On a cool and unusually cloudy day in New Mexico, I drove out of Albuquerque some seventy miles north to the tiny town of Chimayo, known primarily for two things: chilies and a church. Although this may seem an odd combination, it really is not. The chilies and the church both depend on the area’s unusually fertile soil, a gift of the sands and springs of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Santa Cruz River. The ancient Tewa tribe, for whom Chimayo was the location of creation, found the rich red clay of the area the ideal location for growing chili peppers, the best in the entire region.
But the church? In a small building attached to the side of a Roman Catholic chapel, there is a pit of red sand, a well of “sacred dirt” that Native Americans believe continuously refreshes itself, like a spring. Although no longer visible, originally there was a spring next to the sand well. Those seeking healing would mix soil with water to make a red clay, which was then applied as a cure. Over the centuries, many people have reported being healed here, so many that it is called the “Lourdes of North America.” Its popularity has continued to soar as a pilgrimage site. About three hundred thousand people come to Chimayo to kneel and pray at the dirt each year. During Holy Week, thousands of penitents come, as at Roman Catholic shrines in Mexico or the Philippines, to flagellate themselves or otherwise imitate the suffering Christ in a quest for spiritual or physical healing.
I visited on a Tuesday in the autumn, not the busiest day or season in Chimayo. There was a small group gathered for Mass in the church, but I skipped the prayers and went directly to the side chapel. I ducked as I walked through the low door of the old building, which was full of discarded crutches, used hospital identification bracelets, tokens of thanks and supplication, and the photos of the healed or those longing to be healed. Santos, the statues of many saints, lined the hall to the even smaller second door, the entrance to the portico – the room with the sand well. Many days, a long line of hopeful visitors stretches out the door. But I was alone, accompanied only by the words of the priest intoning the ancient Mass, barely audible through the church wall.
As a Protestant, I was not entirely sure what to do. But I knelt down reverently next to the hole, as seemed appropriate. I scooped up a small bit of sand in my fingers and unthinkingly rubbed the dirt on my forehead, as if marking myself with holy water. Tiny grains fell into my eyes, making me blink. Then, like other pilgrims, I used the shovel to put a bit of sand in a plastic bag to take home. As I sealed my bag, I thought of Jesus healing a man born blind:
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. (John 9:6-7)
This was Biblical stuff, I thought. The pain in my arthritic shoulder, however, did not subside.
I remembered another such place that I visited about twenty years ago, one not nearly as old as Chimayo. In the woods of central Minnesota, there is a small building called the House of Prayer. There, in the center of the round chapel is a hole in the floor, a patch of bare earth, purposefully constructed to connect retreat goers with a grounded spirituality. The priest at the center told me that Hope Indians called such earth wells sipaqu, the point of emergence, and built their kivas, their sacred rooms, around such holes.
For many of North America’s native peoples, the round well of sand symbolically represented the blood of Mother Earth, the beginning of life, the ground at its most fertile. The miracle of creation, of female blood at birth, was often ascribed healing power. At Chimayo, the primal stories of Mother Earth were overlaid with the stories of Jesus and his blood given for the life of the world. This was not the blood of a sacrificial victim, rather it was the blood of procreation. The tiny pit of miraculous sand was not the work of some spiritual charlatan, a Roman Catholic Elmer Gantry. Rather, this spot was one of ancient birthing, of healing, of the red blood of the Earth.
I walked away from the Chimayo shrine puzzled and more than a bit theologically confounded. I wandered into a gallery across the street where Señor Medina sells paintings and chili peppers.
“Hola!” he said as I entered. “Come here.”
He pointed to a large table of ground dried chilies, dozens of varieties, in plastic bags for sale on his porch.
I am in my mid-fifties. I rubbed my aching shoulder. And, after all, I am visiting a Roman Catholic healing shrine!
“I can help with that.”
“What?” I asked.
“Here,” he directed. “Put this pistachio in your mouth, but don’t eat it.”
I was skeptical, but I followed his instruction. Then he handed me a tiny chaser – about a quarter of a teaspoon – of ground chili pepper from his farm.
“Chew this and the nut together,” he directed.
I did and – whew! – it was hot. And absolutely amazing. The best chili pepper I have ever eaten. I laughed, with tiny tears running down my cheeks. The active ingredient in chili peppers, also known as capsaicin, has curative properties for pain and inflammation. Señor Medina was not inviting me to a mystical experience. He was offering to relive my pain with chili peppers, the major crop of Chimayo’s farms, grown in the same soil as that in the round hold in the portico. With thanks, I bought a bag of #1 ground chilies from him and tucked it into my purse with the bag of sacred sand from the church.
The Earth heals. I carried proof of such miracles in the two ziptop plastic sandwich bags in my purse. As I drove away, I felt the warm afterglow of Chimayo, but not from some mystical experience. Mostly it was from the spice I still tasted in my mouth.