“A click; the room was darkened; and suddenly, on the screen above the Master’s head, there were the Penitentes of Acoma prostrating themselves before Our Lady, and wailing as John had heard them wail, confessing their sins before Jesus on the Cross, before the eagle image of Pookong. The young Etonians fairly shouted with laughter. Still wailing, the Penitentes rose to their feet, stripped off their upper garments and, with knotted whips, began to beat themselves, blow after blow. Redoubled, the laughter drowned even the amplified record of their groans.”
“But why do they laugh?” asked the Savage in a pained bewilderment.
“Why?” The Provost turned towards him a still broadly grinning face. “Why? But because it’s so extraordinarily funny.” (11.54-6)
Huxley, A Brave New World
Traveling the back roads of New Mexico can be disorienting. The Old Pecos Trail and the Old Santa Fe Trail may pass through the outskirts of Santa Fe, but before I know it, the narrow roads can suddenly turn off to a dirt road winding through six-foot high walls of tumbleweeds, sagebrush and mesquite. I am lost! I punch in Google Maps in the I phone, my campground destination, and the calming, confident female voice guides me back to home base. Amazing.
However, in two recent journeys to El Santuario del Chimayo, as country roads wind through Indian pueblos and old Hispano villages, I come to a cross roads with no directional signs and my digital guide through unfamiliar territory goes blank. The phone works, but no voice and the map on the phone makes no sense. As I look back now, I understand. I have entered mystical spiritual territory where I must carefully feel my way intuitively toward my destination. God give me a sign!
On Highway 76 (The High Road to Taos), we are driving north of Santa Fe through the Carson National Forest. On this warm spring day the dry, thin air is fragrant with the scent of pinyon pine and juniper. There is a village ahead, Las Trampas, and we turn off for a rest stop at La Casita Café. Warm frybread coated with cinnamon and sugar compliment spicy pinyon coffee. I am listening to conversations around us: English mixed with Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish and have a challenging time understanding until I catch some antique phases that remind me of the “thee” and “thou” in the old Episcopal Spanish prayer book. Now I understand. Local people are speaking in an 18th century Spanish colonial dialect, vestiges of four hundred years of Hispano occupation in these isolated New Mexican villages. As we pass the Church of San Jose de Gracia, I see an obscure square adobe building next door which I later found out is a morada sanctuary for the Penitentes or Brothers of Light.
We travel on looking for some direction toward Chimayo, but some unseen power has again disabled the GPS. We pass through Las Truchas. I recognize the market and other buildings from my favorite film by Robert Redford, The Milagro Beanfield Wars (1987).” When I play music from the film soundtrack, it captures the spiritual powers in this place, where villagers regularly consult with santos and angels in their daily life.
God give us a sign! And there it is! At this midpoint in the holy season of Lent, I can see just ahead of me four men walking together, barefoot, following a bearded young man, jet black hair flowing freely to his waist, carrying the heavy beam of a huge wooden cross. Penitentes are walking toward Chimayo. I should get out and walk behind them to find my way. Just then I hear bells. Church bells. It is noon. The 11am mass has just ended. I must be near my destination.
Students of cultural anthropology will have studied the penitents of New Mexico, Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (the Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene). Popular media through the years have observed the strange rituals of flagellation and crucifixions. The 1937 film “Lash of the Penitentes”, which is mocked by the Etonian students in Brave New World, derides the primitive rituals as “horrible” and “abusive”.
Perhaps some of the best photographs of the Penitentes in New Mexico were taken by Charles Lummis. In his book, The Land of Poco Tiempo, Lummis wrote
“so late as 1891 a procession of flagellants took place within the limits of the United States. A procession in which voters of this Republic shredded their naked back with savage whips, staggered beneath huge crosses, and hugged the maddening needles of the cactus”. (p. 56).
Ironically, Lummis fostered trust in order to photograph these private rituals in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and used his images to feed an insensitive, critical Anglo press which fostered a sensational stereotype of the Penitentes.
The curious rituals attracted many spiritual seekers. However, they belittled the primal practices of the Brotherhood. Visitors to New Mexico were enchanted by the Hispano-pueblo culture. But when they reported back about their experiences with these local spiritual rituals, it seemed to come from a disconnected realm of reality.
“What is critical to remember is that Lummis’s work would establish the framework for the hundreds of popular and scholarly publications that, like his own work, ignored the importance of penitente understanding and thinking about the sacared in their lives.”
P 37 The Sacred World of the Pentitentes.
However, the procession of the cross which I witnessed on the side of the road is a vestige of a profound spirituality deeply imbedded within the hearts of the people who live in the pueblos which dot the lands around Sanctuario del Chimayo.
The roots of the ascetical practice of flagellation go back more than a thousand years to Spain and Italy, identifying with the Flagellation of Jesus during his Passion. Ascetical practices were a very early part of Christian spirituality. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, as a Roman Catholic monk in Erfurt, Germany, had a whip hanging on the door of his cell for regular mortification. The Roman Catholic Church suppressed the practices in the 14th century, but as we will see, the Church cannot put a damper on popular piety.
The Spanish ascetical traditions came to New Mexico. After Mexican Independence in 1821, the Church replaced the Franciscan, Jesuit and Dominican missionaries with Diocesan priests. But as today in Mexico, there were not enough priests to go around, and little villages, like the ones around Chimayo, might only see a priest once a year.
Marta Weigle reflects:
“(a) century or more of improvisation in religious expressions, necessitated by the lack of ecclesiastics to minister in time of need, and to celebrate the important events of the Christian year, may well have resulted in a varied conglomeration of lay practices, prayers, penances and procession.” (Weigle 1976: 51).
Thus, the Penitentes filled this spiritual vacuum.
But the spirituality of the people is still vibrant. The men of these villages banded together for mutual support and community charity. Walking in the way of Jesus in his Passion on the Cross led these men to gather in moradas, enclosed adobe meeting houses. Is this a connection to Indian kivas? The village would know when the men were worshipping by the vibrant sound of their alabados songs. Their piety peaked during Lent and Holy Week with private flagellation rituals in the moradas and public processions of the cross.
The institutional church historically seems to have been very nervous about mystical experiences and this kind of popular piety. Archbishops Lamy and Salpointe tried to suppress these ascetical practices in the 19th century during the “Americanization” of the Church. The public rituals of penance and flagellation threatened traditional Catholic orthodoxy. As you would expect, this drove the brotherhood underground, becoming a secret society. There was a breakthrough in 1947, when Archbishop Bryne opened a new relationship with the brotherhood.
However, Enlightenment culture, which had pushed spiritual experiences off to the backroom closet in the assertion of human Reason, still had a fascination with this kind of popular spirituality.
Today at Santuario del Chimayo I could sense the powerful presence of the brotherhood and its continuing influence in villages of the Upper Grand Valley.
Jeffrey S. Smith writes:
“Not only have the Penitentes been the spiritual leaders of the community, but throughout the year they have provided services that might otherwise have gone undone. They have cared for the sick and poor, interred the deceased, organized wakes and rosaries at funerals, assisted the widowed, and administered the law and order within the village”
From the early history of the Christian Church, these actions describe the ministry of the Order of the Deacons.
Alberto Lopez Pulido offers a deeper understanding of the brotherhood in The Sacred World of the Penitentes. He brings the reader to the inner heart of this spirituality, which includes care for those in need, prayer and meditation, and modeling Christ-like behavior. Pulido shares the personal stories of members of the brotherhood, whose familiar roots go back many generations.
Pulido contends that writers and historians, in their insensitivity to things spiritual, have undermined the primal place that the Penitentes have had in popular piety. As he shares personal testimonies from members, his book reveals the passionate Christian spirituality which infuses their rituals.
In Carl N. Taylor’s Agony in Mexico (1936), we find an example of a negative narrative. He witnesses the brotherly solidarity of this spiritual movement within the life of the Hispano pueblos in the area. But he was upset by the flagellation and crucifixion rituals. This reinforced Euro American negative stereotypes about the Penitentes.
The “canary in the gold mine”, is a metaphor coming from the California goldfields that relates to social injustice. The miners of ’49, as they dug tunnels deep into the Sierra Nevada, carried little bamboo cages holding live yellow canaries. Because the moist interiors of the mine tunnels often exposed poisonous gases, the canary in the cage was a first sign of danger. Dead canary, run for your life!
In the prophetic tradition of the Jewish scriptures, how the community cares for the widow, orphan and sojourner was the “canary in the gold mine” for the People of God. Oppression of the poor and vulnerable would bring God’s punitive judgment.
The Brotherhood of the Penitents inherit this Biblical consciousness in their attentive care for those in need in the community. This is a core value for them, “an act of charity.”
Walk with me as we follow a procession on Good Friday evening, moving slowly on the city sidewalk in downtown Santa Ana, California. We wait at the signal for dense homebound auto traffic to stop and we follow the direction of the police officers as we cross the street. Latino mothers, wearing dark head covering, gather little children hand in hand as a nurturing mother hen gathers her chicks. The sudden rain shower from an hour ago has cleared. Wispy steam rises from the street. Thunder in the distance is the last sound from the departing spring storm.
As you gaze ahead to the start of the long procession, you see a long-haired man bent over, carrying a heavy, huge wooden cross. The crowd beings to sing
Perdona tu pueblo senior
The procession stops at the front door of the University of California Clinic. A short step ladder is set up. A woman climbs with assistance and begins to read one of the Stations of the Cross. At the end of the mediation she offers her own prayer: for those incarcerated at the Orange County Jail near by and for her own son, who has been there for the past month.
The Procession of the cross, Via Crucis, proceeds, winding through the busy streets, singing penitential songs on this Good Friday Night, praying the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Men and Women alternate, carrying the heavy burden of this cross.
As you imagine this scene, how do you think it would be received if it were passing through the main street of your home town today? Surprisingly, as the procession carefully walks through the dense streets of downtown, families out shopping or going to dinner, pull aside from the sidewalk, and reverence the procession by removing hats and making the sign of the cross. This Good Friday Procession with a large, heavy cross reminds these Latinos of their hometown pueblos, where the same procession could be happening on this night. Some of these observers interrupt their evening plans and join the procession as it winds its way back to my parish.
In this Via Crucis, participants walk with Jesus in his passion toward the cross and crucifixion. This was a spiritual practice spread throughout the Western world by the Franciscans.
In another chapter on El Sanctuario del Chimayo, I share the moving experience my wife Janice had with our disabled son Erik at the shrine of the healing sand. El Sanctuario at that time only had the sacramental part-time presence of a very old priest. However, one layman was the guardian of the shrine of the healing sand. It was he, who with tender compassion, guided our son to stand within the sacred hole from which the healing sand is taken. He laid his hands on Erik’s shoulder and prayed for him. The pastoral, deaconal charism of that man convinces me that he was a member of the Penitentes brethren.
This blog is further developed as a chapter in my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest.
Lash of the Penitentes, directed by Roland Price & Harry Revier (1937) – excerpts
The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000
“Roads to the Real New Mexico”, by Lawrence O’Toole, New York Times, November 8, 1992.
Brother of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest, by Marta Weigle (Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1976)
The Land of Poco Tiempo, Charles F. Lummis (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1969)
Los Hermanos Penitentes: An Illustrative Essay, Jeffrey S. Smith
The North American Geographer, 2 (1), pp. 70-84, 2000.
I’ve searched high and low for evidence of los Hermanos anywhere else in the United States other than the southwest and had no clue they could also be found in California. My historical fiction, El Hermano, will be released in 3 weeks, and I’m constantly looking for more information about los Hermanos. My book is a tribute to my father, chronicling his entrance and subsequent rise to the position of Hermano Mayor.
Thant you Carmen. I will be looking for your book.
I understand that you visited the community of Truchas for a brief time. If you had been there, lived there, in the 1980s, I am quite sure you would not be romanticizing the penitentes and the “spiritual powers” of the quaint little town you drove through. Did you stop and look at the hands of the old people and see the scars from the crucifixion nails?
I just went back to Truchas for the first time in thirty-five years. It was like entering the twilight zone–a sort of Stepford Wives version of the town I knew in 1983, when the only “spiritual powers” were the kind that Stephen King fictionalizes. Then, it was a divided, where each half preyed on the other, literally raping and killing each other as a matter of course. If you had spoken with the local general store owner back then, she would have told you that she and her husband had not left their property together for over thirty years because the rival faction would burn it to the ground. The factions only came together to attack the poor unfortunates who fell into the regular town scam of selling property to an outsider, and then terrorizing them with burglaries, arson, shootings, and beatings until they left, selling back to the original owners at great loss to themselves and great profit to the “pious” locals. They would laugh and joke as they watched the houses burn to ashes. If you spoke to the children who grew up and left Truchas, they would tell you those “negative stereotypes” of the flagellations, the crucifixions, and the passionate ignorance and violence were no more than plain fact, and that those who deny it are the ones who are unenlightened.
Now, there are no crosses on the hilltops. The community does not adamantly fight against the introduction of education like it used to, and in the town proper, its children are no longer persecuted for learning to read. The forest has given way to pastures, and rich white people have pushed out many of the Truchasinos. The old women who sat by their doorways selling their apples have been replaced with art galleries. There is even a library, a clinic, and a senior center–all the trappings of a civilized, modern community. It might actually BE more like the quaint little town you describe, with people consulting their santos and angels instead of the demons that fed their violent culture only a short few decades ago.
But if you scratch the surface by going off the beaten track by as little as a few miles–back to where there are no coffee shops selling fry bread to jaunting journalist touristas; back to where backpackers would breeze in with naive exuberance, never to be seen again; back to where the crosses still perch atop the peaks and the ground is still fed with blood–you just might find that the darkness is still there, and it still feeds.