed walls, with a few pews. The altar area captured my eye—a wooden depiction of Jesus and the crucifixion.

How respectful the people in line were—a reverent silence canopied the church as we made our way to a door on the side of the sanctuary where the holy dirt was. When I entered the small room tucked away, crutches lined the walls from healings. I saw the hole in the ground where the dirt came from. Then I grabbed my bag of holy dirt and left. As I walked out, pictures lined the walls of people who had been healed. I have kept some dirt from Chimayó in my home in a variety of spots ever since.

When I got outside, I returned to my car, put Windy on a leash and we wandered around the area. I soaked up the peaceful, reverent atmosphere and found a shady spot under a tree to relax. Windy curled up next to me and we noticed blissfully the pleasure of being with worshipping people. I hadn’t gotten into the habit of carrying a journal with me yet, so that day never got memorialized in a poem, but what I took away from it has lasted for over thirty years in my heart. Today, I still feel the serenity in that church’s courtyard.

In the following years, I returned once during Holy Week on Good Friday in the early 90s when I moved to Albuquerque and on other occasions to share this New Mexican treasure.

In the summer of 2009, I returned to Chimayó after a divorce. After moving into my townhouse, I remembered the holy dirt and realized I had misplaced it. I knew I needed some to heal my broken heart. This time I went alone because Windy had passed away. Again, a line formed but shorter and wove its way through the church. I gathered a bagful of dirt and brought it home, placing it around my townhouse, believing in its power to heal. This time I spent time with a notebook in the courtyard recording my experience.

Lin leaning against the gate into Santuario de Chimayó - pilgrimage
Lin leaning against the gate into Santuario de Chimayó

In 2015, Lin and I vacationed in the Santa Fe area in the spring, and I showed him around Chimayó and El Sanctuario. We had a delightful time and the grounds surrounding it had changed a lot during my absence. We brought home a fresh bag of dirt to replace the old. All the pictures included here are from this trip.

As I face Holy Week this week, I remember my pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó from Raton—every year I am reminded of my experience, still savoring the time there. It still blesses my heart in a special way!

If you are interested, here’s this year’s Holy Week schedule there: https://www.holychimayo.us/holy-week. Have you visited Chimayó? If so, what was your experience? Have you ever done a pilgrimage or something special during Holy Week? I’d love to hear about it!


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Christianity · My Thoughts

What is Holy Week?

Holy Week may have no significance to you. I’m an Episcopalian, rooted deeply in the Anglican tradition, and we celebrate Holy Week, starting today, Palm Sunday. I’d like to share my thoughts with you about the events of Holy Week and the participants who stand out.

“From early times Christians have observed the week before Easter as a time of special devotion. As the pilgrim Egeria recorded in the late fourth century, Jerusalem contained many sacred places that were sites for devotion and liturgy. Numerous pilgrims to the holy city followed the path of Jesus in his last days. They formed processions, worshipped where Christ suffered and died, and venerated relics. From this beginning evolved the rites we observe today on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. These services provide a liturgical experience of the last days of Jesus’ earthly life, as well as the time and events leading up to his resurrection.”https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/holy-week

In my tradition, we separate out these events from the Easter celebration. Some of Christianity focuses only on Easter and the Resurrection. I like our way of honoring all the events beforehand that set the stage for Easter.

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, not in full Royal regalia but on the back of a donkey colt. His entry defied what the world thought the King of the Jews would do!

Maundy Thursday, we give the willing the opportunity to have their feet washed, again taking Jesus’ actions to heart of “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  (John 13:64) The act of feet washing is an act of love and service.

            “The Thursday in Holy Week. It is part of the Triduum, or three holy days before Easter. It comes from the Latin mandatum novum, “new commandment,” from Jn 13:34. The ceremony of washing feet was also referred to as “the Maundy.” Maundy Thursday celebrations also commemorate the institution of the eucharist by Jesus “on the night he was betrayed.

Following this, the altar is stripped and all decorative furnishings are removed from the church.”

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/maundy-thursday

Good Friday we provide a quiet solemn time at the church from noon until 3:00 PM doing the Stations of the Cross with ample time for reflection.

            “The Friday before Easter Day, on which the church commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a day of fasting and special acts of discipline and self-denial.”

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/good-friday

Holy Saturday we have the Easter Vigil Candlelight Service celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

Easter Day is truly a day of celebration—He is risen, He is risen indeed!

So, what’s all the fuss? As I slow down this week and linger at these points along the way, I enrich my Easter experience with the details leading up to the most important day in all Christendom—Easter.

What fascinates me most in the midst of the events are the actual people who participated willingly or unwittingly:

  • Of course, Jesus is center stage. His behavior throughout the week varies. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey colt when many thought the King of the Jews would have a magnificent entrance letting all know of his power and authority. Instead, God wanted a man among men, not an authority figure similar to the Roman dictator and all his fanfare.
  • Jesus needed alone time before the insanity of the week took over, so he drew away in the garden at the Mount of Olives in the dark of the night to pray and anguish over what He faced.
  • The Twelve disciples joined Jesus, but they couldn’t stay awake and support him in prayer. They knew that something was coming and they feared the possibilities. Grief gripped their hearts in the dark of the night, and they drifted off to sleep out of emotional exhaustion.
  • Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss. He had been one of Jesus’ closest associates but was willing to sell him out for money. When did he stop loving Jesus?
  • Peter denied being a follower of Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted. The cock crowed, and at that moment, the eye contact between Jesus and Peter at his third betrayal must have been electric. Why did Peter change so quickly? In Jesus’ stare, Peter realized later a deep forgiveness.
  • Pilate and Herod, world leaders at the time, became mere puppets in the drama that unfolded: Jesus accused; Jesus’ silence enraged them; Jesus’ fate determined by an angry mob, not two world leaders who should have stopped it. Did they realize the position they put themselves in?
  • The angry mob shouted “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate succumbed to their angry words forcing him to sacrifice Jesus instead Barabbas. Did one person start the chant then it grew out of control?
  • Barabbas, a convicted criminal, guilty of insurrection and murder, released from facing this cruel death, and Jesus took his place, innocent of any crime and not guilty. The mob won. Did Barabbas suffer from survivor guilt?
  • Simon of Cyrene, an innocent countryman, forced to carry the cross behind Jesus. What did he think as he watched the wounded Jesus stagger and fall? Did he agree with the decision to crucify Jesus and not Barabbas?
  • Chief Priests hurled insults at Jesus, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God his chosen one!” How could these Godly men watch this horrific torture of another human being and not weep?
  • Two criminals crucified on each side of Jesus. One accused Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other one identified Jesus’ innocence. Jesus promised the repentant one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
  • The centurion witnessed Jesus’ death, “Certainly this man was innocent.” Did he sob at what he saw?
  • Women followers stood at a distance in shock, not knowing what to do. We know there were three or four women, but we’re not sure who they were except for Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Were they able to sleep Friday and Saturday night as they grieved over the death of their Jesus?
  • Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council and a good man who did not agree with what happened asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, and he laid Jesus in a tomb. Did he think that Jesus would burst forth from this tomb?

 

            It took this whole cast of characters plus many others to put into action the events that happened during Holy Week. Some names we know; some unnamed, but yet they participated in a succession of actions that changed the course of history for all times.

            At church today, we sang a song, “Above All.” The last line of the chorus states: “You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.”

            At that moment on the cross when the suffering of Jesus seemed insurmountable, He thought of me, He thought of you, above all! That’s why he suffered and died—because he thought of you and me!

            Do you celebrate Holy Week? If so, how?

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