Skip to content


Walking downtown on Easter Sunday as the bells chimed in St. Francis Basilica was almost enough to bring back the magic of a Holy Week years ago when I was writing Fire in the Mind. I had taken a year off from my job at the New York Times to gather material for the book, which uses northern New Mexico as a stage to explore how the human mind finds — or imposes — order in the world. A scientist at the Santa Fe Institute had introduced me to a staff member whose father was the mayordomo of the Penitentes in the high mountain village of Truchas. And so on a chilly March evening I found myself standing outside the old tin-roofed morada, listening to the chanting of the brothers muffled by thick adobe walls.

Once I worked up the courage to crack open the door and go inside, the hospitality was as gracious as it was subdued. Near the end of the service, the other guests and I were invited to the table for a simple meal of red chile, beans, corn, and chicken patties while the Penitentes stood behind us and sang their mournful alabados.

I returned to Truchas on Good Friday, driving past the processions of pilgrims headed for Chimayo, to watch a reenactment of the Encuentro, when Christ meets Mary on the way to the crucifixion. That evening was Tinieblas, a long, solemn celebration that ends with the church plunging into darkness. I described the scene in a chapter called “Truchas Interlude”:

	Suddenly, pandemonium breaks out: the rasping of the matraca, the
	shrill cry of flutes, the stamping of feet, the rattling of a box of
	glass -- too many sounds to sort out. In the past, it is said, the
	Penitentes would whip themselves during the confusion and cry out in
	pain. This is the hour of darkness after Christ’s death when, Matthew
	wrote, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom;
	and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were
	opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were
	raised . . . .”

	For these few minutes, the world seems devoid of order -- be it that
	of man or God. But faith ultimately triumphs. Chaos is vanquished. The
	lights inside the church go on again.

The symbolism of Easter and its deep connection to the rites of spring, the return of the sun and the Son, light emerging from darkness, seeds from beneath the earth — the mystery seemed real.

This Easter had a different flavor. After leaving downtown I drove out West Alameda Street, past a yard decorated with a giant inflatable rabbit and baby chicks, to the ranch where my wife keeps her horses. Alone in the silence, I spent most of the day burning off newly sprouted weeds with a propane torch, imposing my own order.

The next morning I read about the Easter homicide, in which a teenager was shot to death at a party during “an argument over a girl.” In today’s New Mexican we learn that the suspected assailant has been in trouble with the law since he was 14, piling up charges including aggravated battery with a rock (twice), assault with intent to commit robbery, and battery on a police officer. In the comments section of the newspaper, a reader noted that the suspect’s My Space page (what a world we live in) ties him to that of “lil mizz sad gurl,” the 14-year-old who led police on a highspeed chase last week in a stolen car with two girlfriends.

This afternoon I drove by the house near Frenchy’s Field where the slaying occurred. A makeshift shrine of flowers and devotional candles sat on the sidewalk where someone had spray-painted “RIP Edward” along with what appeared to be a symbol for a Mexican-American gang. In the driveway a woman in pink pants was standing in the bed of a red pickup truck painting a similar message on the rear window. The lilacs and forsythia were in bloom.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review