Holy Dirt, Holy Child

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Chimayo New Mexico

El Santuario de Chimayó

In the small village of Chimayo, in the Sangre de Christo mountains of New Mexico, is a miraculous healing shrine often called the “Lourdes of America.” What’s unique about this shrine is that unlike most all healing shrines the world over that claim miraculous healing powers from a well or a spring, this one has “holy dirt.”  I think that’s not a very good translation of the Spanish  phrase “tierra bendito,”  better rendered as “blessed earth,” but “holy dirt”  is what it is officially called.

The legend of El Santuario de Chimayó, as the shrine is called, says Don Bernardo Abeyta discovered a crucifix buried in the sand on his land in Chimayo, and that because it is the site where the crucifix was found, the dirt became holy. But no one has much interest in this crucifix, which is in the church. All miraculous healing is ascribed to the holy dirt, which is either eaten or smeared on the body as a kind of paste.

Don Bernardo Abeyta belonged to a Catholic brotherhood and was especially devoted to the Christ of Esquipulas, a holy site in Guatemala which also has a miracle clay. So supposedly Don Abeyta got this idea of curative dirt from Esquipulas, but that certainly, to me, is not the whole story.

The Logos as Holy Child

Don Abeyta focused on Christ as an intercessor for healing, rather than the Madonna, which explains a lot. The Madonna is always associated with water, so it makes more sense to see a shrine devoted to Christ rely on earth as a holy substance. Where Christ is viewed as intercessor, it is the Logos we are talking about. Spirit which has manifested in matter. And the Logos has another church right next to El Sanctuario de Chimayo, as it turns out. The Santo Nino, or Holy Child chapel, right next to El Santuario, is dedicated to El Nino del Atocha, a form of Christ as a small child who by legend helps people who are imprisoned or in some kind of predicament requiring aid. This shrine attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every year at Easter time. A child is one good symbol of spirit manifesting into matter. But there are others.

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Plaque on the Pilgrim statue, Chimayo, New Mexico

Holy Dirt

I have a lot of appreciation for dirt. I used to be an archaeologist, and had more intimacy with dirt than most people do. At the end of a day of digging I was blowing dirt out my nose and swabbing it out of my ears. So I recognized, in the first place, that the dirt from the floor of the Chimayo shrine, which pilgrims collect for its healing powers, is loamy. Which means it is clay-like; it is dense and somewhat silky in texture. And as it turns out, the miracle clay found at the Esquipulas shrine is kaolin clay, which is also a high grade clay used to make pots and pipes. At the Esquipulas shrine, in fact, pilgrims don’t take the raw dirt/clay from the shrine, but rather buy small baked clay tiles made from it.

What better way for spirit to appear in matter than in the creation of a pot? A pot is a receptacle, a symbol of a world that has the capacity to hold Spirit, and a pot is also a crucible, a device used to transform matter (as when we cook our food). And among the ancients, pots were decorated with the myths and holy stories of the tribe. A location that was a good source of quality clay could be highly prized and venerated by ancient people.

Holy Pottery, Logos Made Manifest

Philip K. Dick, my favorite science fiction author, brought this concept into many of his novels, notably Valis and Galactic Pot-Healer. For him, a pot is an artifact, a great metaphor for the transitory, illusory nature of the created world. But when a potter is inspired by the Logos, spirit can enter the design of the pot, sort of hiding God in plain sight for those who know how to look. Then the pot becomes a vehicle for the actions of the Spirit.

The pot was unusual in one way, however. In it slumbered God. He slumbered in the pot for a long time, for almost too long. – Philip K. Dick, Valis

In the 1990’s two potters named Laurel and Paul Thornburg who made a living by replicating the pottery designs of the prehistoric American southwest made an amazing discovery. Archaeologists had long been puzzled by the Mimbres culture, a people who lived in central New Mexico about 900 years ago. The pottery these people made was always black and white, in contrast to the pottery of all the groups throughout the southwest who always used some form of color in their pots. Why was this? What was so appealing about black and white?

The Thornburgs learned, through making their own versions of Mimbres pottery, that subjective color could be seen when the pots were spun. They wondered whether the Native Americans of the Mimbres culture knew about this, and surmised that they must have been aware of it. They also speculated that this had some spiritual significance for the people who made the pottery, especially since these pots were associated with burials.

To our utter astonishment, there, before our eyes, were bands of bright color, alternating red and green bands whirling around the interior of the bowl. Amazed we tried the other bowls that we had on hand. To our delight most, but not all, of them exhibited color to varying degrees. We were treated to the sight of fantastic bands of purple, red, yellow, blue, amazing pinks and greens… every color in the spectrum in different arrangements, wide bands, thin ones, all changing with the speed of rotation. – Laurel and Paul Thornburg

You can see this for yourself. Print these replicas of Mimbres pot designs (make them about the size of a coaster), glue the printouts to cardboard, and position one through the hole on the top of a pencil. (The pencil should project through the disc a couple of inches so the disc won’t spin off) Use both hands to twirl the pencil rapidly (just like you were rubbing your palms together only with the pencil in between). You’ll see the colors emerge.

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Mimbres Subjective Color Wheels

The Logos. Spirit manifesting in matter. God hiding in a pot. Holy Dirt. Perhaps at one time, the earth at Chimayo was recognized to have a sacred quality, the ability to bring the gods into the world of men.

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2 responses to “Holy Dirt, Holy Child

  1. Thanks for posting this! So intriguing. I love how you mention Philip K. Dick’s literary transformation of the pot as a vehicle for spirit.

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    • PKD was an amazing dude. I seem to be tuned into the same frequency as he was since I often have insights that I later find in his writings. I’m glad you liked this post since this is one of those where I was thinking – “Where the heck am I going with this?” I’m so glad I have readers who can navigate the rabbit hole of my inspirations!

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