El Santuario de Chimayo

Pilgrims, petitioners, the pious arrived before us. The wooden crosses they carried, sometimes barefoot, sometimes hundreds of miles across New Mexico, litter the path from parking lot. Others have transformed the chain link fence leading up to the sanctuary, attaching their offerings. Artfully crafted crosses tied next to homely ones, pictures of loved ones, even a tattered necktie are now prayers. Nearby cottonwoods are draped with rosaries and small crosses. At the edge of the plaza a stone altar overflows with more rosaries, hundreds of rosaries, and dozens of votive candles.

What is it about this place? I have rarely experienced such an active expression of belief. The vocabulary of my Catholic youth comes back to me—intercession, penitence, absolution—yet it seems insufficient. The sheer volume of offerings tells me that they are not metaphors, but symbols of a living, interactive faith. Here is a palpable belief that the sick will be healed, the child protected, the dead honored, and the sins forgiven.

It is the row after row of tiny shoes in the Santo Nino chapel that finally force me from my contemplation to conversation. I approach the shopkeeper in the gift shop. She is from Chimayo she tells me in her lilting New Mexico accent, she is retired and can walk to the Santuario, where she helps out in the shop.

Small questions about the shoes and the history of the chapel. I buy a booklet about the Santo Nino de Atocha. Finally, I ask her the question I have been asking myself all afternoon, "What is it about this place?"

She smiles and simply says, "It's not about the place, it's about the faith."