SET among the pen trays, inkstands, paperweights, and general clutter on my desk is a little box full of fine red dirt — so fine as to be almost dust. I brought it home with me from a remarkable place: the Santuario de Chimayó, in a hidden valley high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in New Mexico.
I made a pilgrimage there with the American poet Scott Cairns. As we came close to the shrine, all along the ledges and fences at the side of the path, pilgrims before us had tied rosaries, left messages and photographs, and leaned the wooden crosses that some of them had carried on their journey.
The story of this strange place, amid mountains called after the blood of Christ, is as much bound up with the cross as it is with the red dirt of the high desert. The site had long been sacred to the Tewa, a tribe of Pueblo Native Americans, and, when they became Christians, this remarkable place remained a sacred site.
For the story goes that, one night, a poor farmer saw a light in the hills, and, when he came to investigate, he found, shining through the red dust, a large crucifix. Thinking it must belong to the Spanish monks in Santa Cruz, he put it in his donkey cart and brought it to them, and they placed it on their altar; but, when he returned to his place in the hills, there it was again, in the hole where he had found it.
This happened three times, and the third time the monks agreed that it was a sign that Christ was just as much with the native people in the pueblo as he was with the settlers in Santa Cruz; so they built a church there, and very soon it became a healing shrine.
But the fascinating thing is that, although the miraculous crucifix is still there, on the altar of that mountain church, it is not the altar, but just behind it, the “El Pocito”, the shallow hole in the red dirt where the cross was found, that is the sacred place. People come to hear mass in the church, but, in the end, they kneel on the dusty earth and lift a little dirt from the ground with their hands, as I did, to pray for healing and wholeness.
I don’t know what to make of the legends, but I had no doubt that I was in a holy place, and that the crutches and walking frames left behind were testimony to changed lives. I also felt there a strong integration and continuity between the new faith and the old: a sense that Christ had confirmed and brought to perfection what God had already and always been doing in that place.
I thought, too, as I knelt and touched the dirt, of how Adam, the name Genesis gives to all humanity, means red clay; of how good it is to know that we come from the dust of our mother earth. I thought of how, in dying, the second Adam was content to go down into that dust with us; of how, as John Donne says, “that blood which is The seat of all our Soules, if not of his” was “Made durt of dust”, and how, on Easter Day, that dust was raised again to begin our new humanity.
So, as I look on it now, the little box of dust on my desk is not so much a memento mori as a memento vitae.
In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99.