My miracle at Chimayo

The grains of sand spilled through my fingers. Why did I come here? The answer surprised me…

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By Michelle Heather Pollock


In Chimayo, New Mexico, an old church, El Santuario de Chimayo, sits at the end of a dusty road. Made of the same muddy adobe color of the region and with a small path leading to its door, the building seems intent on hiding from its fame.

This church is the home of miracles.


In the early 1800s, El Santuario de Chimayo demanded to be built. Legend tells of a friar coming upon a hillside bursting with light. He dug into the earth and found a crucifix. Three times this crucifix was taken to Santa Cruz, and three times it mysteriously disappeared — to be found again in its original hole in Chimayo.

The message was clear, so people built a chapel on the site to house the crucifix. Then the miracles began.

The inside of the church is a testament to faith. The front room, its altar adorned with the miraculous crucifix and several old, small pews and kneelers, looks like an ordinary church. But this is where the similarities fade. Crutches lean against the walls, rosaries hang on faded snapshots and handwritten notes of prayer and thanksgiving. The air inside is heavy with faith.

A line of people waits to get into the back rooms. When it is my turn, I duck through a low doorway and into the Prayer Room, a small space without furnishings, just more souvenirs of desperation and offerings of hope or gratitude. A snapshot of two smiling old people hangs from the wall. I stare at the photograph for a moment and realize I am praying for strangers, asking for their miracles to occur. The room is quiet — people automatically speak softly.

I duck again through what is little more than a hole in the wall and emerge in a space that would feel like a cave if not for its crude windows. This is what I came to see. People are gathered around a hole in the floor, squatting in silence with their fingers in a pile of sand. Some of them touch it with a palm or scoop it up and let it fall between their fingers, their eyes closed and silent words moving over their lips. Others collect small amounts in containers.

Somewhere along the church’s history, people’s interest in the sand pit surpassed their interest in the crucifix itself. Sand is something people can touch, something they can take home with them or take to loved ones unable to travel to Chimayo. Today the caretakers of the church replenish the sand continually so there is always enough for the 300,000 people — some carrying wooden crosses on their backs — who visit El Santuario de Chimayo each year.

The sand, perhaps more than the crucifix, drives the legend. Sacred earth has fundamental resonance with us as human beings, and we can redefine the miracles and the legend of Chimayo to fit comfortably within our own spirituality.

When it’s my turn, I squat next to the hole and open my bag. I dip my fingertips into the sand. It is cool and dry, adobe-colored and fine. I make a scoop with my hand and lift sand into my bag. It coats the inside surface. I seal the bag but cannot stand yet. I’m weeping.

Why am I here? Do I expect a miracle? I don’t think so. I believe in miracles, but I have never believed that I could expect one for myself or that I needed any help worthy of a miracle. So why did I scoop a handful of sand to pack in my luggage and place carefully on my desk at home?

I have fibromyalgia, a condition that causes extreme fatigue and muscle pain. I was coming to New Mexico on vacation and arrived with the attitude that a visit to the church couldn’t hurt. But I am not prepared. This sudden wave of emotion as I kneel next to the hole full of sand is a gift. I am overwhelmed with a feeling I haven’t had in a long time. It takes several minutes to recognize it as hope. Strangers, radiant in their hopeful sadness, smile at each other, at me.

These are the miracles of this place. The air in the tiny church vibrates with the silent prayer of different faiths, unidentified and intermixed. People send kind thoughts toward perfect strangers.

A glimmer of hope is restored again and again to those who need it most, because this place has the power to make people believe in something good. And my sand, still in the plastic bag, is rolled up on my desk. Touching it didn’t heal me, as the stories say it did for others. Visiting Chimayo didn’t take away my fatigue or relieve my pain, but maybe that wasn’t the miracle I really needed.

Every time I look at the dusty bag of sand, every time I pick it up and feel the adobe grains slide back and forth inside the plastic, I remember what it felt like to be inside that church, to breathe air thick with faith. I look at the sand and feel it all over again like a rush of blood. That is my miracle.  CD

Michelle Heather Pollock