Sacred Dirt

As anyone who has read my books and this blog knows, I’m intrigued by healing and mysterious phenomena. Something I found in a closet a few weeks ago got me thinking about miracles.


El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico was built on a site sacred to the native Tewa people. It is known as the Lourdes of the Southwest. In keeping with the nature of this part of the world, it does not have healing waters like Lourdes, but healing dirt. The architecture is simple and beautiful, like all old churches in New Mexico. A fence around the churchyard is covered with testimonials, tiny crosses and other small works of art, placed there by grateful people who were healed. Inside a small room to the side of the main sanctuary is a hole in the ground. Legend says that with a loaves-and-fishes kind of abundance, this hole never gets deeper, though year after year people have been scooping small amounts of the dirt from it for healing. The priest who was there the day I visited told me that skeptics suspected him of filling it up with dirt from somewhere else while no one was watching. He said he didn’t. According to the Santuario’s own web site, though, the sacred dirt is in fact replenished from nearby hillsides.

I packed my little plastic bag of Chimayo dirt when I moved from Santa Fe and forgot about it. This winter I was cleaning a closet and found it in a box. Hm. My sprained left middle toe was taking way too long to get well. Placebo or not, a little dust bath of this soft beige earth did wonders. The next day it didn’t hurt to walk.

My experience wasn’t a miracle, more like a placebo-induced acceleration. I was due to recover. But real miracles apparently do happen.  Dr. Larry Dossey wrote a fascinating editorial on documented miracles, some of which took place at Lourdes. Miracles don’t seem to happen to a particular person for any clear reason. Devout people who are suffering are not always healed, but some are.  Those who are healed don’t always have patterns of faith or behavior that predict susceptibility to miracles.

“These cures happen not just to those who have saintly dispositions, fierce determination, or positive thoughts, but to reprobates and passive quitters as well. Exceptions can be found to any psychological pattern yet advanced. I rather like this confused state of affairs. It suggests that no one has a monopoly on miracle cures … We ought to come clean and admit the obvious: we don’t know why spontaneous healings happen.”

What we  do know with certainty is that they happen. The International Medical Commission of Lourdes keeps meticulous records of its healings, and of before and after diagnoses of those who receive them. The miracles have to be proven by modern medicine.

Dossey describes the case of man who was apparently cured by a sham treatment in modern medicine as miraculously as others were cured at Lourdes. Mr. G., an elderly man with advanced lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow, chest, abdomen and lymph nodes was beyond treatment, but so debilitated his physicians wanted to admit to him to the hospital. To justify admission they had to come up with a treatment so they  “began irradiating a single lymph node in his groin, knowing this was a sham treatment that would satisfy the hospital authorities.”

Though he seemed ready to die at first, Mr. G gradually got stronger and gained weight. His pain subsided. He was discharged to a nursing home. Over subsequent months the masses in his body shrank. 83 at the time of his hospitalization, he lived several years  longer in the nursing home, and his physical condition returned to normal. He said he felt better than ever.

If Lourdes and Chimayo healings are placebo responses, some people must have more faith in the sacred power behind the water and the dirt than in the treatments they’ve been given by health care professionals—unlike Mr. G.

Imagine being so powerful in your own mind that you can change your physiology just by belief. This belief, as far as I can tell, though, is seldom if ever a belief in one’s own power but in something beyond the self, whether medical or divine. Every drug trial includes a placebo arm. The medicine has to prove that it’s more effective than belief alone in healing the body. A body which is made, in essence, of water and dirt.

When the laws of nature appear to be occasionally broken, what’s going on? Can something or Someone reach in from another aspect of reality and move molecules, or are these phenomena natural but not fully understood? Maybe some events are spiritual and others psycho-physiological—or maybe there’s no difference between the two except in our perceptions and our labels.

That’s a mystery I am content not to solve. Like Dr. Dossey, I like this uncertainty.


Work cited: Dossey, L. Canceled Funerals: A Look at Miracle Cures, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1998; 4 (2)10-18,116-119

Santuario web site:

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Amber Foxx

Author of Mae Martin psychic mystery series.

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