Tires crunched through the snow as the vehicle inched along the deserted, unmaintained dirt road. Slowly, tediously, it negotiated the frozen ruts, and when the road finally ended abruptly in a large semi-circular area, inched gingerly into what appeared to be a parking space. But appearances were often deceiving in this land, so far from the forced order of civilization where there was a place for everything and everything in its place.
The steaming engine sighed and clanked to a stop, and after a moment the doors opened, releasing two passengers into the snowy, empty and completely silent landscape.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” my husband asked delicately, after a brief pause during which we took a collective moment to catch our breaths and acclimate to the frigid air surrounding us. The cold wind, gentle, yet insistent, was alive — creeping with icy tendrils into any unguarded crack or seam in our multiple layers of warm winter clothing.
“I mean, I’m not saying you don’t know where we’re going, but there’s nobody else here — maybe we should keep driving and see if there are any parked cars further up…Maybe that guy at Chimayo didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Earlier that day, we had stopped at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small Roman Catholic church in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The Santuario, or shrine, built in the early 1800s, is known as the “Lourdes of the Americas” due to various miracles reportedly connected to it and, more specifically, the sacred dirt found in a small hole in a little room off the sanctuary.
After ﬁlling a plastic baggie with sacred dirt and lingering for a good twenty minutes over the rows of crutches, casts and pictures covering almost every inch of the walls inside, we accosted another tourist, asking him to take our photo in front of the Santuario. In the friendly conversation that ensued, we mentioned that we were hoping to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass that night in Taos, our next stop. Without hesitation, he excitedly exclaimed that we should attend Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo.
Taos Pueblo, traditionally known as “Tuah-tah,” is one of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos clustered along the banks of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande; villages of the modern Puebloan people who are likely descendants of the ancient Anasazi, a culture now more commonly referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans. These peaceful farmers had never seen a European face until the Spanish descended upon their villages in 1540, forcing them to convert to Catholicism.
With ingenious adaptability, the Puebloan people largely adopted the imposed religion while at the same time managing to retain most of their traditional ceremonies, opting to practice one “religion” alongside the other in lieu of choosing between the two. Despite the survival of the traditional ways, remnants of the Spanish conquest remain: Today nearly 90 percent of the Puebloan people are practicing Catholics, and a Spanish mission still stands near the plaza at each and every Pueblo.
I was familiar with Taos Pueblo’s Christmas festivities and the various ceremonial dances that were open to the public each year. I also knew of San Geronimo, the old mission church at Taos Pueblo, which was normally closed to the public. The chance to experience Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo was an opportunity I was not going to pass up. So here we were on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, in the middle of nowhere; and by the look of it, completely alone in this frozen New Mexico night.
“No,” I replied to my husband, “the guy at Chimayo knew what he was talking about, and I know the church is over that way. We came all this way — let’s at least check it out.”
As we approached the Pueblo, one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the United States, I thought about how much life it had witnessed over ten centuries’ time. I marveled that a village built in the Americas while Europe was still entrenched in the Middle Ages had remained, intact, to this day. In fact, remarkably little had changed here in the last thousand years; the people who called the Pueblo home still walked in the path of their ancestors each and every day and Taos Mountain, with its holy Blue Lake, continued to watch over them from its home in the east.
I took my husband’s hand as we ducked through an opening in the low wall that surrounded the Pueblo and made our way towards the little church poised humbly on the edge of the plaza. We crept around the side of the church, ﬂecks of straw in the ancient caramel-colored adobe walls glinting eerily in the dark night. Crunch, crunch, crunch…our heavy boots methodically covered ground but it was slow going in the ice, snow and total darkness.
There is no electricity at Taos Pueblo, and the night possessed a mysterious depth I have only experienced in a few inhabited places. Tipping my head back, I was dazzled by millions of stars, so thick they were practically dripping from the sky in a mind-boggling three-dimensional display. In the distance, I was aware of sacred Taos Mountain standing guard over the pueblo. Although it was too dark to see it, I could feel its presence — brooding and silent — at home and alive in the inky darkness.
San Geronimo Mission was named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of Taos Pueblo. Originally built by the Spanish in 1619, it was destroyed when the Puebloans rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. It was soon rebuilt on the same site, only to be destroyed once again in 1847 by the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American war. In 1850 the present-day church was erected near the site of the old church, where it still stands, its freshly whitewashed adobe walls a startling contrast to the hollow ruins of the old mission. Tonight, it stood in darkness reﬂecting only the night sky…cloaked in its thick mud walls and seemingly unconcerned about the weary travelers outside.
We rounded the corner and it was as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. The faint sound of mufﬂed voices wafted from the front door. As we approached, a glowing light shone softly out, mingling with the scent of incense as it welcomed us, beckoning us closer. We were ushered quietly into the church and it was as if we had been transported back in time.
The thick, musky, yet pleasant, scent of incense and smoke from the candles; the dim, ﬂickering, golden light; the closeness of the people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the rough wooden pews; the smooth adobe walls that enclosed us; the feeling of community and sacredness. All presented an air of mystery and timelessness that is almost dreamlike in my memory.
Shufﬂing into the back row, we stood in humble regard through the short, yet moving, service. The gentle, monotone chanting of the priest alternated with voices raised in song. A feeling of enchantment permeated the small room as I swiftly melded into my surroundings and became a part of the otherworldly atmosphere.
The quiet majesty of the scene before me — the beauty inside this small and unassuming mission in the middle of an ancient Pueblo — was an unexpected treasure. I took it in with moist eyes and a thankful heart.
When the service ended, we left the church in silence, both lost in thought. As we stepped over the threshold and into the frigid dark night, the spell was broken and we were brought abruptly back into the present. To the stars and the snow and the sacred mountain before us.
Everything remained exactly as it had been before. As it had been for over a thousand years. But something inside me had changed; I had been transﬁxed and transformed.
The stars glittered and winked knowingly in the velvet sky.