Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good Friday Pilgrimage

The Easter Seder kept us up till midnight, but we were awake again by 3:30 a.m.--little Eli, crying in his sleep. My daughter Andrea opened the front door and peered outside: a moon so brilliant it was casting shadows over the high desert landscape. "What do you think?" she asked. "Shall we start walking?" When Josh assured us that there would be plenty of people on the pilgrim trail already, we decided to bundle up (it was 25 degrees outside) and take off. By 4:30, we were walking alone through Pojoaque Pueblo, which was eerily silent except for the occasional barking of dogs.

Two miles later, we were crossing through the pueblo of Nambe, heading for the highway. There, we became part of a great stream of people moving along the asphalt in the dark. Every half mile or so, we came to a card-table stand manned by generous folks: free oranges, apples, bananas, coffee and water bottles. Some good Samaritans had built bonfires for frozen pilgrims. When I asked why they did it, they said, This is our way of doing the pilgrimage when we can't walk it ourselves.

As dawn broke over the Jemez Mountains, and over the great buttes and mesas of northern New Mexico, we could look back along the highway and see hundreds of people strung out along the road--nothing, we were told, compared to later in the day, when thousands of walkers and cars would clog every route into Chimayo. We pulled off our wool hats in honor of the sunrise, then jammed them back on as the temperature took a sudden dive. Six miles in, we came to a huge cross with a circle at the nexus of the beams, wound through with gossamer white cloth. People were stopping to pray.

I saw lots of people praying, each in his or her own way. Some prayed by dragging enormous wooden crosses behind them. Some prayed by walking the whole route barefoot. Some prayed the Rosary, and some held aloft fluttering banners. Some prayed for the souls of the dead, whose names were stitched on their jackets. One man prayed in his wheelchair as he pulled himself manually along the highway toward El Sanctuario. I prayed in thanksgiving for the daughter by my side, and for the fact that I can still walk, and for beloved friends who cannot.

Four hours and thirteen miles after we launched off in the dark, we crested the last hill and came down into the old village of Chimayo. We were part of the first wave; behind us, thousands more were just beginning to walk. Though the Sanctuario with its healing dirt has been a major shrine since the early 1800's, it was only after the Holy Week celebration of 1946, when masses of World War II veterans and former prisoners of war walked the highways of Northern New Mexico to the chapel, that Chimayo became the foremost pilgrimage destination in the U.S. Nowadays, Holy Week draws nearly 100,000 people.

I waited in line for twenty minutes to enter the chapel, a place I've visited many times before. This Good Friday morning, however, was different: as I knelt in one of the pews to pray, I could hear the hushed scuffing of hundreds of feet filing by me, and was amazed to realize that in all that packed church, there was not a word or sound. Perhaps this would change later on, when the town was filled to overflowing with people from as far away as Albuquerque, ninety miles south. But for now, we were immersed in reverent silence, the awed silence of people who have walked for miles in the freezing dark, who have been fed and warmed by their Christian brothers and sisters along the way, who have seen for themselves that the Body of Christ lives and moves and has being.


Larry B said...

Paula - now that's one fine blog - you very powerfully described the main or maybe all the reasons why I am a Catholic instead of the Protestant I used to be - and you have made the case for why I must do that pilgrimage - next year in Chimayo!

Paula Huston said...

Larry, you absolutely must! I know you've been thinking of doing it for years, so why wait?