Maybe because I am particularly dense, I learned nothing of value for human living from all the brilliant mathematicians, esteemed physicists, and distinguished academics I have known. Instead, my mentor was a “curandero,” a traditional healer from Northern New Mexico. Even his death taught me a profound lesson about life.
When I moved to Santa Fe, the City Different was a small, sleepy Western town with real stores around the Plaza, not upscale tourist traps that appeared after marketers invented the Santa Fe style. One day, I wandered into a small shop on Galisteo Street, not far from the Plaza. A forty-watt bulb dimly lighted the interior of the shop. My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the dim light; then, I saw walls of small drawers, much like the wooden fixtures I had seen as a boy in an old-time pharmacy in upper Michigan. At the back of the store was an elderly Spanish gentleman seated in a wooden desk chair. He got up and slowly walked toward me. From his gray hair and slow gait, I guessed he was around eighty years old. Up close, his wrinkled skin caused by years of exposure to New Mexico dry weather and hot sun confirmed my guess. Short, but not stooped, he wore black pants and a white dress shirt. In keeping with his old-fashioned attire, he sported a bushy, white mustache. The old gentleman told me in English sprinkled with Spanish words that he ran a curandería, and asked if I was ill and in need of healing potions. He told me the cabinets contained preparations of plants and minerals.
I had read that in Northern New Mexico a curandero is a traditional healer. He knows plants and minerals that have curative powers and how to remove an evil curse placed on a person by a bruja, a witch. In the old Chicano communities, the curanderos were respected for their religious observance and spiritual depth.
I grew up in a Romanian household; so as a child, I learned to respect the elderly; their many years of living taught them about life. I would have never dared to call the old curandero by his first name, Rudolfo, and always addressed him as Señor Quintana.
Often, I would stop into the curandería to visit, and over the years, Señor Quintana and I became good friends. Whenever I visited him, Señor Quintana always made herbal tea, and from the bakery on the same street, I brought bischochitos, anise-flavored cookies, traditional in Northern New Mexico. The old curandero told me tales about growing up in New Mexico in the 1890s, and about village life in Chimayo. A great blizzard, in 1948, followed by intense cold, struck this area. The old women told Señor Quintana that the atomic bomb was the cause; man was not made to know so much. The women complained that scientists at Los Alamos competed with God, disturbed the seasons, and sought to know more than God Himself. In the end, the knowledge they acquired would destroy all of us. Señor Quintana tried to convince the old women that the heavy snow was nature’s way of replenishing the dry earth.
He told me the old women were uneducated, desperately poor, and the most wonderful people you could hope to meet. Los norteños struggled here, scratching a living out of the earth, and survived for three hundred years, strengthened by faith and family. Señor Quintana, el curandero, emphasized that the magical beauty of northern New Mexico opened a spiritual corridor. The prayers of the Pueblo Indians kept the world in balance for years. The scientists at Los Alamos, by making instruments of mass death, defiled this sacred space.
One day, Señor Quintana told me his cousin died and asked me to attend the funeral in Chimayo, a small village thirty miles north of Santa Fe. I hated death, and my first impulse was to say no; however, out of respect for Señor Quintana I knew I had to accede to his request.
I drove north along U.S. highway 285, passed the turnoff west to Los Alamos, and turned east on the paved road that ran along the Nambe river. Overtopped by large cottonwood trees, the road twisted and turned, as it followed the course of the river. I passed the dirt road to the Nambe Pueblo, and left behind the river when it ran into the pueblo. Suddenly, the road rose three or four hundred feet in elevation, and the terrain became extremely arid, dotted by small, widely-spaced junipers and an occasional dwarf cottonwood growing in the drainage ditch alongside the road. The road reached its apex, and I looked down upon Chimayo, a tiny Spanish village, surrounded by an oasis produced by the Arroyo de los Encinos and Canada de Mogate.
I drove into Chimayo, passed the Holy Chili stand, the Loco Artist’s studio, and the General Store, and did not see one car. I turned into a large gravel parking lot. The small signs in front of me indicated the parking lot was for the parishioners and visitors to El Santuario de Chimayo.
I looked straight ahead at the closed Santuario de Chimayo Gift Shop, and thought what am I doing here. At that time, I felt awkward inside any church, partly because I did not know how to behave and partly because the strangeness of the interior of a holy place made me more of an outsider than usual. While living in Europe after graduate school, I went into only two of the many old churches I saw.
I got out of my old Jeep and walked across the parking lot and up the gravel pathway to the courtyard in front of the church. I tried to ignore the four or five gravestones I passed in the courtyard on my way to El Santuario, a two-story, adobe building with twin bell towers, built in 1816.
I pushed open the heavy, weathered wood door. Inside, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light. To my left, on the wall, was a large, perhaps four-foot high and three foot wide, color photograph of a man wearing a white cotton robe and a crown of thorns, stooped over from the weight of the full-size cross he carried. In front of me, thirty or so people, dressed in black Sunday clothes, were seated. And, then I saw the simple, wood coffin.
Señor Quintana was standing in the back of El Santuario, obviously waiting for me. He motioned to me to sit down in one of the unoccupied back pews. I did not move, and he gently pushed me into the pew; he sat next to me. The funeral mass was in Spanish. Señor Quintana and I kneeled and stood up in concert with the mourners; I crossed myself in Orthodox fashion, from right to left instead of left to right, as Catholics do.
The dimly lighted church, the mass in a language I did not understand, and the hand-carved altar screen inset with images of saints painted in pastel blues and pinks on flat wood brought back memories of the Romanian Orthodox Church of my childhood. I remembered sitting in a mysterious place, surrounded by icons, watching a two-thousand-year-old ritual and the faint blue smoke curl up from the silver censers swung by the priests. The beauty of the chanting in an old Romanian, closer to Latin than the peasant language I understand, captivated my young mind. Unlike a Protestant service, an Orthodox liturgy appeals to all the senses. The only part of the mysteries I witnessed as a child that I understood was that somehow physical beauty is connected to the transcendent.
The priest gave the final benediction, blessed the mourners, and he and the two altar boys recessed down the aisle between the pews. Señor Quintana and I turned to face the recession. When the priest passed us, we crossed ourselves.
I was ready to bolt for the door. I nudged Señor Quintana, but he whispered ¡espera!, and we turned to watch the family members and close friends, each in turn, go up to the coffin, either kneel or stand, say a silent prayer, cross themselves, and then leave El Santuario.
Señor Quintana exited our pew, and instead of leaving the church, he turned to walk to the coffin, the last thing I wanted to do. He locked his arm in mine and forced me to follow him. In front of the coffin, I saw the body of a Spanish gentleman, who bore a startling resemblance to Señor Quintana. Dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, the deceased had his arms folded across his chest. I imagined that if I had met Señor Quintana’s cousin a year before, we would have exchanged warm hellos and cracked a joke or two. God, how I hated death.
I stepped backwards to leave the church, but Señor Quintana dragged me to the front pew, where he spoke in Spanish to an old woman with red eyes. My ears buzzed, and my eyes focused on the black, lace veil the old woman wore. The only Spanish words I caught were the old woman’s, “Bien. Bien. Gracias de Dios.” Prompted by Señor Quintana, I said, “Lo siento,” and gently grasped the old woman’s hand.
Instead of turning to leave the church, we walked through a five-foot high door to the left of the altar and immediately turned right to enter a tiny room with a very low ceiling. I saw a half-sized altar covered with painted wood statutes of various saints, a four-pane window with white, hand-embroidered curtains, and in the center of the room, a two-foot wide hole in the floor filled with fine dirt.
I was confused; Señor Quintana explained to me that the dirt in the hole, the posito, was blessed earth, tierra bendita, and was believed to contain great medicinal powers that cured sore throat, rheumatism, paralysis, and sadness. I thought it did not help the poor gentleman in the main part of El Santuario. Señor Quintana reached down into the posito to lightly cover his fingers with the miraculous earth and then crossed himself. He motioned for me to do the same, and I thought why not, I’ve come this far.
We exited El Santuario through a room that contained crutches, other testimonials to the curative powers of the tierra bendita, and a hand-lettered poster that proclaimed El Santuario de Chimayo as the Lordes of North America. On the walls were photographs of the annual Easter pilgrimage to El Santuario, including a small version of the large photograph I had seen when I had entered El Santuario.
Outside, even though I thought Señor Quintana had plans with his relatives, I asked if he would care to join me for lunch; much to my surprise, he said yes. I drove a half mile north to Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo. Inside the restaurant, the owner, Arturo Jaramillo, threw his arms around Señor Quintana, and they conversed briefly in Spanish. The Jaramillo family had resided in Chimayo since 1680; in 1965, Arturo and his wife, Florence, transformed the family home into a restaurant. Arturo welcomed me and inquired about Paul Sikora, my former office mate at the Laboratory. Many of the physics post-docs and their wives frequently ate at Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo, since no decent restaurant existed in Los Alamos and the drive from Los Alamos was only about thirty-five miles, a relatively short trip in New Mexico.
Arturo seated us on the patio, and almost immediately, a trim young waitress with dark eyes and a thin nose appeared. She asked if we would care for a drink. I motioned to Señor Quintana, and he ordered Negra Modelo, a Mexican dark beer, and chicken enchiladas with green chili. I ordered the same.
The beer arrived; Señor Quintana raised his glass and said salud. He took a sip, put the glass on the table, and then wiped the thin layer of dark foam from his mustache with the back of his hand.
Expressionless, Señor Quintana looked me straight in the eye, and asked, “What do you think?”
Startled, I replied, “About what?”
I didn’t say a word.
A smile came across Señor Quintana’s face. I could see that my awkwardness and ignorance amused him. He said, “I thought you scientists know everything.” In our previous conversations, the old curandero often chided me about my ignorance of life as it is lived. He accepted that scientists know the mechanics of life — macromolecules, genes, and cells, all the “piping” as Señor Quintana put it. He pointed to Los Alamos as proof that scientists lacked wisdom about life.
For some reason, that day in the Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo, Señor Quintana pressed me more than he had before. “Do you scientists think the universe will die some day?” From the bemused look on his face, I couldn’t tell if he were serious or not.
At that point, the young waitress arrived with our enchiladas, so I had a moment to think out a brief scientific presentation of the history of the universe. Between forkfuls of chicken with green chili and sips of Negra Modelo, I slowly explained the universe began with a Big Bang and would end with a Big Freeze. I did not talk about quarks and leptons, but did say life would vanish without leaving any traces long before the universe reaches its final eventless, cold state. I concluded with a pronouncement — one thing is certain from science, consciousness and intelligence in this universe is impermanent.
When I finished my scientific account of the history of the universe, Señor Quintana said, “An interesting story.” Then, the old curandero quoted Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.” He paused and then added, “A man dies and nothing remains.”
I recalled a poem by the eleventh-century Chinese scholar-poet Su Tung-po that compared all human endeavors to the footprints left by geese on snow. I quoted it to Señor Quintana.
“To what can our life on earth be likened?
To a flock of geese,
Alighting on the snow.
Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.”[i]
The old curandero nodded, and said, “Very true, but in the long run of no consequence for believers, or for those who have experienced more than the commonplace.”
I always had refused to think about the impermanence of human life. The presence of death in El Santuario that morning led me to tell the old curandero about one of the demons that haunted me since my childhood. “I hate to look at old photographs, especially of my deceased father and mother. Everyone knows we build out of stone, attempt to freeze things in time, and only fool ourselves. When I was an undergraduate, I visited a girl friend in New Hampshire and got forced into a walking tour of the local cemetery. A white grave marker caught my eye, and I moved closer, so I could read the inscription. The marble was so badly weathered that to decipher the lettering I had to run my fingers in the grooves in the marble. The inscription read, ‘Gone, but not forgotten.’ Not only was Elmer Dodge gone and forgotten, but all the persons who were to remember him were gone and forgotten.” I thought but did not say death makes life meaningless. We appear on Earth, walk around a short time, become accustomed to living, and, then, disappear. As a species, we rose up out of the primordial ooze, built empires that later collapsed, and at some point will drift off into oblivion like the dodo bird. Instead, I said, “Life seems tragic.”
“Yes, yes,” Señor Quintana said. “You are young with little experience. Suffering will teach you much.”
We both fell silent. Then, the old curandero said, “Let me tell you two stories. Before I begin, let me ask you, ‘What do you think of the miraculous cures produced by the tierra bendita?’”
I shrugged my shoulders; out of respect, I did not give the usual scientific explanation — placebo.
I could see that my lack of belief amused Señor Quintana.
“You smart, young people do not believe in anything worthy.” He, then, proceeded to tell me two stories about the origin of the tierra bendita.
“The tierra bendita dates back to the Indians. According to a Tewa legend, after a battle of the gods, fire burst forth out of the Earth at San Ildefonso, Nambe, and Cabezón. The healing, hot mud springs at Chimayo dried up, but the dirt still possessed curative powers.[ii]
“The Christian tradition, of course, is different. On Good Friday night, 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta, a Penitentes member, was performing the customary penances in the hills of El Potrero. Suddenly, he saw a light springing from one of the slopes of the hills near the Santa Cruz River. Don Bernardo went to the spot and discovered a shining light coming from the ground. He dug with his bare hands and found a Crucifix. He left it there and called the neighbors to come and venerate the precious finding. A neighbor ran to notify Fr. Sebastian Alvarez, the priest at Santa Cruz.
“Upon hearing the extraordinary news, the priest and the parishioners set out for Chimayo. They arrived to see the Crucifix, and Fr. Sebastian carried it in a joyful procession to the Santa Cruz church. Once in the church, the Crucifix was placed in the niche of the main altar. The next morning, the Crucifix was gone, only to be found in its original location. A second procession was organized, and the Crucifix was returned to Santa Cruz, but once again, it disappeared. The same thing happened a third time. By then, everyone understood that the miraculous Crucifix of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo, and so a small chapel was built.
“Soon, the people discovered that the dirt from the chapel floor, the place that once held the miraculous Crucifix, had healing powers bestowed by God.”
The two stories were interesting, but if I had to bet on the truth of the three stories told that day, I would have chosen the Big Freeze over the healing-earth legends. For once, I abandoned my old-world deference for the elderly and asked, “You don’t believe those stories are true, do you?”
The old curandero addressed me as his son. “Hijo, you miss the point. Religious observances and the spiritual life are different, although at times they are one.” He went on to explain: “Religious practices and attitudes are mainly cultural. Spanish Catholics love miracles and thus see them everywhere. German Lutherans, on the other hand, with their dour Northern European outlook, only see a rigid moral code and sinners.”
“Agreed. But I still do not get the point.”
“If you don’t believe in the healing earth, or some such miracle, or if you do not believe in a law-giver God, then religion for you will always be a cultural phenomenon. You will never progress to the spiritual plane. Mi hijo, tradition and the old stories are not in your bones. It is too late for you to anchor your life and death in the old stories.”
I had no idea what nonsense to babble or how to respond to the truths I heard. The young waitress saved me. She arrived at our table and told Señor Quintana in Spanish that Arturo would be honored if he were allowed the privilege to buy our lunch. In Spanish, Señor Quintana told the waitress to thank Arturo. Before we left the restaurant, I placed a generous tip out of view on the table.
Two months later, el viejo curandero died of a heart attack. I loved that old man; he instructed me like a son. Even his death taught me a profound lesson about life. The deepest way to understand death as a “destroyer of worlds”[iii] is to see “world” not as physical, but interior. Within Señor Quintana lived an entire world, parents, a wife, a home, knowledge of healing potions, the smell of roasted green chilies in late summer, songs sung at fiestas, anger at injustice, a love of friends. With his death, that world collapsed and disappeared forever.
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[ii] For the history and a detailed description of El Santuario, see the Stephen F. De Bohregyi, El Santuario de Chimayo (Santa Fe, N.M.: Spanish Colonial Arts Society, 1956).
[iii] In his account of the successful test of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him he takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” See Day after Trinity (Pyramid Film & Video, 1981), director Jon H. Else.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been altered for color and brightness.