Holier than dirt

chimayo2Say what you want about The New York Times — actually, don’t say what you want — the paper does have some great resources at its disposal. One of my favorite features is their city journal. That’s where stringers and foreign correspondents file slice-of-life reports from exotic locales.

This week the Times had a report from Chimayo, New Mexico, with a rather provocative headline: “A Pastor Begs to Differ With Flock on Miracles.” Reporter Erik Eckholm’s story is brief and you should read the whole thing, but here is how it begins:

“It’s not the dirt that makes the miracles!” the Rev. Casimiro Roca said with exasperation.

True, discarded crutches line a wall inside the Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe church in this village of northern New Mexico known as the Lourdes of America.

True, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk eight miles or more to the shrine on Good Friday, some bearing heavy crosses and others approaching on their knees. Scores of people visit every day the rest of the year, many hoping to cure diseases or disabilities with prayer, holy water and, most famously, the healing dirt, which visitors collect from a hole in the floor inside the church.

What a fantastic lede. Clearly we’re dealing with Penitentes here! Considering the media interest in flashy religion stories, I’m surprised we don’t get more coverage of them. Growing up in Colorado, I didn’t realize they were such a small group but apparently Penitentes only exist in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They are known for their self-flagellation and Holy Week processions. They used to be known for their mock crucifixions. When I lived in Colorado we studied them more in an historic context but while their numbers have dwindled from the 19th century, they still exist.

Sure enough, Eckholm explains that the original chapel was constructed by Penitentes. It fell into disrepair and Father Roca devoted his life to rebuilding the sanctuary — including the hole — and creating the shrine and gift shop. The gift shop sells plastic containers of “blessed dirt” and holy water, by the way.
virgin mary pretzel
The story is rich with detail and begins to paint a picture of Father Roca:

Few leave without some of the reddish soil, scooped from the 18-inch-wide “posito,” or well, that is continually replenished — by a caretaker, Father Roca is quick to explain, despite rumors over the years that the pit was refilled by divine intervention.

He pointed to the small building nearby where trucked-in dirt is stored. “I even have to buy clean dirt!” he complained.

Eckholm interviews two of the visitors who take dirt and water home in hope of healing. Rosa Salazar, whose husband has cancer, reported that after rubbing dirt on her husband’s chest and feet — and praying — his latest CAT scan looked better.

Father Roca believes in miracles, too, but, he said, “They are the work of the Good Lord.”

“I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt, I have faith in the Lord,” he said. “But people can believe what they want.”

For all the stories we get about weeping statues and apparitions of the Blessed Mother or, um, Virgin Mary pretzels being sold on eBay, it’s rare to see this side of the story reported on. The one question I felt was unanswered was what, specifically, Roca is doing to correct parishioners’ and visitors’ misguided views

As for the dirt, the best-known attraction of his busy little church, he said: “I don’t like to think about it. People come here not for the crucifix but for the dirt, and some people even sell it.”

Mrs. Salazar, the believer in its healing power, said she knew nothing of Father Roca’s vexation. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” she asked.

The story is so brief that it’s possible that too much would have been lost by delving into what the priest tells his flock and the visitors to his chapel. Still, it is a curious missing piece. But the article does provide other rich details that make the story come alive.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    A classic example of GetReligion readers being silent after praise of MSM work.


  • Laura

    What the priest had to say about the dirt not making the miracles is right on. Sacramentals such as Holy water and this dirt aren’t powerful in themselves, but it’s the prayer attached to them that has the power. I mean, you can drink and cook with holy water if you want to, there’s nothing wrong with that. Also, the Church warns against superstitions growing out of stuff like this.

  • Julia

    Mrs. Salazar, the believer in its healing power, said she knew nothing of Father Roca’s vexation. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” she asked.

    This is a perfect example of those mistaken folks who opine in blogs about bogus Catholic teaching on the basis that they went to Catholic school or were raised Catholic.

    I like the juxtaposition of what the priest says immediately followed by the woman’s comments. The astute reader is expected to get the disconnect, and probably guess that the priest has given up on trying to correct pious people’s fanciful beliefs.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    It’s a stretch to associate El Santuario de Chimayo with Penitentes at this date. It is part of the archdiocese of Santa Fe, whatever its origins.

    The Penitentes were a religious brotherhood that arose in areas where Catholic priests were scarce, and it was only grudgingly accepted by the hierarchy.

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    Didn’t Jesus heal the blind man with dirt and spit. Probably didn’t have to but he did. Whose to say he still doesn’t want to use dirt to heal people.

  • Dennis Colby


    I’ve been reading GetReligion for years, and that’s something that’s always struck me as well. Obviously, not everyone who reads the site comments on the posts, but it seems odd that few regular commenters are willing to commend the “MSM” on a job well done. Perhaps some people just read to have their prejudices confirmed.

  • rw

    Its wonderful to see a piece on Chimayo – even a short one. It really is a very special place, and I am not even Catholic.

    Chimayo is usually not the starting point for talking about the Pentitentes, even though it’s deep inside P. country. This is because the heart of the brotherhood is found in the morada, not the pilgrimage chapel. The brotherhood gets the most attention for its willingness to take on suffering in order to identify with the suffering of Christ on his way to Calvary. In contrast, Chimayo, Lourdes and other places are about healing and relief from suffering. Those who still make the pilgrimage to Chimayo carrying crosses are not likely Penitentes – the difference between their procession and the Good Friday march to Chimayo is contained in nuances too complicated to get into here.

    I don’t think the thousands and thousands of people who flock to Chimayo are poor benighted souls who need Roca to set them straight about the dirt.

    On the other hand, there is a certain type of spirituality that is expressed through touching or contemplating physical objects that seem connected to the divine. In Chimayo, its the dirt. In Eastern Orthodox churches, it is the icon. I’d like to hear more about this type of spirituality. Its probably something Roca knows a lot about. It’s this understanding that likely prevents him from locking the sacristy and lecturing the pilgrims on the enlightenment perspective toward miracles.

  • Eli

    I have to say I think it’s just wonderful that dirt’s finally getting a little bit of respect.

  • Maureen

    Re: silent after praise

    If someone praises something, and everybody agrees but has nothing more to say, why on earth would they comment? Do you want people to post endless ranks of “ditto” or “me, too”?

    Ever since the days of the BBS and Usenet groups, silence has been considered a tribute in itself.