Granted that they did not find the riches of which they had been told,
they found a place in which to search for them.

--Pedro de Castañeda to the King of Spain, 1596

For the past week, forest fires have been sweeping through thousands of timbered acres northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, around nearby Los Alamos and adjoining Native American sacred sites. The ancient Indian ruins of Puye Cliffs are being touched by those flames today.

Fire has come to this land before--and it will doubtless come again as nature plays out its eternal cycles. What remains here, under the drama of the elements, is the evidence of human visitation and human consecration--the holy places.

With a name like Santa Fe, you would expect this small town in the mountains of northern New Mexico to have something spiritual going for it. Santa Fe means "Holy Faith" in Spanish. The entire name is La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi--the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.

The confluence of ancient Native American religions, traditional world faiths, and New Age metaphysical philosophies makes Santa Fe a virtual cradle of spirituality in the high desert. Banked up against the majestic peaks of the Sange de Cristos--"the blood of Christ" in Spanish, another spiritual allusion--it is home to dozens of spiritual groups, from Tibetan Buddhists, Quakers and Zen adherents, to Bahai's, Sikhs and Sufis. All those spiritual practices rest easily on the foundation of the dominant religion, established here by itinerant priests who accompanied colonists from Spain in the Sixteenth Century, Roman Catholicism.

But even before Franciscan missionaries arrived in here at the dawn of New World exploration, carrying the holy faith of their founder and the name Santa Fe with them, the settlement, called "Place of the Dancing Sun" by medicine men of the native Pueblo peoples, was considered hallowed ground.

Perhaps it is the altitude-7,000 feet--that gives the place its rarified sense of spirit. Or the crisp and clean, sage-scented air of the desert. For many centuries, spiritual seekers have been going up into mountains and out into deserts to find God; Santa Fe has both mountains and desert.

Perhaps it is the extraordinary clear light, which slices across brown adobe walls in the morning like a razor, and caresses the same walls in the evening with a buttery glow. The ethereal light, which has drawn not only ardent pilgrims on spiritual quests, but also throngs of painters and photographers whose names are household words.

A few years ago, the travel media discovered Santa Fe as a vacation destination, and placed the emphasis on Native American crafts, cowboy-and- cactus art, boots-and-concha belt costumes and Santa Fe-style home furnishings. It missed what many of us longtime residents believe is the real story of the place. Santa Fe is a dazzling spiritual center, a sacred place for soul expansion, personal transformation and healing.

Santa Fe, population 60,000, now has one of the nation's most active communities of alternative health professionals: it boasts one alternative practitioner for every 27 citizens--compared to only one conventional doctor per 200. The New Mexico State Medical Board reports that Santa Fe now has more acupuncturists per capita than Beijing. At the town's two important international schools of massage, graduates learn to love Sante Fe, and tend to settle here: at last count, the number of licensed massage therapists numbered just over 1500 - or one body worker for every 50 of us.

The founder of one of those massage schools, the late Dr. Jay Scherer, told me a few years ago why he believed Santa Fe was called to be a significant spiritual center. "The geography of the place is ravishing," he said. "But you must remember that it was made that way as a result of tremendous spiritual activity here in former ages." In Dr. Scherer's personal cosmology, Santa Fe was beginning to re-evolve into "the center of a new age of the spirit - set aside for God-work because of its high spiritual consciousness."

When you come to Santa Fe, you first will be exposed to what the local tourist industry considers the city's most important "attractions" - the Oldest Church, the Oldest House, the "Miraculous" Staircase, the silver and turquoise jewelry under the portal of the Palace of the Governors.

But you can get past those mundane tourist-oriented activities and go to the heart of Santa Fe's new identity as a world-class spiritual center. Here are three suggestions for daylong adventures of the spirit in the area around Santa Fe.

A pilgrimage to Chimayo During Holy Week every year, thousands of local pilgrims converge on the tiny village 30 miles north of Santa Fe to honor its ancient healing powers. Crutches and braces fill the sanctuary of the church, which is called "the Lourdes of the Southwest." Before it was a Spanish Colonial sacred site (since the 18th Century), it was the focus of Native American worship. The "holy soil" in a pit in the Santuario is said to have special healing properties. Rancho Manzano, in Chimayo village, is available for solitary retreats. For directions and other details, phone 505.351.2227/ Fax 505.351.2223. Or email manzana@newmexico.com.

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert This monastery follows the rule set up for monks by St. Benedict at the dawn on the Middle Ages. Silence, chanting, and prayer informs this splendid place that is literally in the desert, on the banks of the Rio Chama, surrounded by some of the most awe inspiring scenery in the country. You can spend the day in quiet reflection in the monastery chapel, or, for longer stays, take a room in the guest quarters. The ride to this blessed spot, about 45 minutes northwest of Santa Fe, is enthralling. I recommend a hardy vehicle. For detailed information and directions, check out the monastery webpage: www.christdesert.org, e-mail porter@christdesert.org, or write Monastery of Christ in the Desert / P.O. Box 270 / Abiquiqu, New Mexico 87510-0270.

A mystical connection with the Ancient Ones Once the fires subside, it's worth a trip down the highway that takes you from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, where the worst of the damage has been done. Near the birthplace of the Atomic Age (material for a meditation itself) are twin sacred sites that exude a powerful spiritual aura. Black Mesa, a monumental rock formation, was a holy place for the ancient Anasazi and their descendants, the Pueblo peoples. Close to it are the ruins of the 750-room dwelling at Puye Cliffs, the ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo people. Contemplation amid the silence of this power place, about 20 miles north of Santa Fe, can be an unforgettable experience in personal transformation. On the way, stop at the placid Pueblo of San Ildefonso. To check on accessibility, for directions or advice for embarking on self-guided tours call the office of the Santa Clara Pueblo: 505-753-7326 / Fax: 505-753-8988.

When Spanish conquistadors came here five centuries ago looking for gold, they did not find it. Instead, they discovered a place where they could mine the metaphorical alchemist's gold of spiritual riches.

That wealth awaits the true seeker of the soul who comes to Santa Fe.

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