May 6, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
A pilgrimage is a journey where one seeks spiritual discovery along the way to a site with some sort of historical and religious significance. Before about a month ago, I had no idea that the United States had any good pilgrimage destinations. We aren’t a country known for having a long Christian history, especially when compared to the typical pilgrimage destinations of Europe and the Middle East. So I was surprised and excited last month to hear that I would be going on a pilgrimage to Chimayo, New Mexico to visit El Santuario de Chimayo, which is known for the miracles that have taken place there:
“There are many stories about the miracle that led to the building of the Santuario. The most common tells of a villager named Bernardo de Abeyta, who was a Penitente, the brotherhood that kept the Catholic faith alive in New Mexico when priests were few. On Good Friday, in 1810 or 1811, Abeyta was performing the rituals of penance when he saw a light bursting forth from a nearby hillside. Upon digging at the source of the light, he found a large crucifix, which he called the Miraculous Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas.
Bernardo de Abeyta and other Chimayo villagers formed a procession to carry the crucifix to the nearest church, 8 miles away in Santa Cruz. But the next day the crucifix was missing from the altar,
to be found back in its original place in the hills of Chimayo. The procession was repeated two more times before it became clear that el Señor de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo, thus prompting the building of the original small chapel on that site. Then the miraculous healings began, growing so numerous that the chapel had to be replaced by the larger adobe mission which is the current Chimayo shrine. Named el Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, the shrine was finished in 1816, and is now commonly known as el Santuario de Chimayo.”
Our trek began in Taos where we spent the night on a Native American reservation and got to witness some foot races that were part of a festival taking place that morning. Then we drove to San Francisco de Asis Church, a church full of beautiful Pueblo artwork and a Mystery Painting of Jesus that illuminates in the darkness and seems to always be following the viewer with its eyes. The church is where we began our first day of hiking which took us over a pretty huge mountain and back down the other side. It was definitely the most difficult day of hiking due to the elevation changes.
Upon arriving in Peñasco, we settled in at the parish center and went to an anticipatory mass at the local parish. It was a very unique experience for me because the mass featured Spanish music with guitars and a snare drum and a small town feel. The priest seemed to know everyone there, and frequently added in little details about his day at random points during the mass as if the community would like to know how he’s been doing because they are all personal friends. At first I thought it was really awkward, but eventually I warmed up to the priest and realized there was also some charm to his style.
The second full day of our pilgrimage took us from Peñasco to Truchas. Along the way we stopped at Las Trampas to meet the Hermanos Penitentes and tour San Jose de Gracia Church. The church, which was built starting in 1760, is older than the United States of America itself. It was at this point when I truly realized how historical our pilgrimage was. We were in a church that people have been praying in for about 250 years. Certainly it didn’t compare to some of the churches that I saw in Rome two years ago, but to see something so old within driving distance of my home was really incredible.
Today’s hike was nearly as long as the first day, and although it was entirely along a highway, we were still able to enjoy some incredible views. When we arrived at Truchas we were surprised by how nice our accommodations were. We spent the first night sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium and the second on the floor of a dining room of a parish hall, so having actual beds in a two story home was amazing. We were blessed beyond what we felt we deserved, but after hiking 34 miles in 2 days, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Our final day took us from Truchas to Chimayo. Our goal was to get to the sanctuary by 11am for their daily mass, so we had to keep up a fast pace to cover the 9 miles since we didn’t start until after 8am. I had some incredible conversations during the final day’s hike. But as we got closer we were warned by our guide as well as some other missionaries who took a van for the final day that we may not make it by 11, so we started jogging parts of the final leg of the trip. Fortunately I was able to make it to El Santuario de Chimayo at 10:53, just minutes before daily mass. What was most amazing about the final run to the finish was that many of us felt less tired while running than we did while hiking during most of the day. We were so excited to participate in mass, to receive the Eucharist, to finally reach our destination, that the pain stopped bothering us and we were able to run the last mile in hiking boots, with heavy backpacks on our backs and blisters on our feet, without growing weary.
I learned during my pilgrimage that in any journey, whether it is the journey of life or the journey from Taos to Chimayo on foot, there is much more to be gained from the trip than there is from finally arriving at the destination. While walking, I found myself reflecting on a lot of my current anxieties. What am I going to be doing professionally when Christ in the City is over? How long will it take before I get married, and who will I be getting married to? When will God reveal to me what he wants me to do with my life? I felt as though there were several big life goals that were ahead of me, goals that I was really focusing on and worrying about and wanting to get to as fast as possible. But while spending so much time focusing on and worrying about the future, I felt like I hadn’t been truly living in the present. I wasn’t enjoying the journey. I wasn’t appreciating the ups and downs, the lessons learned, and the periods of growth that are continuing to prepare me for my final destination, heaven.
Then as I approached the end of the pilgrimage, I looked back on the past few days and realized how much I had gained not from finally reaching the destination, but from the journey from the beginning to the end. I had gotten to talk 1-on-1 with nearly every other missionary for a different stretch of the 43 mile hike. I got to learn more about them, hear more about their current anxieties, what’s been on their minds, or more about their personal stories that I didn’t know. Through those conversations I also got to share more about myself and reflect on my journey over the past year and what I’ve gained from my time at Christ in the City. And those are the valuable experiences that I’m going to take with me and that have impacted me much more than the memory of how long it took me to get to the end.