It’s no accident that this high-desert land of magnificent natural beauty, crystal-clean air, and spectacular sunshine has for centuries drawn spiritual seekers and inspired religious awe among followers of all faiths. From the Ancestral Pueblo and Athapascan—respective forebears of the region’s Pueblo Indians and Navajo and Apache tribes, for whom the land they call “ground of the dancing sun” remains sacred—to today’s New Age adherents, who combine ancient mysticism with modern thought, northern New Mexico beckons. For what is religion if not the spiritual cement that binds humankind to nature and supernature—what some call “God” and others call “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Krishna” or simply “higher power.”
The late Fray Angélico Chávez—a Franciscan priest, poet, and author from northern New Mexico who wrote some two dozen books about his homeland and the anima hispanica (Hispanic soul)—understood this clearly when he likened New Mexico to Palestine in both topography and climate. “The New Mexican landscape . . . is the holy land,” Chávez wrote in his compelling 1974 book, My Penitente Land. He called the Río Grande New Mexico’s Jordan River and Santa Fe its Jerusalem. He similarly compared Palestine to Spain, the land from which the first European settlers in what would become New Mexico arrived nearly 450 years ago. “Grazing lands all and most alike in their physical aspects,” Chávez wrote, adding that they “share a distinctive underlying human mystique born of that very type of arid landscape.” Thus both the pobladores (settlers) sanctioned by the Spanish Crown, whose Catholicism was as much a part of their anima hispanica as their Spanish roots, and the conversos (crypto Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition to the New World in search of religious freedom) sensed a comfortable familiarity in this strange new land they called “Nuevomejico.” Its appearance and clime approximated not only the home they recently left but also the ancient biblical soil of their common ancestors.
The Catholic Church vigorously opposed the Protestant incursion that arrived in the form of missionaries from points east on the Santa Fe Trail after New Mexico became a U.S. territory in 1846. While hostilities rarely erupted in violence, they came out in other ways. It was not unheard of for Catholic clergymen to drown out Protestant sermons by ringing their church bells as loudly as possible. Relations between Catholics and Protestants became still more strained with the arrival in 1850 of Jean Baptiste Lamy, a French priest whom the pope named as Santa Fe’s first bishop. Lamy attempted to suppress the Protestant movement by subtle means, including wedding local government to the Catholic Church; replacing Hispanic clergy with less tolerant French and Italian priests; sheltering the local Hispanic and Indian population from the Protestant influence of Americans, who were arriving in wagonloads on the Santa Fe Trail; and by making outcasts of Protestant preachers and their converts.
New Mexico’s first Protestant missionary, a Northern Baptist preacher named Hiram Walter Read, arrived in 1849—three years after the end of the Mexican-American War (see our History chapter) and one year before it became an American territory. Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian missionaries arrived on the heels of the Baptists. Meanwhile American Jews, many of them German immigrants, predated the Baptists by six years. Documents place Albert Speyers, a Jewish trader from New York, on the Santa Fe Trail as early as 1843. Unlike the Protestants, however, the Jews came not on a religious mission but an economic one. In fact, Santa Fe had no synagogue until 1952, 76 years after New Mexico’s first recorded bar mitzvah.
It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the next wave of pilgrims came to northern New Mexico. But they differed dramatically from their predecessors in that they came not to spread religion but to find it. These were the artists, writers, and thinkers of the East Coast who left the decadence and materialism of their own culture for what they felt was the purity and mysticism of New Mexico. It’s largely the legacy of this generation—one that included the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, and Mabel Dodge Luhan—which lends Santa Fe a mystique that has since achieved mythological proportions. However patronizing, they idealized the place, inadvertently advertising it through their artwork and their prose and luring others—artists and free thinkers in the early part of the century, hippies and New Age practitioners in recent generations.
Today Santa Fe is home to more than 50 active Christian churches; two synagogues, and five Jewish congregations; three Buddhist temples and several meditation centers; and dozens of other nondenominational and unaffiliated spiritual centers of every bent. Just open the Yellow Pages to “religion” and you’ll find a mind-boggling array of choices. Or look in the Religion page of Saturday’s New Mexican for a large listing of spiritual groups along with addresses and phone numbers.
Santa Fe’s charm begins with the sky. On a July afternoon, for instance, you can watch the thunderheads build, a symphony of towering cumulonimbus clouds sometimes accompanied by a wispy chorus of higher, drier formations.
The billowing clouds that create Santa Fe’s summer thunderstorms also bring incredibly rich sunsets. It’s not unusual to see cars pull to the side of US 84/285 near the Old Taos Highway or along Artist Road, park, and their passengers climb out and look westward, watching the sky change minute by minute. It is no accident that our local mountains have names that evoke their vivid sunset hues: Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and Sandía (watermelon).
Winter skies can be equally startling. After a February snowstorm, for instance, the intense cyan blue of the heavens seems to echo the turquoise Pueblo Indians sell under the portal along the Plaza. The snow glistens like spun glass in the intensity of the sun’s light. To the east the snow-flocked Sangre de Cristos are a shock of white against a cloudless blue backdrop.
The night sky weaves its own magic. Go outside on a moonless evening and look up. When your eyes adjust, you’ll see layer on layer of sparkling stars, planets, and constellations. Almost every night, you’ll see meteors, passing satellites, and the blinking red lights of planes on their way to Los Angeles or Denver. These are some of the best star-gazing skies in the United States.