Learning to Read the Signs
Terra Sancta, or On Learning to Read the Signs
It had never occurred to me before to bless a car. Babies and old people and strangers when they sneezed, perhaps, but never a car. We rarely even washed ours. With three little girls, all still in one form of car seat or another, the task of keeping our station wagon free of broken crayons and melted chocolate kisses ground into the floor mats was itself almost too much to handle. Bless our car? Why would we bother? But outside El Santuario de Chimayó, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo, the Blood of Christ Mountains of New Mexico, we watched a priest in his black suit and white surplice sprinkling a navy blue Ford Fairlane with holy water from an aspersorium and intoning a prayer in Spanish, as the family to whom the car belonged—grandparents, parents, children—stood around in a semi-circle, heads bowed. Strange are the instruments of revelation.
A few days before, my husband and daughters and I had driven away from Houston, the humid air cloying, the concrete all around us radiating heat. In West Texas, the flat earth opened up onto the Palo Duro Canyon, a jagged tear, and we camped there and listened in the dark to the thrum of crickets and the strumming of a guitar. My bones pressed against the hard ground until they forgot they were something separate and fell asleep. Days later, outside of Santa Fe, dry hills spotted with scrub juniper and piñon pine and wooden crosses, we passed a sign for Chimayó, and I vaguely remembered something about a chapel there where miracles happened, and I made my husband turn off onto the two-lane road lined with cottonwood trees and small frame houses and gardens with rows of corn and peppers and zinnias.
The legend of El Santuario de Chimayó begins in the year 1810, on the night of Good Friday. In the hills near El Potrero, which had been sacred to the Tewa and Pueblo Indians before Europeans arrived, a Spanish friar named Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of Los Hermanos Penitentes, The Penitent Brothers, was performing his lonely atonements, perhaps flagellating himself with a whip made from leaves of the yucca plant. Sometime during that night, Don Bernardo Abeyta saw a light flare from the hillside, and when he reached the spot and began to dig with his bare hands, he unearthed a crucifix. Three times he carried the crucifix in procession to the church and three times, by morning, it was gone, buried again in the sandy earth. Finally, the supplicants understood: the crucifix wanted to remain where it had been found, and a chapel should be erected around that holy spot. Then the miraculous healings began.
Not quite two centuries later, an air of festivity suffused the parking lot of the chapel when we arrived. Several stands draped with strands of red chili peppers offered burritos and cold drinks for sale, and people wandered in and out of the souvenir stores. We went into one and looked at the rosaries and matchbox shrines, the bundles of piñon incense and famous holy chilies. I picked through trays spread with milagros, small silver devotional charms about the size of a dime and stamped out in various shapes—eyes, arms, legs, angels, the Virgin Mary at prayer, even (oh my, was that what I thought it was?) a penis and scrotum. Milagros, the sign read, is the Spanish word for “miracles.” Milagros are offered to a favorite saint as a reminder of the petitioner’s particular need, or they are offered to the saint in thanks for a prayer answered.
Back outside, we wandered through an arched gateway and into the small adobe chapel with its hand-hewn pews and ceiling beams and its altar screen, primitively painted in blues and greens and reds, at the center of which hung a crudely carved crucifix. But we noticed that this thrice-unearthed crucifix, after all, wasn’t the destination of our fellow tourists and pilgrims, who stooped to pass through a doorway off the altar into the sacristy. We followed and found ourselves in a low-ceilinged cave-like room whose walls were plastered with the remnants of the grateful and the yearning: crutches and braces, poems and photographs, milagros signifying broken legs and broken hearts, votive candles, baby shoes, dolls. An elderly man was sitting on a wooden bench, his head in his hands. Middle-aged white women with fanny packs, Hispanic women, children and teens were all kneeling around a pit in the center of the earthen floor—the spot where, I now realized, Don Bernardo Abeyta had apparently found the crucifix two centuries ago. Before the pilgrims stood to leave, many scooped out some of the sand from the pit into a ziplock plastic bag. Later, back at home, they would sprinkle it over an ailing loved one or, perhaps, swallow it themselves. I understood then—it’s the dirt here that’s miraculous, the earth itself that is holy.
When I think of myself and my husband on that trip, standing there in the doorway to the sacristy watching from the other side of belief, I think of T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” and his Wise Men traveling through a world whose meaning they cannot yet read. One of them, after describing their journey in the dead of winter, tells how they came to a temperate valley:
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information . . .
This magus views too literally the earth that he and his companions travel over, and cannot see the three trees and the white horse and the vine-leaves and the silver as the signs they are of Jesus’ coming and death and resurrection. But the birth that they’ve journeyed so far to witness shakes them. “I had seen birth and death,” the narrator says, “But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” And the magi return to their kingdoms “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.”
Standing in El Santuario de Chimayó, I, too, was no longer at ease. Something disquieted me at this little chapel of miraculous healing in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What was it? The girls were restless, so we wandered out into the heat of the August afternoon. Mary Martha was still little enough then to be carried, and she kept reaching up her arms to be held. Ellie, our oldest, began crying for a drink. Sabine, the baby on my hip, was in dire need of a new diaper and a nap. We knew we had to go. But all the rest of that day, as we drove through the barren hills away from Santa Fe, my daughters asleep in the back seat of the air-conditioned car, I thought about Chimayó and what we’d witnessed there. Later, we returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation. And for months and years afterward it would come back to me, this odd place—a mix of kitsch and piety. Again, what was it that haunted me? The irrational belief that a pinch of dirt could heal? My own skepticism in the face of such devotion? The worry that all around me there were hidden signs in this terra sancta, this holy land, that I’d been too blind to read?
“All this was a long time ago, I remember, / And I would do it again, but set down / This set down,” T. S. Eliot wrote in “Journey of the Magi.” One September, a few years after we stood in the sacristy of the Santuario de Chimayó watching the faithful gather dirt, my daughters and I discovered some tadpoles that had hatched in a tire rut filled with rainwater near a spot we passed every morning on our walk to school. The girls stooped over the puddle, hands on their knees, and watched the tadpoles’ black bodies nudging the surface. All that motion made the water simmer.
A weekend passed and then on Monday, when we checked the tadpoles, we noticed that the puddle had shrunk. The girls wanted to pour the water from their water bottles over them, but I promised to bring a full pitcher when I picked them up. By afternoon, the puddle was only a few wet patches, inches across, and many of the tadpoles had burrowed into the muck left as the rainwater receded. Afraid they might have all died, I was thinking that we could use a tadpole milagro right about then. But to my relief, when we poured the water over them, they stirred to life again.
That Tuesday morning, my daughters and I paused before the tadpoles as usual and saw that their pool was again evaporating and I again promised to bring the pitcher. Then we made our way to the school building and I kissed my daughters goodbye. For months afterward, I tried to remember precisely what time it was that I turned from them and headed home, tried to remember if it was the same moment that, several thousand miles away, the world began falling to pieces, first in New York City, then in Washington D.C., then in a lonely field in Pennsylvania. All this was a long time ago, I remember.
That afternoon, my husband walked to the school with me, something he never did because he was never home from work on a Tuesday, and the sky was impossibly blue and thousands of people had died, though we didn’t know how many then. We didn’t know how much would never be recovered. After we’d collected the girls and left the playground and reached the corner and the tire rut where the tadpoles were frantically swimming, I dumped the water as I’d planned. But somehow, that gesture on this day seemed too paltry. So I scooped up as many of the black, wriggling creatures as I could in my plastic pitcher, put the lid on, and we all walked home.
Each morning in those first days, the girls, school canceled, would wake up and look in on our improvised aquarium—a clear glass mixing bowl with some rocks and leaves and a few ferns I’d pulled up by the roots from the backyard. I put the bowl in the laundry room on the dryer next to the window. It seemed the warmest place in the house, with a view of sunlight through trees, the ground spackled with shadows of blue jays and mockingbirds flicking from branch to branch, of orbed webs of spiders stretching across the lantana. Day after day, my husband and I sat on the couch and watched the images on television of people searching the streets for the lost and the departed, while we waited for Peter Jennings to explain to us how and why something like this could have happened. But everyone on the TV kept talking and talking so that nobody had to confront the possibility that there was no meaning in this act, or that we might all be implicated in the horrible meaning there was. Sometimes, while we sat dumbly on the couch, getting up only to make some haphazard meal or to pour a bowl of cereal, Sabine would drag a chair over to the tadpoles, climb up on the washing machine, and try to pet them with her dimpled finger. Mary Martha would stand on her tiptoes sucking her thumb, peering in through the glass.
Later, when the girls were back in school and while I was supposed to be working but was still listening to the radio reports and getting nothing done instead, I, too, would wander over to the laundry room and watch the tadpoles, their rounded bellies, emerging legs, tails scribbling through the water. They looked like prehistoric trilobites, their strange glowing eyes bulging from a dark body, ancient. Knowing nothing about tadpole habitats or dietary needs, I kept thinking of going to the library to read up on what I should be doing, but I was feeling lethargic and dulled. Wondering what ingenuity had kept their species alive all these years while ours seemed intent on its own destruction, I just stared and stared.
At breakfast on those mornings, my husband and I would look at the photos and read the obituaries of the dead in The New York Times, these notices which were, in some small but critical way, attempts to refute the namelessness of these particular deaths. And while we drank our coffee and read the paper, Ellie would announce the running count of how many frogs’ lives we’d saved. But after a while, our rescue numbers began to dwindle. The water in the clear bowl began to take on a sort of rust-colored tint, and there seemed to be less of it. I added more from the sink. Then one day, we found two dead tadpoles floating listlessly on the surface. Sabine wanted to touch them, but I brushed her hand away. We watched the others for a while. They looked sluggish. I sent the girls next door to ask Janie, the woman with two aging Labrador retrievers, a cancerous cat, and an aquarium, if we could borrow some fish food. She sent back half a jar of flakes. Afterward, a few more frogs emerged. But the water was becoming cloudy and viscous. And it stank. I was beginning to feel helpless, like I’d interfered with the laws of nature, with inevitability, and had done more harm than good. What did it matter anyway, given the context, whether these small creatures lived or not? I’m not sure I cared anymore. When three more tadpoles turned up dead, we poured what was left back into the pitcher, walked down to the bayou between our house and the highway, and let them go.
In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine describes a world permeated with “signs” of the realm beyond. We are pilgrims, says Augustine, wanderers and strangers like T. S. Eliot’s magi. As we travel across the broken face of the earth, seeking, we must train ourselves to read the world, which is God’s text, so that we can understand its signs and use them to reach Him, who is our home. “Thus in this mortal life,” Augustine declares, “wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the ‘invisible things’ of God ‘being understood by the things that are made’ may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual.” After Chimayó, I had wanted to learn to read the eternal in the corporeal. I had longed, like the pilgrims there, to see miracles in the dirt. Were the tadpoles signs? For my daughters, the tadpoles were merely temporal things, pets, I suppose, which we rescued and then kept for a while in a glass bowl on the dryer. But for me, they are mixed up with that awful day we brought them home, and the weeks and months afterward, and the counting of survivors and of the dead that we were all doing then, and those attempts, small and large, at salvage. Perhaps, then, I can read those tadpoles and our act of saving them as signs. But of what? Maybe only this: my own helplessness. This modest gesture toward goodness illustrating not my ability to combat wickedness or to ease suffering, but for my inability to do anything more.
For St. Augustine, reading the world too literally, not being attentive to signs of the eternal, could lead to a sort of “servitude of the spirit” in which one became incapable of moving beyond the corporeal realm at all. Later thinkers codified Augustine’s cautioning against slavery to earthly things into the medieval principle of contemptus mundi, contempt of the world. All that surrounds us here, the thinking went, and we ourselves, are temporal, passing. “Vanity of vanities,” the preacher cries out in Ecclesiastes. “[V]anity of vanities; all is vanity.” We must consider, above all else, the priests and philosophers warned, our own salvation. And to reach that heavenly home, we must reject worldly pleasures during our earthly journey. Keep our eyes on the prize that the Resurrection offered.
But beyond the uselessness of the temporal in the search for eternal salvation, it seems to me that there exists a more tangible danger in reading too literally, in not being able to find at least the possibility of the eternal in the temporal, one with consequences for us here and now. To see a sign, and know it, is to make a metaphor: dirt is a miracle, a rescued tadpole is salvage. To see a sign is to understand connection and also the fluidity between what exists and what cannot always be observed. It is, thus, to engage in empathy. But literalism, which is a form of fundamentalism, places the adherent arrogantly outside the equation between tangible and intangible, instead of somewhere humbly within. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Connections between the earthly and the ineffable pass unnoticed. And in fact, to the literalist, the connection does not even exist. There is only the thing, the literal word itself, which must be obeyed at all cost. This view makes possible a world in which terrorists fly planes into buildings to punish infidels, and a leader takes a country to war without provocation and on the flimsiest of charges, killing along the way thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” said T. S. Eliot in "The Wasteland," quoting Dante, describing the souls of the damned.
For pilgrims in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was the omphalos, the navel of the world. Ancient and medieval maps placed the Holy Land at the center, where the continents and the seas all met and where Christian history was born. Jerusalem, a physical place of cypress and stone, fought over now for millennia, was also a symbol of the Heavenly City, that home to which all pilgrims hoped they might return when their earthly journey was done. But Christian pilgrims saw actual signs everywhere in the Holy Land of Jesus’ life and death: the field where the shepherds kept watch over their flocks; the manger, encased in white marble; the house of Simon the Leper and of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha; the muddy waters of the Jordan; the place near Mt. Sion where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples; the Rock of Calvary; the Stone of Unction; the empty Tomb. With every step the pilgrims took, it seemed, they trod on holy ground. Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar from Ulm, Germany, traveled to the Holy Land, arriving at the port of Joppa in 1483. In a caravan of asses, escorted by Saracen guides, his pilgrim band crossed the plains of Judea on their way to Jerusalem. “We embraced the rock itself, as Job,” he says of this crossing, “nay I know some pilgrims who so loved the Holy Land, that both by day and by night they would constantly bow themselves to the earth and caress it with the sweetest kisses, and would venerate the stones themselves as relics.”
It’s not that I think those stones from the Holy Land or the dirt of Chimayó or the tadpoles we found in the muck of a tire rut are sacred, and that through them we can travel to God. It’s not that I don’t. I don’t know what these remnants and relics and tangible, temporal things point me toward exactly, what’s on the other side of the metaphor. Wonder, maybe. A presence, perhaps. What did Eve hope for in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge but to have her eyes opened? I, too, would like to taste and see. But it seems its own kind of sign that we have so long needed to make a holy shrine of this earth and have found, in the hidden crevices, an invisible world where something quickens in us that before was still.