We’ve all heard of and likely often touched holy water and maybe even exclaimed “holy cow!” or “holy Toledo,” among other and less “holy” exclamations.
But holy dirt?
It was certainly a new one on me, until I had the distinct privilege and spiritually moving experience of being at the site of holy dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. I was there as part of a Center for Action and Contemplation late October conference on Franciscan mysticism, featuring Father Richard Rohr.
Set in the very small town of Chimayo about an hour by car from Santa Fe, El Santuario has been a U.S. National Historic Landmark since 1970 and, more significantly, is one of the most visited holy sites in the United States, drawing an estimated 300,000 there each year, according to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
El Santuario (“The Shrine”) has been referred to as the “Lourdes of America,” as for more than 200 years since the crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas was found on the site in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1810 it has been a place of pilgrimage.
One accounting of the discovery of the crucifix names Don Bernardo de la Encarnacion Abeyta, a lay member of Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (Society of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth) confraternity performing penances on the night of Good Friday. He saw a light springing from a slope near the Santa Cruz River. Drawn to the light, he started to dig with his bare hands and found the crucifix.
El Santuario was built between 1814 and 1816 as a place to worship that has drawn people to seek cures for spiritual, emotional and physical ailments for generations.
The “dirt” found at the shrine’s room known as the “pocito” (well) is considered holy as the spot the crucifix was found. Many who visit rub themselves with the “holy dirt” or take a small amount of it in bags purchased from the nearby souvenir store home to keep or to bring to other loved ones. While there are stories of the dirt miraculously replacing itself, dirt is regularly replaced in the room from nearby hillsides by those associated with the shrine, reportedly a total of 25-30 tons a year.
The Catholic Church takes no position on whether miracles have occurred at El Santuario, though there are dozens of crutches on display there. Yet, the shrine makes available this “holy dirt” for free for the asking, and even offers suggestions on how best to use the dirt, which focus on coming to God in quiet, humility and prayer and asking for understanding and healing.
Chimayo is centered around El Santuario and is home to: the beautiful Santo Nino Chapel, built in 1857, and dedicated to the childhood of Jesus and filled with art of young people; the Holy Family Chapel; monuments to Our Lady of Sorrows, pilgrims and the nativity; a welcome center; gift shops; an outdoor prayer and picnic areas and Madonna gardens.
During Mass celebrated by Father Richard at Santo Nino Chapel, he referred to the “holy dirt” as a recognition of how God is present in the earthiness of life. “God cares for us here and now,” he said. “He is concerned about your pain now.”
“This,” Father Rohr said, “is a place of healing.”
“God’s love – the healing love,” he said, is recognition “that someone cares.”
Father Rohr provides a sense of the earthiness of God’s presence and love as we prepare for the coming of the Christ at Christmas in his Preparing for Christmas. He notes there that Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on “the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ,” who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves, to surrender.
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Photo top of the crucified Christ just outside El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, N.M. (Photos by Mark Lombard).