(This is one of a series written about a recent visit to the southwest)
While this portion of the southwest is even more bone dry than usual, the area is awash in the confluence of the spirituality of two separate cultures.
It goes all the way back to when Hernán Cortés led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under Spanish control in the early 16th century.
The Aztecs worshipped a god called Quetzalcoatl who they believed had red hair, fair skin, light eyes and four legs. They also believed the god would return to earth about the time Cortés showed up with all the same attributes plus riding a horse. Because of this the natives treated him as a god reincarnated, a mistake exploited by the Conquistadores. As a result, a few hundred soldiers toppled an empire. (Smallpox and other diseases introduced by the Spaniards may have had a big hand in the lopsided victory, but that’s another story).
Incidentally, I remember reading a rather scientific article a while back stating that when European ships first started showing up off the shores of the Americas the natives could not see the boats in which they arrived. They couldn’t see them, the theory went, because in all of their expansive history no such ships existed. With zero knowledge of the vessels, they just could not see them. I think something similar may have happened with the Chicago Cubs. Maybe they did have a really good season but no one could recognize it because it had never been seen before. But I digress.
Another example is El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico. The natives of several warring tribes believed the site to be sacred long before Europeans arrived. A nearby cave was the repository of their souls before birth and after death; and nearby soil had healing properties. For centuries, the natives set their differences aside and made the trek in peace to the holy site looking for enlightenment and for some, healing.
Then, sometime around 1810, a Catholic friar was performing penances when he saw a light bursting from the hillside. Digging, he found a crucifix, quickly dubbed the miraculous crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas. A local priest brought the crucifix to Santa Cruz, but three times it disappeared and was later found back in its hole. A small chapel was built on the site and then the miraculous healings began. These grew so numerous that the chapel had to be replaced by the larger, current Chimayo shrine– an adobe mission– in 1816.
The cross is still on display in the chapel, and through a hole in the floor samples of the dirt can still be taken. The Prayer Room, which is located in the sacristy of the church (next to the pit), is filled with discarded crutches and braces.
But perhaps the Lady in Blue is the most fascinating story of all.
Her name was Maria, and she was born April 2, 1602, in Spain. At an early age she took holy vows to become a nun in the Poor Clare order at a nearby cloistered convent. Between 1620 and 1631, Sister Maria experienced dreams in which she was carried to a strange and wild land, where she taught the gospel to strange and wild people. At the same time, Native Americans in the New Mexico area began reporting sightings of a woman dressed in blue who mysteriously showed up out of nowhere preaching the Christian gospel in their language. The reports were so pervasive that the head of the Franciscan Monks, Father Alonso, was directed by the Pope and the King of Spain to look into it. His inquiries led him to small villages, which seemed to have begun practicing Christianity spontaneously, with villagers explaining that a lady in blue had told them to do so. Eventually, Fr. Alonso returned to Spain and met sister Maria. In an interview, she described in great detail the geography of New Mexico and the dress and customs of the native people. And, as all the sisters in the order did, she wore a blue dress.
Cue Twilight Zone music.