The penitential season of Lent is over, yet the inclination to do penance remains, not to atone for past failings — for Easter trumpets that we have been redeemed — but to prepare for the future. Life is a time of trial. As one of my brothers says, there is a final exam down the road.
Although this awareness is universal, it is particularly strong among the people of my New Mexico homeland. This is in part due to the influence of the Pious Fraternity of Our Lord Jesus the Nazarene, commonly known as the Penitentes, once notorious for their penitential practices. But they, in turn, are part of a larger tradition.
In his book, “My Penitente Land: Reflections on Spanish New Mexico,” the late Franciscan Father Angelico Chavez wrote we are all Penitentes in some way, “through blood origins and landscape and a long history of suffering.” Our religiosity teems with “the spiritual and material images of their crucified Nazarene and the queenly virgin.”
Juan de Onate, who led the first expedition of colonists to New Mexico in 1598, scourged himself. Can you imagine any national leader doing that today? Our penitential religiosity also has roots in our indigenous heritage. In Mexico City, I saw young women approaching the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe from several blocks away on their knees, which were quite bloody by the time they entered the shrine.
But in Father Chavez’s view, our penitential spirit is also a product of the desert landscape we inhabit. Jesus considered the desert as a place of purification, for that is where he prepared himself for his mission. In the desert, what we need to survive — water, plants, food — is always scarce or nonexistent. Perhaps more than anywhere else, there we realize that we are totally dependent on God’s providence.
New Mexico, therefore, is a land of pilgrimages. Sometimes it is a solitary pilgrim journeying to a distant chapel, or a group marching along the road to Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb, in a pilgrimage for peace.
Back a few decades, I participated in a pilgrimage for vocations to the Shrine of Chimayo, famous since before the Spaniards came for a spring with healing waters. The shrine is in the Rio Grande Valley about 30 miles north of Santa Fe.
That summer, four groups of pilgrims, three of men and boys and one of women and girls, ages ranging from seniors in their 60s and 70s to 10-year-olds, walked 100 miles to the shrine in five days from points to the north, south, east and west. I walked a day with each group.
By the second day, the feet of many of the pilgrims were covered with blisters. But though the Penitentes had a van that served as an ambulance, no one dropped out. In pain or not, they walked on at a steady 3.5 miles an hour, up the hot and treeless Estancia Valley from the south, through the hills and mesas from the west, down the Rio Grande Valley from the north, and over a 10,000-foot high pass crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the east.
Along the way, they sang hymns, prayed the rosary and other favorites, or meditated in silence. At night we slept on the concrete floor of parish halls, the plank floors of rustic chapels, or in cars and trucks. The Penitentes welcomed us at every settlement, their women’s auxiliary providing meals and any assistance we might need.
I was inspired by the pilgrims’ faith and perseverance, their cheerfulness in the face of struggle and hardship, their embrace of pain for a worthy cause.
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