As I do every year, I recently visited my ancestral homeland in New Mexico. I told one of my editors I needed to recharge my spiritual batteries. In these difficult times, it is easy to lose our balance and we need to regain our perspective, to assess once again what our faith is all about.
So I went back to the land where my family has roots stretching back 300 years in the high desert foothills of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the northern part of the state. I wanted to see again how they lived their faith and to review what they taught me when I was a boy growing there.
The land today is as remote as it ever was, though the struggle to survive and thrive is not as elemental as when I was a boy there. A friend from New York who visited a few years ago described the ranch where we have a cabin on land that has been in our family since the 1840s as being “in the back of beyond.”
We used to go to Mass to the parish in Sapello, a scattering of houses at a crossroad of Highways 518 and 94, on a horse-drawn wagon, a 9-mile trip on a dirt lane of red clay that became a quagmire when it rained or snowed. At other times, we worshiped at a chapel 4 miles away, the service led by the Penitentes, and their women’s counterpart, the Carmelitas. In many ways, it was a do-it-yourself religion.
Our dependence on God was total. If the capricious rains came on time and in sufficient intensity, crops flourished. If they didn’t, they withered. So our religious practice was rich in home devotions, processions praying for rain, harvest festivals when the harvest was abundant.
Each village had its chapel, built by the residents and beautifully maintained, even though Mass might be celebrated there only once a month or once a year. The symbols of faith were everywhere. For the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel we used to go about 8 miles to a place called el Carmel.
At other times, we would go to other chapels celebrating the feast of their patron saint, including St. Joseph or St. Isidore (patron of farmers). The chapels are still there today, and I worship in some of them.
Religion remains strong but unpretentious to this very day, even though parishes are often far apart. It is not uncommon for people to drive 20 or 30 miles to the small town of Las Vegas for Sunday Mass.
The Spaniards saw the red tinge in the mountains as a symbol of the blood of Christ. The most prominent one, over 10,000 feet above sea level, is Hermit’s Peak, so named for an eccentric Italian penitent, Brother Juan Maria Agostini, who lived on the summit from 1863 to 1867, dedicating himself to prayer and penance. Farmers in the area kept him supplied with food, a 9-mile round-trip trek up and down a steep rocky trail.
Sacrifice is no stranger in this region.
But the most powerful symbol of God’s presence are the mountains themselves, whose crystalline waters nourish the vast meadows below them, giving life not only to the crops, orchards and livestock but also to an amazing variety of animals and birds that inhabit or sojourn in that beautiful environment.
Then, too, there is a religious culture that goes back centuries. Once, invited to join another faith, I looked out to the chapel where our ancestors are buried, and I declined. Continuity is important to me.
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