Moonrise Over Penitente Morada, Dusk, Late Autumn, New Mexico 1991
Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian
While it seems like only yesterday — back in 1994, I published my first big book with my long-time publisher the University of New Mexico Press, titled En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico. It was one of those books, that through its creation, profoundly changed my life. I came to know a group of men who live for something so much greater than themselves and who truly practice those acts of kindness so popularized on bumper stickers. And these men believe in God . . . deeply.
En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico is about the Penitente Brotherhood, a Roman Catholic lay order of pious men devoted to the passion of Jesus Christ. It is also about their moradas — hundreds of modest, utilitarian houses of worship and meeting built by members of the Brotherhood and scattered across the landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. En Divina Luz translates from Spanish to mean “In Divine Light.”
I wrote a short Photographer’s Note for the book where I recount a dream I had and an odyssey I undertook to follow the light and create the images that came to be chosen for this volume. It was an amazing journey . . .
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S NOTE
from En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico
“He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.”
– John 1:8 (Jerusalem Bible)
My earliest encounter with a morada was a profound experience. It happened late one afternoon on an early winter day. I remember driving into a small village north of Santa Fe as if directed by an unknown hand. The road wound up and around a cluster of homes and brought me to the top of a hill overlooking the village and its fields. There I found a structure with a powerful presence.
The light that day was simply spectacular. Swirling clouds covered the sky and for a moment obscured the low, setting sun. For a minute or two it began to snow, and I still can remember the sensation of sharp frozen crystals of ice stinging my face. As the sun emerged from below the clouds, the light illuminated the snow shower so that it looked like millions of tiny shooting stars falling to earth. The clouds continued to swirl in the sky and obscured the sun once more. It became very quiet and still.
I was carried from this unfolding moment into a meditative state where quiet emotions seemed to take over all perceptions and to make them appear otherworldly. Spellbound, I watched the moon rise over this powerful structure on the hill and above the valley around. Time seemed frozen as light danced across distant mountain peaks and dark clouds loomed overhead. The moon continued on its path across the heavens, the glow from its mantle seen briefly through the few pockets of clear sky. I became a witness to a landscape that appeared to be illuminated by a light emanating from inside this morada rather than from the setting sun. This light gave warmth despite the dropping temperature and determined gusts of wind. When the snow began to fall again, I knew that an important gift had been given to me.
It was ice crystals being carried on the wind and striking my face once again that brought me back to the present. Wanting to capture the essence of this fleeting moment, I tried to set up my camera, but the sun had already retreated over the distant hillside. Reflecting on the experience while driving home, I found myself left with questions. If it was my destiny to receive such gifts while making photographs, I concluded it would be through the lens of my camera that an answer might reveal itself. So began a photographic journey across New Mexico to follow the light.
A grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1990 provided me support to photograph for approximately one year. Later I received two generous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts which together with support from other sources allowed me to continue exploring with my camera these humble structures built as bridges between the everyday and the transcendent. It is an involvement that has spanned several years, covered many miles, and resulted in a lot of photographs.
My own desire to make these pictures was not to expose any of the private devotions that take place inside the morada. Instead, I wanted to create images that engaged my own feelings and emotions regarding these simple buildings where through the light, the Creator makes His presence known. While making pictures at other moradas, I witnessed the light again and again, and sometimes it illuminated subtleties that might have been missed because rational thinking considered them unimportant. The light was becoming my teacher. It could reveal the quintessential moment to release the shutter on my camera, to open a door if you will, which would allow forms riding on waves of light to pass freely and manifest themselves on film. Also, it taught me how to explore within my own process the powerful emotions about my own relationship with the Divine which seemed to surface in the presence of these sacred buildings. Intuitively, I came to understand through making these photographs that while I could never be the light, I could, as a photographer, be a witness to speak for the light. My photographs are presented along with Michael Wallis’ words as statements to that end.
As you experience these images you may note that none of the titles contains information with which to locate any of the moradas. If it is indeed true that being a Penitente Brother is a private commitment made to honor and walk with the Creator, then too, I believe the locations of their walks must remain private as well.
Each morada represents the human soul’s longing for a direct experience with the Divine. While many moradas were built by Hermanos years ago as places of worship and brotherhood, they are testimony to us all that Spirit, in whatever form we believe it to take, can still be found today. These sacred buildings are reminders, too, that in the remote mountain villages of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, groups of men and their families continue to live lives bathed in the light of the Divine.
Regretfully En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico is long out-of-print with few copies available through used bookstores. I am delighted that so many copies still remain in private hands and you can sometimes find the book in public and university libraries around the country. If you would like to own a copy of this somewhat rare book, our little Studio Shop has a very small cache of new and “minty” used copies available for purchase here.