New Mexican Spirituality

There’s something “spiritual” about this place
Kelly Baker

As a newly implanted New Mexican, I discovered early on that when I told any one (on a plane, at a conference, or in my office) that I was moving to the Land of Enchantment that she/he would close her/his eyes and whisper, “It is so spiritual there.” I am not sure if it is the incredible blue skies or the seemingly harsh red and brown landscape, but New Mexico seems to mark tourists as an intensely spiritual place to be. Maybe it’s the stark contrast from anywhere that is green (especially from my native Florida) or possibly the view of mountains over the city. I must admit that my skepticism often gets the better of me, and when looking at awestruck companions, I have to withhold the urge to roll my eyes. I usually allow them to have their moment, but it is intriguing that this landscape, for some, seems to be spiritual in an ambiguous way that one cannot put their finger on.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly explored this claim in a recent report on the ‘Religions of New Mexico” in particular those movements that are drawn to the Valley of the Shining Stone. New Mexico contains Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, the Pueblo, and various Protestant denominations. Some find the landscape to harsh, but others have been inspired by the natural beauty. Lucky Severson, the anchor of this particular program, noted:

There's a feeling among many people of faith that certain geographic places have
about them a spiritual power. Sometimes it's their natural beauty or simplicity.
They are sometimes called "thin" places, where the barrier between the material
and spiritual worlds seems porous.

Landscapes become sacred spaces in which religious people hope to connect with the divine, and New Mexico inspires hope for those who often claim the “spiritual not religious” mantle. In American Sacred Space, David Chidester and Edward Linenthal note that sacred space is space that can be defiled, so perhaps the spiritual landscape represents a certain purity that appears untouched by human hands. The high desert appears unmolested (except for the occasional casino in the middle of nowhere), wild, and slightly dangerous. Possibly, the appeal lies in lack of present humanity that suggests something more ultimate. The terrain, which still strikes me as alien no matter how many times I drive past it, is desolate while simultaneously inspiring awe. Why exactly does this landscape lead to these reactions and emotions?

This claimed spirituality of landscape is a bit disconcerting to this native Floridian because no one ever visits Florida and returns with a sense of the spiritual (maybe if Disney World is a pilgrimage for you, but that is all together a different sort of post). This landscape inspires, and I am curious if other regions of the Southwest are approached in such a way. Do tourists, or inhabitants, find west Texas or Arizona soul-stirring? What about other regions of the US? Are Oregon or North Carolina also spiritual states? Is New Mexico really that unique because of its high desert vistas? The program, “Religions of New Mexico,” might prove interesting to any one working on issues of sacred space or who has an intense fascination with this state anyway.


mcconeghy said…

Interesting post. I wonder, however, whether you've accurately identified the source or instigator of this feeling. Lindsay Jones would caution us against ascribing this power to the place or geography. I think the same goes for Chidester and Linenthal. The more interesting question is why so many people seem to identify New Mexico as a place that evokes that emotion. There are certainly many other such places in the US and abroad. If this is a phenomenon that may be view comparatively across many different types of geography, then what does this say about the source of the feeling?

Not to denigrate New Mexico, but what sets it apart from the Black Hills or Varanasi or Kyoto?
Phil said…
Interesting post, interesting questions. Being from Texas myself, I'm not sure about the spiritual allure of west Texas. My sense is that there are some pilgrimage sites in south Texas. Perhaps even some of the megachurhces in Houston and Dallas could be considered spiritual sites, although with a different kind of sensibility than vast, open landscapes and silence.
Kelly J. Baker said…
I think that this might some association that occur across different landscapes and geographies, and I am just curious at how these spaces evoke emotion. And also, how these emotions are perpetuated through this short piece of New Mexico or in other forms. Moreover, I am not sure that New Mexico is different from Kyoto or any other sacred landscape, which is why I am incredulous that New Mexico is unique.

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