Searching for the Holy Dirt: What I learned while hitchhiking to El Santuario de Chimayo
In the morning, I left Merry Sunshine and traveled to El Santuario on the way to Christ in the Desert.
Later in my journey I hitchhiked to visit my brother and his family who lived on the old farm, Carl and Lorena’s, who were dead and gone though their wheat still grew. Later, my brother drove me to Oklahoma City to meet up with Bud, who fought to save the life of Timothy McVeigh, who had killed Bud’s daughter, Julie.
Julie with modified cat-eye glasses I knew from college; my brother from the lower bunk in a bedroom decorated with Indian warrior wallpaper; Carl and Lorena because my dad grew up in their house being their child; Merry Sunshine from a tip by a woman at the Taos Hotel, flustered when I asked her for a place to stay that night. Uh, no, this woman had said. I was wearing a Yankees hat. Maybe that was the problem. But I have heard of a woman named Merry Sunshine, she said.
It was the spring of 2003, and I was 31 and traveling through New Mexico, a state I had never been to and longed to explore. A place that felt both sweet and…raw, is that the word? Laid bare for the sun to beat down on. I was excited to be there and nervous to be there. I had so little money!
So it was morning and I left Merry Sunshine, a woman who took in strangers and who took in me when I found her apartment with hazy directions from the hotel gatekeeper in the gathering night, and let me stay for three days, and who wore her name neither with irony nor twinkling self-awareness, but with sobriety, as if to say, Of course I am called Merry Sunshine, look at what I do, what else should I be called?
I left her and hitchhiked down Highway 68 in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains toward Christ in the Desert,a Benedictine monastery outside Abiquiu, N.M. There the monks made honey and, I supposed, mournfully chanted the hours away. Then someone I met along the way told me about a place called El Santuario in the town of Chimayo, a pilgrimage site in the same region. I decided to go there.
I had heard that this area was rife with heroin addiction and crime, that it was violent. As I left Merry’s I pasted a holy card of Our Lady of Guadalupe onto my backpack. (It was a pack I had bought at a stoop sale in New York years before, not because it was lightweight or waterproof, which it was neither, but because it was canvas and was a shade of mint green like the way your Keds get when you mow the lawn. It was hard not to buy.) I hoped the sight of Our Lady would ward off anyone from attacking me. Or, even if young men did try to strike me down, their fists would suddenly be frozen, unable to lash out. Do you not know, my Joselito, that I am protecting you, I who am your mother....
So I hitchhiked and camped and no one jumped me and eventually I got a ride to a place called Española, about eight miles from Chimayo. From there I began to hitchhike to El Santuario. About a mile into the journey, with no one picking me up and seemingly no prospects thereof and the day getting toward evening and Chimayo still a few hours away, I was getting scared. (Do you think I like writing that here and now, that I was scared? No. No, I do not.)
I was scared because I heard from more than one person that someone, or maybe even a few people making the pilgrimage to El Santuario had been killed along the way. (I learned much later they were all talking about a single horrific incident from three years earlier.) So, should I keep going to Taos as the night fell and pilgrim killers were possibly on the loose? And where would I stay if I even got there? I had no plan, no prospects, there were no other pilgrims walking along the road with me. It was an unpleasant moment.
In the middle of my fearful questions and overarching, useless-mint-backpack, unhitched-hiker, pilgrimage sadness I suddenly remembered something a priest had told me only a few days before, had told me and nine other Jesuit novices in a wood-paneled, lodge-like room in a house in Minnesota. (This is why I was out in New Mexico in the first place: I was a novice in the Society of Jesus and this was my current Jesuit novice mission: Wander.)
Free yourself to be missioned this way or that with no preference but what God prefers.
The priest, who was blind, for whatever it’s worth, was giving a talk about Jesuit spirituality. A spirituality whose ultimate point was freedom. You ask God to detach you from all that you cling to—riches, honors, pride, any shade of any Camaro you think you need. Detach from all that is fleeting, so you can cling only to the one thing that is needful.
Progress in the spiritual life, for a novice, or for any Christian, writes St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises, “will be in proportion to his surrender of self-love and of his own will and interests.” You pray for interior freedom so you can become obedient. Obedient to the requests of your superior, the one who “stands in the place of Christ.”
I had joined the Jesuits the year before, in 2002, leaving a life of acting, writing and teaching, because I was willing to take on this kind of obedience. “Go on the pilgrimage,” the superior says, and you go. “Teach high school English, teach I Am the Cheese and The Witch of Blackbird Pond”—and you do. Free yourself to be missioned this way or that with no preference but what God prefers.
Age quod agis. This is what the priest had told us. It was a line from St. Ignatius Loyola (who was himself probably quoting some old Roman legate’s calisthenics diary). Meaning: “Do what you are doing.” Do what you are doing and trust it is the will of God. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t overthink it. Just be present to the task at hand. All you can do is what you can do and then the Holy Spirit has to take over.
As soon as I remembered age quod agis, I don’t know ifI immediately gained more courage, or if my mind was simply too busy translating Latin into English to be fearful anymore—but nevertheless, I decided to do what I was doing. I kept walking. About a minute later a car slowed down. It was a station wagon and it pulled over to the side of the road, and I hustled over and told the driver where I was going. He said he could take me there. It had worked.
Richard was a practitioner of herbal medicine who lived in the area and told me he had felt the need to go to El Santuario that day. I was pleased—he was not Catholic but was visiting our side anyway. We drove to El Santuario, which it turns out was actually a complex of chapels, courtyards and gardens. We stepped inside the primary destination of most pilgrims, the chapel of Our Lord of Esquipulas.
Some places you go into and it feels.... I don’t know how to say this with much eloquence, but it just feels very, very cool. There is aweight to the place. The air is thick, you can feel it, it is humid with the holy; a weight and a gloom but the best kind of gloom, found primarily in old and darkened Catholic churches. I sat there with great relief. I had made it. I had passed the novice test, succeeded on the first stages of pilgrimage—taken in by Merry Sunshine and given a ride to Chimayo.
It was late afternoon and the shadows were lengthening. The adobe chapel was (as I recall) filled with crucifixes and Stations of the Cross and red-and-brown placards of beleaguered saints. It felt 10,000 years old. I could have sat there for hours.
There was a little room off to the side of the altar called el pocito, “the little well,” and in that room there was a hole with dirt in it, a fine, powdery dirt. I was told this was the thing, this was what people came for, the dirt.
One night in 1810, it is reported, a religious brother from the area named Don Bernardo Abeyta of the Penitente Brothers saw a light shining from a hill. He ventured out to see where it was coming from and ended up finding a crucifix in that small pit. Long story short, the dirt in that hole was considered holy and Don Bernardo built a chapel on the site, and for years since, droves of pilgrims have gone there every day, all year long. As many as 300,000 a year. It is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in America.
The air is thick, you can feel it, it is humid with the holy.
On the wall off to the side of el pocito were crutches and braces. The dirt is said to have healing properties. Having rubbed this dirt on themselves, people had evidently cast off their walking aids and went off free.
I grabbed a couple of handfuls. It felt good to pick up this powdery, clean (if that makes sense) dirt. I put it in a plastic bag and put it in the mint green pack and still have it 20 years later. I recently gave a portion of the soil to a friend who seemed like he could use some.
After all this, the dirt and the crutches and the weight of the air and the splendid gloom of the chapel, Richard told me he would put me up that night. My relief deepened. We drove to his place where he and his wife made me dinner, and I got to take a shower and sleep in a bed. In the morning they drove me down the road a bit further along toward Christ in the Desert than I had been before. It was all awesome.
This, it would seem, is the crux, the point of this narrative: Age quod agis. Do what you are doing and eventually you will come to the holy dirt. You will get taken home by kindly strangers and fed and sent warmly on your way. Trust what the blind priest told you—of course trust a blind priest!—and simply keep on going, through your fear, to the holy place.
And for that matter, age quod agislike others in that region of the country whose lives have stayed imprinted on mine and who became an unexpected part of my pilgrimage. Like Carl and Lorena whose legacy of raising cattle and plowing fields for 60 years from the Great Depression onward still lives in me somehow. Like Bud Welch, whose daughter was blown up by a bomb in a Ryder Truck in Oklahoma City and who, after months of living in fury, had a conversion and eventually advocated to get Timothy McVeigh off death row. Like a priest I stayed with in Springer, N.M., who found time to shout the gospel of peace and nonviolence at soldiers in his town and who also made me a really great sandwich.
Age quod agis. A fine crux.
But I realized only recently that there is a second crux to this narrative. Or maybe it is a rider attached to the initial crux. After 20 years as a Jesuit, I’ve discovered that you can age quod agis all you want and you will not necessarily get the coin of the realm. You will not necessarily pass the novice test. The blind priest well could have been advising us: Do what you are doing, and get it wrong. Age quod agis your way through Jesuit life, and you may become a poor discerner, a failed weathervane of God’s will, a disobedient Jesuit, a magnificently deficient human being—all of which I have been more often than I care to remember. But do it anyway. The Father will still bring the increase.
Take a bus from St. Paul to Taos and search all over the place and never find Merry Sunshine and trust it will all be okay regardless. Hitchhike to El Santuario, and if any number of herbal physicians pass you by and you find yourself stuck on the side of the road, think to yourself, Ahhh, so El Santuario has moved here! and kneel down and scoop up the dirt right where you are.