by D.L. Mayfield
I have been to shrines and temples and synagogues and more churches than I could ever bear to remember. I know the sense of anticipation, the drug of the tourist: what will I see and hear and experience, how will this show me something different from my everyday life, how can I view something beautiful and mystical and strange and then clutch a photo of it to remember for later? A few weeks ago I had this experience, again, in New Mexico with two of my best friends. We were at a workshop to talk about faith and writing but one afternoon we slipped out of the classrooms and went off to explore, to find a little chapel we had heard about. The air smelled like high desert, clean and savory with a hint of sour. It was warm, and I was sweating in my black jeans and tight t-shirt. We were not sure we were going in the right direction until we finally saw the signs—El Santuario de Chimayo—and pulled into the large parking lot.
My friends and I were excited, giddy to be somewhere so blank and new for us. I had read something about this chapel, how people come here to be healed. The dirt is holy, that is what I vaguely remember, and people come into the chapel and put the dust on their bodies, their legs and their hands. In my mind I could see this, see the clouds of dust spilling out of the chapel walls. I was nervous and excited and ready to laugh and marvel and scoff, to feel the pinpricks of tears behind my eyes and the ever-present spiral of cynicism in my thoughts.
I read somewhere, maybe in a short story, about the people whose job it was to truck in pails of dirt every night. To cover the ground of the chapel in a fresh coat of the holy dust in the dark of night, to prepare it for the tourists, the faithful, the believers, the ones who swallow it all down. Pail after pail, delivered from the nearby mountains. Is this funny or sad or beautiful? I guess it depends on how much you want it to be real.
Chimayo is a little plaza set on a hill—various buildings in various states of disarray. It is considered to be one of the most important landmarks in Catholic history in North America. My friends and I parked in the lower lot and trudged upwards, struggling for breath in the high altitude. We stopped and looked at statues and passed through a long walkway which was covered on either side with crosses. Large and small and wooden and metal and all with names and all for somebody, all for somebody I assumed was either dead or close to it, all for somebody who had a person in their life who loved them enough to drive out to Chimayo and affix a cross to a chain link fence. We went into a long, stable-like building and behind gorgeous wooden statues of saints and the Christ were pictures, pictures as far as the eye could see. People in military uniforms and prom dresses and hospital gowns, people living their life and smiling into the camera. There were white signs everywhere, telling the viewer to pray for the people in the pictures, that they are from visitors who left them for this specific purpose. I tried to look and pray but there were so many. As I looked at them I thought: Oh my God, there are so many pictures, and they all need a miracle. Oh my God this is but a fraction of all the suffering that surrounds us everywhere.
To get to the chapel itself, you have to walk past several shrines draped with beaded rosaries and crowded with candles. The waxy smell drifted our way and we moved past the café, currently closed, with the sign on the front that said they normally serve Coke products and Frito pies. The gift shop was up the hill a bit more, past the restrooms. My two friends and I looked at each other and stepped determinedly into the chapel, decorated in the adobe style—low to the ground and all soft brown curves, two towers rising up like a large sandcastle with a cross in-between. Inside it was cool and cave-like, and we were in the room to the right of the main chapel. Surrounding the low walls were crutches lined up and hanging side by side, a testament that anyone who has ever been to a faith healer immediately knows the meaning of. My eyes were alert, taking in the plastic saints and the gaudy pictures on the walls, the people crossing themselves as they prayed, the shuffle of sneakers on the dirt floor. A fraction of my soul is always on the lookout for a thin space, a place where the sick and the lame and the sad can come and a bit of heaven can break through.
We squeezed past a few other people and saw a short little doorway into another room, the one where the holy dirt was. We ducked our heads and went inside. It was tiny, and its walls were also crowded with kitschy designs. I found myself staring straight ahead at a jigsaw puzzle of Christ, carefully put together and glued and then hung up in this most holiest of rooms. In the center, close to all of us, was a small circular pit, full of smooth chocolate-brown dust. There was a family clustered around it, with two pre-teen girls who were scooping up the dirt and placing it into containers. My friends and I had brought nothing, we were there on a whim, we were not pilgrims on a quest nor the desperate in need of relief from pain. I crouched down and with one hand grasped some dirt and rubbed it on my fingers. I was manufacturing a spiritual experience, but I was also wondering where this dirt is from. My friends did the same, and we left the small room and went into the sanctuary, all of us with dusty fingers. The art on the walls and on the altar was vivid and bright and slightly grotesque. Folk art, people would say. The colors too unnatural, the shapes too simple, everything so one-dimensional, and yet the sheer volume of the statues and paintings cluttering the walls had the effect of conjuring up a sense of wonder and glory in the viewer, the tourist.
I sat in a wooden pew and heard the coo of a dove. I looked up, towards one of the bell towers, and saw a stereo speaker. Were they piping in the sounds of nature? I wished I could sit in silence and appreciate the birds and think about the God who loves them, but I was stuck on the idea of if the sound is fake or not. What difference does it make? I wandered outside and offered to take a picture of a young family in front of the chapel. I looked up and saw a pigeon, still as a statue, on the roof the church. It was neither a dove nor a recording, but something infinitely more plain and recognizable. Mystery solved.
My friends and I wandered up the road past the upper parking lot. Suddenly, we felt like we were in a different country. A man in a café yelled hello at us, and I glared back at him. We crossed the street to another gift shop- this one sold popsicles and ziplock bags of chili. We browsed and bought trinkets, sealing the very nature of this trip with our credit cards. After we left, we saw another chapel to our right: Chapel el Niño. We looked at each other and agreed without speaking: of course we were up for more. We went inside, another dark and cool adobe sanctuary, and immediately I regretted it. Everywhere I looked there were baby shoes. Tiny, beautiful shoes, neatly paired and lined up on every available surface, on the floor and hung from plastic trees—terrible in how pristine and how empty they were.
There was a little room off to the side and and I went in, drawn by the ache of my chest. In this small place there was a strange sculpture up front. It was the Christ child and he was the focal point, with a few small pews pointing towards him. The walls surrounding him were papered with pictures of children. Babies and toddlers and older children. Some with disabilities, others with tubes and wires attached, others seemingly healthy. But someone had left these photos here, someone brought them here, someone placed them on the wall, someone brought all those pairs of empty shoes and left them for me to see, for me to beseech God about.
Just like I knew they would, the tears came. I was crying, looking at those babies from my pew, looking at the shoes and the sculpture, looking at all of these tangible artifacts of one of the cruelest realities of our world. That babies die, every day, and God allows it. I knew I was supposed to pray to God, to the one who is Love, to be with these babies. How many were already gone? I didn’t know, and I only let my mind stay there for a moment. I asked God the question that has already been asked by so many, and I didn’t expect to hear an answer. I just kept crying, and that was the moment I turned into a flesh and blood pilgrim.
Back in the chapel of the church of the holy dirt, there was a man who knelt and crossed himself and clutched a handkerchief. His hair was white and he looked like he could be my dad, or even my grandpa. I thought he was sick, a thought that was confirmed when I saw his wife outside the chapel, touching his arm and asking him if he was all right. The anticipation, the excitement, the greedy eyes for things different and unseen, all of this had been drained from me, just by glimpsing a true seeker, just by rubbing shoulders with the suffering. My friends and I got back into our rental car and drove back to our conference, subdued with the sheer volume of humanity we had seen displayed before us.
Later that night I listened while a famous artist told us all that the only true kind of prayer was poetry. He squinted his eyes and ruffled his unkempt hair and everyone around me murmured and nodded their assent, writing down his words in their notebooks. But I was caught up with looking at the famous artist’s feet, clad in sensible running shoes and black socks, awkward-looking and large and undignified, showcased by his bare legs and the cargo shorts he wore. I didn’t understand much of the poem he read to us, long and rambling and deep and inscrutable, but the little lights I could hear within frightened me. Is God kind towards humans or not? Is God love or something much wilder?
The famous artist decided to lead us all in prayer and we obediently bowed our heads. We were all silent, for five minutes, while the famous artist stood quietly at the podium. We stayed there, expectant in the stillness until we realized that we were the ones in charge of praying for ourselves, we were the ones containing both God and the absence of God, and that we were all in charge of writing the poems ourselves. The silence stretched out, uncomfortable and heavy until it was thin and broken by our restless stirring. He was asking us to get right with ourselves, I thought.
Or maybe, just maybe, the famous artist had run out of words to say to God.
In the silence of that prayer I thought of all of those baby shoes I saw at Chimayo. Tiny little shoes, some made of patent leather and others with ruffles around the edges. Each pair as precious as anything I have ever seen, the rows upon rows of them spelling out a truth more terrible than my brain would let me admit. I prayed blessings on those shoes, on the pictures surrounding the walls, the few I could keep in my mind. I washed my hands many hours before, and I wasn’t sad to see the dirt go down the drain. I didn’t believe in holy dirt any more. All I could see was the pain in front of me.
But slowly, the seed of a thought was planted in my heart. Perhaps all of those baby shoes, all of those pictures, all of those crucifixes were not merely symbols of death and decay and suffering? What if instead they were all symbols of faith, tiny acts of pilgrimage made by mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, all the art and the paraphernalia resulting in a house of God cluttered with tangible offerings of belief?
In the quiet, I knew. I believed. I believed in the poems I saw that day, the truest prayers of those empty shoes offered by someone with a heart of love. Later, I will read that the legends surrounding Chimayo include the story of Jesus taking the form of a child and wandering the surrounding hills at night, bringing bread and water and life to all the desperate. The Christ child walks so much that he constantly wears out his little shoes, which is why the faithful bring them as offerings.
I didn’t know this legend when I was in that chapel. All I could see around me were the faces of suffering, my own pain magnified by the visions of injustice surrounding me. But slowly, something changed. The images became little lights of belief, icons of the idea that another world was possible. Our doubts and our hopes are the truest forms of prayer there will ever be. And even though I had so little faith of my own, I bowed my head and prayed. Because so many people on the hills and in the sanctuary of Chimayo believed, and their faith is making me well.
D.L. Mayfield writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Her work has appeared in McSweeneys, Geez, Christianity Today, and Conspire! among others. Her book of essays, "Assimilate or Go Home; Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith," is now available.