I knew I was in trouble when I saw the sign read “please respect other visitors’ devotions.” I was to be a guest at this particular medicine show, so I had every intention of being a polite fellow. I paused for the picture (below) only because no one was around. As I walked through what can only be described as a Catholic Theme Park, I noticed these signs were strewn all about the place, clearly showing that ass-clowns like me are a regular problem.
It started as an amusing day, as a lark. My wife thumbed through the New Mexico guide book, running down a list of things we could see around Santa Fe, New Mexico until she came across a Catholic Church that claimed to have “holy dirt” that healed sick people called El Santuario de Chimayo about ten miles or so from Santa Fe.
Joy and I were on a weekend alone, away from the kids, going to restaurants, out to movies and spending time together as a couple. Whenever I travel, I always look for the “okey-doke,” the local scam, whatever passes for the medicine show in town. Healing dirt was a no brainer.
It may seem odd that I, as an atheist, visit churches when I travel, but religion has an overwhelming (unfair and outsized) role in much of Western history. You wouldn’t go to Rome without seeing the Vatican. I love history and the idea of continuity (even though it’s mostly a false idea). I wish the human continuity was less bound to religions iconography. I always take heart in the pagan and atheistic tendencies of the Greeks and Romans who I consider my real forbearers.
It was a massive compound, featuring a Disneyland-style map to guide pilgrims through the various shrines and such. I kept a map just to show how big, thought-out and commercialized it was.
We walked the ring of various saints and shrines, until we found the gift shop. And then it got weird. There were massive, hideous statues of Jesus and other figures, all in various states of unspeakable agony and torture. It brought to mind a previous pieced titled Crucifixion Porn. In all the buildings, they didn’t allow photos. I tried to take one surreptitiously that turned out pretty well (below).
The reason for no photos, I think, is that they sell lots of pictures and postcards at the gift shop. They also sell little plastic dishes for a couple bucks, so you can collect and take home sacred dirt. As much as I hate to support such obvious hucksterism, I had to have me some of that dirt. What an operation! Here’s a picture.
We made our way into the gloomy, historic chapel. It was quiet, people were praying, and I was on my best behavior (I swear). I was having a grand old time until I walked into the back room to see the sacred dirt. I walked around the altar, where people cross themselves before passing by. When passing an altar, I always look up as if whistling, with my hands firmly clasped behind my back like I’m a bandit in a cartoon trying to look innocent.
I made it in, and the main room was twenty feet long and six feet wide roughly, with another 8-foot square room off the main one. The smaller room had a eight-inch hole in the floor that held magic dirt. There was a little plastic shovel used to scoop dirt into the cups from the gift shop. They must have had a massive pit in the backyard somewhere that they used to replenish the dirt after every day.
Sadness clung in the air. The walls were lined with thousands of pictures of hurt and suffering people, all seeking a miracle. Even though the walls were strewn with hundreds of discarded casts, crutches and braces, no one at the moment I was there “was healed.” On the wall, I saw several signs warning people not to ingest the “holy dirt.”
The worst part was the desperate hope. If one of my children were ill, I might cling to such a thing. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my kids, or perhaps even to save my own life. I know that there is no such thing as magic or sacred dirt. Dirt is dirt. It’s often brown, dirty and made of dirt. I am willing to say that it cannot heal anyone (other than a placebo effect, perhaps). There is no evidence whatsoever of actual healing. Faith healing has never, one time, ever been proven. Anyone who claims to have been healed by dirt was either already on the mend, never actually injured, or they are limping around uncomfortably in self denial.
I’m sorry that I don’t have a picture of the hole, but there was no way to do it without being seen, and thus being disrespectful, but you can see it here on their official web site. I knelt down, quite embarrassed and scooped in my few ounces of dirt from the hole and left. I only paused for this picture on the way out (left).
The money the church makes on such raw, old style superstition is beyond religious belief or faith. It falls into the realm of exploitation. It’s just mean to perpetuate false hopes in order to make a buck or pay for a parish. The whole thing, instead of being some amusing pastime, felt like rogue Amway Convention, selling false hopes.