So, what is faith?

A few days ago, I was talking with someone who was telling me about a trip to New Mexico.  The subject of the little town of Chimayo came up in the conversation.  That got me to reminiscing.  Chimayo is located on a back road just north of Albuquerque.  It has been a number of years since I was there, but there are two distinct things I remember about that little town.

First, that is the place where I had the hottest Mexican food I have ever eaten.  Although Chimayo is a very small town, it has quite a nice Mexican restaurant.  A friend had warned me to be careful what I ordered because the food can be very spicy.  As I looked over the menu, I reasoned that the burrito would be a safe choice.  I was wrong!  It was so hot that I could only manage to down about a fourth of it.  I spent the rest of the evening in the bathroom.  It was literally hot through and through.

The second memory is that of the chapel of Chimayo, or el santuario de Chimayo.  It is said miraculous healings of all kinds of physical ailments have happened there, and that the dirt from the potico, or well-like structure, has healing powers. 

I vividly remember seeing the crutches and wheelchairs hanging on the wall where people have left them as a testament to being healed miraculously.  In addition, notes of thanksgiving hang there as well.  I still have a small jar of “holy dirt” that my sister gave me from the “well” there.

As I reminisced, I began pondering the idea of faith.  Does faith work in ways like the miracles of Chimayo?

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us, “… whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14: 23, NRSV)

Alright, then, how do we get this faith?  Again, in Romans, Paul tells us, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  (Romans 10: 17, NKJV)  Faith does not come to us by experiencing some miraculous sign.  Rather, faith comes to us from God as we read and hear God’s word.

So, what is faith?  The writer of the book of Hebrews defines faith this way, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV) 

Faith is believing in something that is not seen or realized yet, hoping that it will be known, and being reassured that it will.  Faith, in that sense, can be placed in anything.  For example, a little child might say, “I believe in Santa Claus, and I believe he will bring me a bike.”  The child doesn’t just hope it will happen, she or he is sure it will happen, especially if the parents affirm that belief.

Of course, most of we adults know that kind of Santa Claus does not really exist.  Yet, thousands of children have faith in him, and their parents promote this idea.  Now, the child’s faith is real.  However, the object of the child’s faith is not.

Some people say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe it.”  I beg to differ.  What you believe in matters.  The “object” of your faith matters.  Who you put your faith in matters.

I am not trying to discount the faith of those who claim to have been healed at Chimayo.  What I do wonder about is where their faith was placed.  Was it in the dirt from the well?  Was it in the mystique of the chapel and the sacred place?  Or, was it in the God of the universe?  Faith in God as the source of all life and health is the key.

Indeed, the keepers of the chapel at Chimayo advocate that very thing.  Their website ( states:  “It has been said that the discarded crutches, canes, braces, wheelchairs, and messages of thanksgiving that hang from the adobe walls in the prayer room are proof of the miracles of Chimayo.  Still, while many people have left their crutches and walked away cured, the Church has never sought to officially confirm or deny any of the miracles.

“It has also been said that the dirt in the ‘pocito’ replenishes itself.  Yet it is common knowledge that the dirt is brought in from surrounding hillsides and, though blessed by a priest, has no special power in and of itself.

“What, then, should we make of these miracles?  Do they really happen, or are they just imagined?

“A small booklet published by the Sons of the Holy Family (caretakers of the Santuario) states; ‘Many written testimonies of favors granted have been received at the Shrine … Maybe (they) will help increase the faith (of) others, not in the mud of Chimayo… but in the love of God.’”  God, is indeed our only source of life and health, and living faith must only be in God.

(The Rev. Al Henager is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Heber Springs, Arkansas.  He can be contacted at