El Camino de Chimayo

- April 9, 2012

"You don't have to be Catholic to be transformed by this walk"

Of late, I've been hearing myself saying "Ah...I Get It" more and more. I take this as a good sign and I feel encouraged by it because, in each case, it has been true.

I recently learned of the pilgrimage to The Santuario de Chimayo, which takes place every Good Friday here in wonderful northern New Mexico. I had been invited by my former teacher and santero (carver of saints) Felix to go and see this charming and very touching church in the hills of Chimayo. Many of the santos (carved images of saints) there have been created by either Felix or his son. And those sculptures are worth the trip alone. This includes a full sized "Christo", which, I am proud to say, I played a very minor role in helping Felix decide on the color scheme.

My latest "I Get It" occurred during this pilgrimage. I had driven into the area ostensibly to get some photographs of the event. I did not expect, or plan, to be a participant. But, as I got closer, I could see hundreds of people walking on either side of the road. Traffic was also building up and I had an overwhelming impulse to pull over, park the car, and just start walking with everyone—to become a pilgrim. And that's exactly what I did. I did not even bother to take water or anything else, except the camera. That is very unlike me.

I had no idea how far The Santuario was from where I had parked, and I didn't care. I only knew that I would get there. The day was gloriously crisp and clear…typical New Mexico fare. Thankfully the air was cool. But the sun is often intense here, even in April, and it wasn't long before I was mentally chastising myself for not having brought water with me. I understand the dangers of dehydration in this region and this seemed like a really bad blunder. No sooner did I have the thought when I saw an outreached hand, in which was held a bottle of water. "Agua?" he said with a big smile. I was proud that I did not hesitate long before saying "Ah, Si, Por favor y muchas gracias." I don't know if that's "proper Spanish" or not, but I was proud that I was able to respond somewhat appropriately after two semesters of studying the language at our community college! (I'm going to see if I can wrangle some extra credit out of my professor for that.)

This event looks like something out of a movie, only it's better. I have never felt such esprit de corps anywhere. Local people had set up tables on the side of the road, with baskets packed full of the most succulent and colorful fruit, and in one instance, tomatoes. Was it washed? Was it organic? Who cared!! Those were the best apples and the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. I was one parched pilgrim! Water always turned up just when I needed it, and was always presented with a smile, and "Bless You." What a lovely culture this speaks to. I only wish you could have seen these handsome and glowing faces of northern New Mexico.

As I walked I heard a lot of Spanish being spoken and I was so pleased to be able to pick up parts of conversations. YES, I was eavesdropping. Sometimes I got a thrill just identifying a part of speech, as in: "Wow, he just used the past tense (preterito). I know what verb it is!" Well, I am still a beginner.

Many people carried crosses, others, incense. Still others chanted in Spanish. And some sang out in a "call and response" style of singing involving six or more people, often combined with chant. It was very moving, very spiritual, and frankly, exactly what modern America needs. It didn't matter that I didn't understand all of the words, or that I was not a part of this northern New Mexico tradition. The sound of the voices and their intonation communicated it all. I felt very close to them.

Then came the "I Get It" part. I think I get, at least in part, what pilgrimages are all about. The recent movie, "The Way" also alludes to this. As you walk, and walk, and walk, your body becomes TIRED. Your mind becomes TIRED. Your internal dialog slows down, then finally shuts up. That's when revelation and higher levels of awareness happen. Aside from that, it's just great to have the peace and quiet inside of what is a normally quite noisy head. Welcome to the modern mind, right?

For the last part of the trip, approaching the Santuario, after hours and hours of walking, I met up with a fellow, originally from Minnesota, and his friend. We had a wonderful conversation all the way into Chimayo. Arriving at Chimayo, I discovered a line at least two football fields long. "What's that for?", I asked someone. "Oh, that's the line to get into the Santuario." I opted instead to walk around and discover the small chapels on the same property as the Santuario.

On the return, and I was really tired, and had determined to persevere, when a couple from Albuquerque in a large truck, slowed down, rolled down the window and chirped out "Would you like a ride?" Yes, I wanted to finish the pilgrimage on foot, BUT, I was halfway into their car before I said "Yes!". They both laughed. I had a wonderful conversation with Laura Lee and John from Albuquerque. Since John was a native New Mexican, we even discussed the differences in Spanish dialect and expressions used here. Thank you Laura Lee and John. Milliones gracias.

It was a magical day. I recommend El Camino de Chimayo to ANYONE. You don't have to be Catholic to be transformed by this walk. You will have an experience unlike any other. And that's a promise.

Visiting hours are: May-September 9:00 am -6:00 pm
October-April 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

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