In our morning lecture, the buoyant program coordinator — a fastidious, enthusiastic twenty-something with shiny brown hair and a broad smile — announced that the “Blessing of the Artists Mass” would be taking place the following morning at St. Francis Cathedral in downtown Santa Fe. Did anyone want to carpool?
It was my second day in Santa Fe and my head was thick with the breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and altitude sickness. I was in Santa Fe, on the campus of St. John’s College, to start a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, which began with ten days of intense writing workshops in this heavenly place. But going to church was not first on my to-do list. My decision to pursue a Master’s was one way of putting religion on hold. After eight years of church work I was as burned out as a long haul trucker. My marriage was braying for help too — over recent years, a miscarriage and a brush with cancer had worn us thin.
Several hands shot in the air and I was reminded that despite my half-hearted attempt to get distance from church, this workshop was in fact, for writers of Christian faith, and my degree would be a Faith & Writing degree. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of these fresh-faced writers would want to attend Sunday Mass. Nor should I be surprised that they (and I) would be passing around a bottle of artisan whiskey and debating universal salvation under a canopy of summer stars, until just a handful of hours before the cathedral bell tolled 8:00 a.m.
I might like to see the cathedral again, I thought. The last time I was in downtown Santa Fe was eleven years ago. I was on my honeymoon and it was winter. I remembered my husband and I strolling confidently through the narrow, quiet streets dusted with the first snow of the season. Gloved fingers interlaced and collars turned up against the November chill, we saw our lives stretched out like a blank canvas of possibility. My eyes refocused: Santa Fe in summer was packed with cheerful tourists wearing shorts and Teva’s, toting backpacks, balancing maps and cameras and water bottles.
I would join the expedition to the Blessing of the Artists Mass, I decided, as students gathered in familiar clumps to decide who was driving whom. I couldn’t resist the name; I’m a sucker for a good title. And I was sure I would feel little to nothing in the way of religious devotion. I wasn’t interested in that, I told myself. I would go as a tourist. One of my roommates, a fiercely loyal Air Force captain whose ethos included “No Roommate Left Behind,” insisted I go. If nothing else, she said, it’ll be a story. And story, after all, was what we were after.
It was 7:30 am, and our hungover battalion marched down what felt like thousands of stair steps from our dorm to the parking lot and met up with several others from our writing program. To my shock, all were freshly washed and pressed, ready for church. Nothing like writers at other workshops I had been to, I thought, who were categorically pale and ironic. These writers were fit, athletic, and all seemed to have really great relationships with their parents. I scratched my head. As we piled into the idling car, I settled my throbbing forehead against palm. My stomach sploshed. I regretted the unwise combination of whiskey and sky scraping altitude — St. John’s Campus sits 7,000 feet above sea level. Not to mention the ten years seniority I had on the rest of my cohort — at a normal altitude I needed at least seven hours of sleep to function. Something else was working against me. My heroic, Air Force-trained roommate had neglected to mention that the delicious coffee she’d been brewing in her French press every morning was decaf. So this, my third day without caffeine, dawned with a migraine.
When we arrived at the flagstone patio outside the cathedral, dozens of artists were already lined up, gingerly holding their handicrafts, paintings and jewelry, ready to be blessed. The artists would be selling their work in the Spanish Market later that day, a world-famous festival of American Indian art that has taken over Santa Fe Plaza every August since 1922. Elderly, children, and robust matriarchs mingled with well-appointed retirees bedecked in pounds of turquoise and silver — all neatly arranged and waiting patiently. The air was thin and sweet. I struggled to capture a picture with my cell phone. The cathedral bell tolled, the heavy doors opened, and our diasporic group of students followed behind the artists, looking pious, or at least in my case, trying not to throw up.
We took our seats in a pew near the very back of the Cathedral and I strained on tip toes to see over the heads of worshipers, past the giant, marble columns to the priest and musicians at the front. The familiar sound of a drum kit and acoustic guitar ricocheted off the marble and glass. The thousand-strong congregation sang athletically about “Christ our Salvation” and “Jesus our Rock.” The songs were vaguely familiar. They were some of the same songs I’d heard in the first charismatic church I attended in my twenties. But here, the verses were sung in Spanish and choruses in English. The congregation was as comfortable with the two languages as they were with their dual citizenship — Santa Feans skip easily between English and Spanish, as they do between Hispanic, Anglo, and Indian cultures. I coughed out a line or two in English, tried a chorus in Spanish, then gave up altogether.
I was the very last one in the pew, wedged against an icy air conditioning vent. It wasn’t hot outside (it rarely broke eighty degrees even at mid-day that August), but the giant Cathedral was iced down as if to preserve meat. Shivering, I set my backpack atop the vent and tried to read the Xeroxed program someone passed to me. My mind wandered. I had thought that this Catholic Mass would be so very different from the evangelical style of worship I was trying to take a break from. And I’d hoped, though I’d hardly admitted it to myself, that I might feel differently here, among the pillars and marble.
But too much of it was familiar — the anemic guitar, the warbly singers, the optimistic lyrics. Sitting uncomfortably among the singing believers a burn of anxiety scrambled up my esophagus. I was irritated. The air conditioning irritated me. The music irritated me. The congregation irritated me. And my headache showed no signs of abating. Communion was coming, I knew that much from reading ahead in the program. I began to plan my escape. I had no business taking communion, I thought. Not with my snarky attitude, not with all this uncertainty in my heart and head.
Just as I was rehearsing the nudge and excuse me in my mind, readying myself to shimmy past the fifteen people in the pew, a teenage girl two rows ahead let out a low, deep moan. A growl. An Ooooooohhhhhh that seemed to issue from the bowels of earth. It couldn’t have come from the petite, well-dressed form in front of me. Ooooohhhhhhh, she repeated, and a collective gasp formed in the air around her, as family members extended arms to catch her falling, elevating her feet to the pew as if in a choreographed dance. Was this an ecstatic religious experience, I thought, or an epileptic seizure? And if it was the former and not the latter, were she and I experiencing the same Mass? Or was she tuned into something bigger and deeper than I’d even considered acknowledging in too many years to count?
Years ago, in that first, charismatic church, I’d seen swooning and swaying. I’d heard the musical, alien patois of prayers in tongues. I’d heard prophecies bellowed from insurance agents and school teachers. I’d seen those same insurance agents and school teachers drop to their knees in ecstatic surrender. But that was long ago. When I began my run in vocational ministry, I left the charismatic church where I first found faith for a Presbyterian church that was willing to hire me. The Presbyterians referred to themselves as the “frozen chosen,” so there would be no swooning on the plush, blood red carpet of the sanctuary. But I didn’t mind. I learned to love their liturgy, and their people. So l silenced my prayer-patois, and after a while I didn’t even miss it, I thought. But I did miss it.
I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing in the cathedral in Santa Fe. It had been so long since I’d seen anything like it. I was like a kid at a carnival, staring slack-jawed at some mysterious creature in an aquarium. A broad-shouldered woman fanned the girl’s face with the Xeroxed program. I tightened my grip on my backpack, ready to sprint.
A tidy blonde arrived post haste, claiming nursing credentials and offering assistance. The broad-shouldered woman shooed off the nurse, and others, presumably family or friends of the girl, propped her up on their shoulders and spirited away her half-limp body, head lolling listlessly to the side. The church service continued. Our small miracle near the back hardly made an impression.
That night, back in my dorm room, the feeling of irritation flooded me again and I began ticking off things about church I didn’t like. Not just this church in Santa Fe, but all churches. Maybe I didn’t need church anymore, I thought. I shifted uncomfortably in the narrow bed, and focused my eyes on the geometric pattern of moonlight splayed across the ceiling above me, cutting into the darkened room through narrow blinds. Water leaked from my eyes. What I was feeling in the cathedral — what was fueling my mean spirited, self-righteous criticism — was not irritation. It was jealousy. As a child, I had been jealous of happy, smiling families in the supermarket, or at a ball game, and in much the same way, I was now jealous of the smiling, eager worshipers. I was jealous of the warbly singer leading the bilingual songs. I was jealous of the swooning girl. They had something I wanted. Something I once had but since lost.
The following evening, as thunderheads congregated west in their nightly show, I paused on one of the college’s terra cotta landings and watched the blue sky darken to purple as if touched by a wet paintbrush. I thought of Georgia O’Keeffe. Of course a painter would want to spend her life getting the aubergine of the hills and the cottony mist of the clouds just right. I’m not a painter, but I could see giving my own life to such a pursuit. Why not canonize Georgia O’Keeffe and call every vista a chapel and every valley a cathedral, I thought? There’s little need for a church building in Santa Fe. I bet Saint Georgia already intercedes on our behalf; she prays mercy for our color blindness, for our inability to see the splendor right in front of our eyes. A church with walls seems redundant here, even if those walls contain small miracles, like the swooning girl.
But Santa Fe has always been a place for church. Its religious history is long and brutal. Even these days, a professor told me earlier, northern New Mexico is a gathering place for every sort of religion — from Orthodox to Native to New Age. Something about this place makes it a magnet for religious wing nuts like me, I thought. And no wonder: Santa Fe means Holy Faith.
The sky, stair-stepped in banks of gray, blue, and purple, hung full and low over my upturned chin. Isn’t faith implicitly holy, and holiness faithful? Why do we need both “Santa” and “Fe”? Why do we need a church in a place where the sky and valleys and mountains do this, I thought.
Or perhaps I’m wrong and faith can be unholy. It can be tattered and hanging on by a thread, like mine. Or maybe that’s just why it is holy.
Lightning threaded the blackened clouds like a hemstitch and I heard the hiss of raindrops hitting the sunbaked patio. I ran. Leaping down steps, two at a time, then over the courtyard and past the tiny pond where iridescent Koi swam unaware, I lunged toward a door, just before the rain really started, backpack slapping against my shoulder.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles and essays have appeared in Nylon Magazine, Curator Magazine, the Art House America Blog, and Culture Map. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University.