A few years ago, I wrote a series of Musings about “thin places”—points of spiritual intersection where the twin kingdoms of heaven and earth don’t quite collide but almost touch. Portals, perhaps; gateways to another dimension. I wrote about four such places I’ve visited—Mount Kilimanjaro, The Piazza Navona in Rome, the Taos Pueblo, and Iona, a small islet off the coast of Scotland. Now, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I’ve been thinking about a fifth thin place: a small adobe chapel situated on the High Road that winds through the backcountry hills between Santa Fe and Taos called El Santuario de Chimayó.
In my wandering years, I found Chimayo quite by accident. Or so I thought at the time. Now, I believe Chimayo found me which seems to be the way of thin places: they find you when you need them. The chapel is old: it was built in 1816 and over the years, it has become a place of religious pilgrimage, earning it a reputation as the Lourdes of America. Over 300,000 people a year visit Chimayo making it the most visited shrine in America. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Simple as it may be, many people believe Chimayo is a place of great power and healing. Just off the left side of the rude alter, a small door leads to a simple room with a dirt floor. In the middle of the room, pilgrims who believe the ground under the chapel is holy and can cure physical and spiritual ills have scooped out a hole in the floor. A small spoon lies next to the hole so anyone can scrape away a small measure of Chimayo’s dirt. Leaving the room by another door, one passes through a dim hallway whose walls are covered with braces and crutches, a legacy of devotion left behind by those who have found healing at Chimayo.
I’ve come to the conclusion that thin places are both old as time and new as now. That’s part of their beauty but not all of it. Thin places may be hidden or right in front of our noses. Like stars in daylight, they are always present—we just can’t see them. They’re both mysterious and wonderful, sacred and profane, ephemeral and everlasting. I’ve often encountered thin places in areas surrounded by water, but, as at Chimayo, I’ve experienced them in sere places, too. They are often announced by a subtle quality of light that seems to almost radiate or glow. I’ve tried to photograph thin places but it’s difficult; I’ve found that in the time it takes to reach for my camera, the aura of the thin place has already vanished. Maybe it’s just that thin places are only visible to the human heart and not to a mechanical lens.
I don’t understand what makes a space “thin” but I believe Chimayo to be such a place. Behind the chapel, there is a small xeriscaped garden bordered by a chain-link fence. Over the years, visitors have crafted simple crosses out of dry grass and inserted them into the fence creating a shimmering sea of faithfulness that speaks to the power of the place. I wonder if the humble little cross I placed in the fence on my first visit in 1995 is still there.
Outside the sanctuary, in the bright New Mexican sunlight, a few small shops surround a dusty plaza. Some sell wreaths made of bright red chilis, others offer the traditional weavings of the Ortega and Trujillo families. I’m not one much given to religious iconography, but in the small gift shop next to the chapel, I bought a small cross salvaged from the tin roof of the sanctuary when it had to be replaced decades ago. Now it watches over my wife’s side of our bed.
It has been many years since I last visited Chimayo. I hope it is still as I remember it. For now, I am content to live here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I have always felt I didn’t find this place, that it found me. I like to think that the Eastern Shore may well be a thin place—or very close to one—so I try to always keep my eyes and heart open. Whether it’s something as wondrous as the annual arrival of ospreys or as simple as sitting on the porch surrounded by friends, I have felt heaven and earth touch right here.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.