Saturday, August 15, 2009

Blood Mysteries

According to DH Lawrence, places have spirits--certain places more than others have a certain essential selfness. Some places are sentient. Northern New Mexico is one of those places--I feel it up through my feet. It knows me somehow. It is alien to my northern self, this hot dry sharp place. But it is familiar.

I came here for the first time on a road trip, about ten years ago, at random. I had no idea what to expect, and I had no idea how I ended up in Abiquiu. It was on the way, I guess, and it was getting dark and I needed a place to stop for the night.

Pretty little town. Nice Inn. Recommended. I found out only later that Georgia O'Keefe lived and painted there.

There's not much to see in Abiquiu--at first. The old town is a cluster of dusty adobe buildings. Wander up the hill a little ways, and there's a nondescript, long low dusty old church. Or a sort of a church anyway. Around the back of the church, I noticed three crosses--solid wood, thick as telephone poles, and...lifesized. Huh. Off to the side was a statue of Jesus, dragging a cross at a notable slant.

Some memory came up in the back of my brain--pain and blood. OK, Spanish-style Catholicism, I guess.

The church was open. It was the week before Holy Week. The crucifix and the stations of the cross were all shrouded in purple. The water in the fonts was replaced with dry desert sand. A beautiful soft violet green light streamed in through the high, narrow windows, illuminating the spotless whitewashed walls. Everything was silent, and serene.

I stepped outside again, got the same blood/pain sense/memory. Walked back the half mile of dusty road to the pretty little Inn, and had an elegant dinner.

I found out only later that what I had seen was no ordinary church at all, but a Penitente morada. The sense/memories/impressions I had been receiving, though not my own, and from no prior conscious knowledge, were perfectly accurate. This was a chapel of the ancient mysteries of blood, pain and purification, still very much alive, and still practiced.

About 30 miles southeast of Abiquiu is the ChimayĆ³ sanctuary. It's as mysterious in its way, but a lot busier. Sometimes referred to as the "Lourdes of America," its a healing site. There's a well of earth inside the main sanctuary that they say has healing powers. Crutches and braces hang from a rod on the wall, with photographs of smiling people and flowers, to attest to these powers. People make the pilgrimage on foot (or knees) all the way from Santa Fe sometimes. But my favorite sanctuary there is a little side chapel for the Christ Child. Beneath his image are dozens of tiny shoes. He wears out so many pairs of shoes wandering the countryside to help people, people bring him more. He's a happy child, beaming and surrounded by flowers and little white birds. I love him.

The first thing I did this time on my return trip to New Mexico was revisit ChimayĆ³, and say hello to the smiling Christ Child. Somebody once told me that in certain traditions, the Infant Jesus is syncretized to Dionysus. This seems counter-intuitive. What could the Child, the symbol of absolute perfection, purity and innocence, have to do with the god of excess, drunkenness, ecstasy and orgies?

I puzzled about this for the rest of the day.

It was at Abiquiu, this time, that I got my answer. This time, the morada was locked and barred. The windows were boarded up or curtained. There was a no trespassing sign stretched across the driveway. It remembered me, maybe, but wasn't letting me in. But I had permission from the guard at Georgia O'Keefe's house for a visit. I walked around the shuttered building, over to the three heavy black crosses, noticed another, larger white cross in the distance behind them. Huh.

Out of the corner of my eye, on the other side of a dry arroyo, I noticed a line of wooden poles forming a path--the Stations of the Cross, carved in wood. Leading to the white cross in the distance.

Very little is known of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries. What is known though, is that pilgrims walked a path every year from Athens to Eleusis, and stopped at various places along the way, retelling and reliving the story of Demeter's search for Persephone--her great rage and sorrow, and her eventual joy. Then the pilgrims are brought to an underground chamber, where they witness--something.

The mysteries of Eleusis, Orpheus and Dionysus came at some point to be associated with each other--all have in common that they involve death and resurrection. In the case of Orpheus and Dionysus, the death was extremely bloody and violent--being torn limb from limb. The death and pain, and subsequent resurrection, were the whole point.


Walking the path along those Stations is extremely difficult, even when you're not carrying anything. It was probably about 95 degrees, and there is no shelter or shade. Nothing grows on the ground but sharp cactus. There's a scattering of volcanic rocks, and the ground is jagged and uneven, with dry arroyos and washes. Some of the stations had offerings beneath them--especially the depiction of Veronica wiping the forehead of Jesus. At the foot of that station was: little pale lavender flowers that had been planted there, a cat skull, smooth round stones, and some shards of what looked to be painted Pueblo pottery--black paint on white clay.

I hadn't thought to bring water. I was thirsty as hell. Slowly, I made my way up the hill, along the Stations that told the Crucifixion story, putting myself, as much as I could, in the minds of the Brotherhood who still made this journey, in a haze of agony and devotion.

If I hadn't been looking closely at the Station depicting the Crucifixion, the one right before the big white cross, I might not have noticed the long pale strips fluttering from it. Which looked awful lot like snake skin. Only it wasn't snake skin. It was.


Finally, I reached the cross, hot, exhausted, and in a kind of a trance. Somewhere, I had brushed up against a cactus, and the thorns had stuck in my jeans, and my knees were burning. And my lips were burning from sunburn and thirst. And I didn't care.

The rites of the Penitente are a masculine mystery. No women allowed--same, incidentally, for the rites of Orpheus. The rites of Dionysus and Eleusis are women's mysteries.

For pity and for pain, for thousands of years of people who had made this journey, I leaned my hot dry head against the huge white cross, put my arms around it, breathed into it my femininity and mercy and sympathy. I was not supposed to, perhaps. But Jesus had a mother, and Demeter is, after all, much older than both of them.

The walk back was even harder, and a little boring. But along the pathway, I noticed something I hadn't before, a very white round little thing that I thought was a stone, and which I was going to scoop out for a souvenir. But it was...a mushroom. Perfectly white, perfectly dry. Mushrooms don't grow in the desert...

Whoah. That explains a few things.

I walked back along the dusty road to my motorcycle, chatted with the guard again, asked him if he'd toss some of the litter for me that I'd collected around the morada. Drank half a bottle of water. Went back to the Inn and had a lovely meal. Rode back down the mountain to Santa Fe.

The entire week and a half since then has been entirely ordinary.

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