The Best Place on Earth

September 5, 2017

Chicago, Illinois
December 2008

 

Arriving back in Chicago from New Mexico at the end of September 2008, I was suddenly struck by a feeling of emptiness. My heart heavy and my spirit dampened, and with a cloud of sadness lingering over my head, I knew that my time in New Mexico had come to an end. This was strangely felt more so this time than after any of the twenty-two motorcycle trips I had previously made to that enchanted state since 1990. This time a friend of mine and I visited some of the places I loved, including the one I had always held dear in my heart, El Santuario de Chimayo.

 

Stopping at that little adobe chapel had become the highlight of each trip to New Mexico. There was always that unexplainable force that drew me back, time after time, and amusingly, I started calling it "my pilgrimage." I had stumbled upon El Santuario, totally by accident on my first motorcycle trip, after having found the way through Espanola to Hwy 76 (the high road to Taos).

 

In 1998 I had painted El Santuario and fourteen other churches along certain trails of New Mexico. It had since become my favorite.

 

I had ridden my motorcycles through the years on many trips, and under some very severe weather conditions. An example was my 2004 trip from Chicago to Sedona, Arizona, where I arrived weary, bewildered, extremely fatigued, and mostly fearful of what lurked ahead for my journey back. After eight days of riding through relentless winds to get there, I decide to leave Sedona earlier than planned. With more severe wind storms predicted, I opted to ride, zigzagging through the smaller roads in hopes of avoiding the bulk of the winds. Strangely, all that came to mind during that escape was the image of El Santuario, and somehow I felt the calm in the face of the winds. Even as I feared the worst, I felt the presence of the angels, flying along side of me, yet stronger than on any journey before. I vowed then that if I was allowed to make it safely to Albuquerque, I would ship the motorcycle home and fly back. And so I did.

 

Folkloric religious beliefs, including those of apparitions, are strong among many people around the globe, and become more colorful, if undocumented, when passed on through storytelling and by word of mouth. It is all about faith in the end, the strength of which has no boundaries. Religion has played a major role in my life. I grew up in the holy city of Jerusalem, and I am the son of a Lutheran pastor, who would later, in 1979, become the first Arab Lutheran Bishop in the Middle East. Ever since I was able to understand religion, and even though I loved studying it, I shied away from organized religion, however.

 

With fond thoughts of New Mexico, and especially of El Santuario, I decided to go back again in October 2008. Finding a very reasonable air fare must have been an omen that I needed to go there again, to close another chapter of my life, by perhaps finding out why I had been always drawn to that place. So, on a crisp October morn, and longing to stop at El Santuario on the way to Taos, my friend Julie and I went to Chimayo. Was it the spirituality or the peace I felt there that drew me in time and time again? Was it the thoughts of El Santuario, many years later, while riding in the winds of 2004? Perhaps it was the little priest, the Reverend Casimiro Roca, who somehow reminded me of my late father. As we sat in front of the entrance to the chapel, Rev. Roca walked in our direction. He looked at me and in passing, he said, "I like your hair." I was caught by surprise, and coming back to reality as if from a trance, I laughed because I have no hair.

 

That night, thoughts of El Santuario, its story, Rev. Roca and what made me always gravitate to that place, danced in my head and kept me awake. I regretted not having made more of an effort to speak with Rev. Roca, and even though I had been there twice on that trip already, I decided that I needed to go there again. I had always wanted to meet the little priest, especially after I found out that he came from the little village of Mura in Spain, and because of his life and his wonderful work as a priest, especially in Chimayo, and at the age of 90, when most others have long since retired. I had briefly read about his tragic early life in Spain during the civil war—the death of his two brothers, his joining the army briefly, his father’s death due to severe burns from a fire. I knew Mura well—a beautiful little hamlet nestled in the side of a mountain, where I had made frequent stops to admire the pastoral landscape while motorcycling to Montserrat, during my time in Spain in 1970.

 

So, the following morning we set out again for Chimayo. I had forgotten it was Sunday. Arriving there, we found the place swarming with tourists and worshipers alike, and I feared that I might not get the chance to meet Rev. Roca. Suddenly, while sitting under the large tree on the edge of the now dry irrigation ditch, I was calmed and became tranquil, as if in a trance again. I could not hear a sound except that of the crunch of the occasional autumn leaf falling to the ground. Then with the toll of the bell, my soul was calmed, and with my cares pushed aside, I remembered again that day in 2004. My eyes then wandered to the brilliant blue sky and I thought of my life in Jerusalem, as the blueness of the sky over New Mexico, unique in this country, reminds me of that over Jerusalem.

 

Awaiting Rev. Roca’s return from lunch after Mass allowed me to relax and enjoy the peace and tranquility a while longer. He arrived back at 1:15 p.m. and went directly to his office beside the chapel. Soon thereafter I went into the chapel and knocked on his office door, which was wide open. "Come in," he said, and continued, "It is open for everyone."

 

As I walked in and introduced myself as someone who lives in Chicago, he immediately responded, "no good…no…no good." He had been through Chicago on his way to Notre Dame in Indiana to receive an honor for his work. Amusingly, he went on to describe the affair and how much he loved Notre Dame, but closed by saying again, "Chicago, no good…."

 

We talked about his village briefly, after I had told him that I had lived in Barcelona for a while. Among other things, he mentioned having planted all the trees himself, but then he commented on how fast the ones in the front yard have grown, enough to be a problem. With a few interruptions by people coming in to be blessed and the phone to be answered, I said my goodbyes, and in turn he said, "This is the best place on earth."

 

For a moment I stood there speechless, and suddenly it dawned on me. I remembered that I had heard him say that as he walked past me a month earlier, too. Nodding in agreement, I finally realized that that was what I had always felt. The missing link now in place, and another chapter of my life closing, I left his office. Once outside the compound, I turned around to take a last look at El Santuario. With a joyful smile, I mumbled to myself, "This is the best place on earth."

 

Usama Haddad

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