A History of Belief

A journey through New Mexico offers glimpses of old creeds and insights into modern spiritual quests

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A meditation site established by the Lama Foundation.

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Sublime structure. The place for worship—the sacred center of the monastery—is the church, the hallowed oratory that Benedict stipulated should be reserved for prayer alone. The church at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a quietly sublime structure. Adobe for the most part, it has large expanses of glass that seem to bring the walls of the facing canyon right into the ceremonial heart of the church.

Deserts were the sites of the earliest Christian monasteries, places of austerity and isolation where the seeker could, through assiduous devotion to work and prayer, draw closer to God. To monks steeped in the Gospels, these rigorous landscapes specifically recalled Jesus's self-imposed 40-day trial in the wilderness. They were the sites of spiritual testing.

Christianity is only one of the religions, and a late one at that, with seeds in what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers first dubbed the Axial Age. During this age—roughly 900 to 200 B.C.—four traditions arose in four different parts of the world, each representing a new approach to the sacred: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. While all of these traditions had their own particular historical precursors, and most would have offspring (including Christianity and Islam in the case of Judaism), each one acquired its distinctive and classical formulation during this age.

But what was the common thread running through these traditions? According to Taylor, it was the fact that all of them "took the diffuse and variegated order of earlier religion and tried to unify it under a transcendent supreme principle." That principle, Taylor elaborates, could be a supreme creator God or some unified principles of order, like the Tao; or the endless cycle of samsara, the Hindu and Sikh concept of reincarnation or rebirth; or escape into the Buddha's nirvana.

While the implications of this change have been interpreted in many different ways, a few of its consequences seem beyond dispute. One is that the order of the world was no longer an immutable given, established once and for all in an unrecoverable past. Individuals, either by worshiping and obeying the Supreme Creator or through other beliefs, could bring about change. Particularly in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, that meant people could make history even while remaking themselves. The birth of history, the rise of the individual, and even, ironically, the rise of secularism were all made possible by the religious and ethical traditions born in the Axial Age.

These traditions also led to the disenchantment of the world by concentrating the sacred in certain specific sites. Churches, shrines, temples, monasteries, and locations associated with saints or central figures in those traditions were places, often overseen or inhabited by priests or spiritual adepts, where the faithful could connect with the transcendent creator or principle. Like kivas, they were ceremonial places. But while kivas were symbolic representations of the spirit-infused world, sacred places in the Axial Age religions tended to be places apart from the world—a world not only emptied of its sacred dimension but also often viewed as a snare or illusion.

Still, the ancient view of the world did not entirely die. In their various ways, the great religions accommodated it. Visit the Sanctuary of Chimayo some 25 miles north of Santa Fe, and you can see how Christianity made its own partial truce with the Puebloan worldview. Even the founding of the shrine has a mythic quality evocative of American Indian legend.

Blessed soil. In 1810, the story goes, a member of the Catholic Penitentes Brotherhood saw a light shining up from one of the hills. Digging into the ground, he found a crucifix, which he took to a church in nearby Santa Cruz. But the crucifix inexplicably returned to its place in the Chimayo hills, and did so after being carried to the Santa Cruz church two more times. Accepting this as a sign, the local Catholic hierarchy allowed a small church to be built in Chimayo, and the crucifix was mounted on its altar. Further blending the ancient American Indian religion and Catholicism, the church contains a small room with a little dirt-filled pit (pocito, in Spanish) in its center. The dirt is blessed by the clergy, and people seeking cures scoop up small portions to take with them. The church is quick to say that the soil has no magical property. But the kivalike aspect of the pocito and the reverence with which the soil is regarded suggest a view of the world that predates Christianity.