I’ve finally grown wise enough when I embark on a trip to pack my sense of wonder and discovery and leave expectations behind at home.
I will admit that in keeping with my Lenten practice of ‘noticing’, I reminded myself to keep my eyes and ears open during our New Mexico pilgrimage…after all, my intention for the trip was to awake my spirit, hoping for insight, enlightenment, meaningful worship, and possibly even a bird as ‘spiritual messenger.’ Perhaps a Roadrunner would entice us into changing directions, or a meadowlark would sing us through a mountain hike, or a hawk would tempt my eyes toward the mesmerizing blue New Mexico sky… God knows that ‘subtle’ often evades my notice so whatever message came my way, I was prepared and determined to recognize it.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were filled with plenty to marvel over….our eyes took in the sage dotted mesas, the copper canyons, the deep violet mountain laurel and bright yellow cactus blooms. Our ears enjoyed the roar of spring snow melt rushing down Jemez river, the whisper of pine needles brushing together as the breeze coaxed them to hum, the playful use of Spanish words and phrases. We were treated to the sweet taste of pinot noir on our tongues following creamy asadero cheese and salty crackers at a vineyard picnic, and savored the heat and tang of green chile with tart lime. We were surprised by rain drops splatting all around us in a refreshing afternoon desert shower, fascinated by ancient ruins on cliffsides, and enjoyed laughter and meaningful conversation with friends along the way.
But no spiritual ‘ah hah’ moments, no lightning bolts of sudden clarity. I squelched the impulse for expectation, and knew that the gifts of our experiences were blessing enough.
And so on Easter morning inside Sanctuario Chimayo, the ultimate destination of our trip, I was annoyed at myself when I was unable to attain a worshipful focus. It was difficult to relax. I was completely stunned by the cacophony of brilliant colors on the adobe walls and chancel area behind the altar. Every nook, every alcove, every ledge was occupied by a crucifix or icon or painting or carving, all competing for attention. A likeness of dying Jesus was hanging on every crucifix, unlike the empty cross I was accustomed to. How could anyone ever attain calm meditation when surrounded by an area so astoundingly decorated? How would I discern God’s ‘voice’ when so distracted by everything around me?
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, hearing the quiet shuffling of bodies shifting to make room for several more into the small standing room only space. I felt the hard, narrow, wood plank under my behind that served as a pew, the uneven earthen floor beneath my feet….these also enhanced the unsettled feeling inside. So much was bewilderingly unfamiliar. Here we were, lifelong Protestants, awkward guests in a completely foreign setting of a Catholic church. Would the mass be spoken in Spanish or Latin? There was no bulletin, would someone tell us what to read or sing? I opened my eyes again and saw the sacraments on the altar…communion wafers and wine. I wanted to be respectful, would we be invited to partake or be asked to step aside when communion was served? There was a mix of fascinated anticipation and puzzled disorientation swimming in my head. I prayed in the hushed crowd, asking God to be present, knowing that would help to ground me.
When the priest entered weaving through the crowd of worshippers at the back of the church, they all began singing a song unknown to me. I stood silent, resigned. He slowly made his way up the center aisle, I was unable to see him until he was even with my pew. He passed by and in a few more steps was at the altar. He moved behind it and turned, leaning in to place a large, old Bible on the altar.
As the priest stood and lowered his arms to his sides, I caught my breath. Astonished beyond any expectation or even beyond imagination, I turned to see if my fellow pilgrims saw what I saw. Their eyes were wide with amazement as well. I turned back again and stared, as if the image might disappear….
There on the front of the priest’s white vestment, was the emblem of a deep red chalice, marked with the cross of Saint Andrew…that symbol was adopted five decades ago and is the identifying emblem for the Disciples of Christ…the church I had been born into and participated as a member my entire life.
Tears burned. My heart pounded, warm and full. Wonder overcame me.
God knows that I need obvious.
On Easter morning, in an ancient adobe sanctuary, the message was clear.
…and did I mention?
Just beyond the kneeling bench in front of the altar was a free-standing crucifix. I almost missed the details of it with the riot of color and multitude of icons and other sacred items there. It appeared to be quite old with faded and cracked paint, and looked hand-crafted. Carved and placed on the crossbeam above Jesus’ shoulder, was a small bird.