By Rick Weber, Becketwood Member
We remember being humbled in 1964 when the Second Vatican Council pointed out that God calls people into a spiritual relationship through many, if not all, authentic religious traditions. Since that time we have tried to understand and recognize the values all seekers of this relationship bring to our common human experience.
In 2003 we joined an Elderhostel (now Road Scholars) at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference Center in northern New Mexico, for an exploration of the Sacred Places and Sacred Spaces in which seekers gather in pursuit of the Divine.
It was a fantastic experience.
Our journey occurred during the days just before Easter.
We were profoundly reminded of our limited repertoire of encountering the Sacred. That is not to say our religious practices are unsatisfying or lacking in power to know, love or serve God. But we again discovered that God is not constrained by our notions or expectations.
Let us tell you something about our week.
Our first presentation was by Felipe Ortega, a verbal, smiling and storytelling man with roots in the Apache, Moorish-Hispanic, Roman Catholic and—surprise, surprise—Jewish soils of New Mexico. His topic was the synchronicity of these traditions in the rituals, prayer sites, art and customs of the area. His grasp of the influences, often intentionally hidden, of the Moorish and Jewish backgrounds of the Spaniards who came into the area in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were confounding to those among us who look for, and therefore see, only the Catholic overlay of the region’s spirituality.
He reminded us that many Jewish Spaniards embraced Catholicism under great duress and, in fact, continued to provide symbols, dietary patterns and emphatic behaviors of conformity to Christian ideals in the midst of subtle preservations of Jewish practice. The same was true of Muslim and Indigenous “converts.” He sang regional church songs with indigenous drum rhythm and other songs with minor key tones entirely consistent with the Muslim call to worship, the Salat. He showed pictures of art from a stained glass window in the Santa Fe Cathedral with Jesus on the cross in an Aztec warrior’s kilt. He pointed out the Star of David over the main entry. How appropriate, he said, since the Jewish community of Santa Fe were major contributors to the Catholic Cathedral. He told us that a candle was always lit in his childhood home on Friday night at sundown by his mother, an explicitly Jewish behavior co-opted to preserve the ritual intent. The same ritual was part the local Catholic Church practice.
He added that every Priest that ever came to his home was served ham despite the fact that his Grandmother and Mother would never eat ham. No one would ever take this family before the Inquisition that devastated the Spanish Jewish community. Indeed, many of these very behaviors were intended to offer evidence against just such a possibility.
Felipe invited the entire group of twenty-two Hostelers to a newly restored Chapter House of the Penitente Brotherhood for a liturgy of the Holy Week Stations of the Cross, during which we followed rituals of kneeling, bowing (forehead to the floor) and singing in this environment blending Christian, Muslim and Indigenous elements.
After the independence of Mexico from Spanish rule in the 1820s most of the clerics of the American Southwest returned to Spain rather than assume Mexican citizenship. This left a leadership and liturgical void which was partially fulfilled by lay groups who continued to administer rites of community worship and meet practical needs such as burials, witnessing marriages, baptisms and so on. A relative isolation from ecclesial guidance for over thirty years saw the emergence of strong lay groups who function even today to serve the church and, when necessary, to lead local communities in spiritual practices.
The Penitentes are a rather unique such group in the northern New Mexico area. They are fully Catholic and are a recognized organization in obedience to the Bishops of the Roman Curia. Still, their heritage continues in relative isolation with traditional rituals (which often are misinterpreted by outsiders), and all the struggles that modernization brings to tight-knit groups whose long-term survival had largely occurred because they were left alone.
Their meeting place, the “Chapter House,” is by design simple, unobtrusive to the point of being almost hidden in the woods, and shares design features with the historical “Kiva” or ritual site structures of the ancient Anasazi peoples of the area. For example, the outer wall has a built-in bench around the inner wall for sitting rather than central pews. There is only one window and one door. The structure is usually adobe. The Chapter House Felipe Ortega and others restored and in which we prayed had not been used for about sixty years but the spirit of prayer, generosity, devotion and holiness were as built into the walls and roof as was the mud and straw.
During our visit to the Chapter House Felipe’s grandmother was the central celebrant and gave each of us a blessing including laying her hands on our head. She then invited us, all twenty-two, to her house for a meal of family cooking--what fun and very delicious! She was a tiny woman with a huge heart.
Ending this first Monday evening we were invited into a Yurt (a circular, somewhat tent-like home) of a local Muslim family, who served us tea and homemade cookies along with stories of personal conversion, spiritual practice and fellowship. Muslims are advised to pray five prescribed times a day, one of which occurred in the midst of our lively discussion. In an appropriate adaptation of having guests, our two host couples “tag-teamed” out of the room for a brief time to perform their evening prayer.
This morning we visited the local Mosque at Dar al Islam. It was designed by a famous Egyptian architect. Its white stucco was brilliant in the high-country desert sun outside of Abiquiu, NM. They noted the architect did not understand much about how cold it can get in the region so that the building was seldom warm. I thought it was a great example of how one must learn to adapt to the character of each region and religion.
We were warm enough to sit awhile in this House of Prayer while we heard further presentations of Islamic prayer practices and community goals. Due to a local depressed economy the Muslim population was small in 2003, but they have hopes of building up the community in the region and if that community displays the hospitality, grace and openness we experienced they will be wonderful neighbors.
Tuesday afternoon we drove in two bus/vans on slick post-rain mud as we left the asphalt of US highway 84 for fourteen slow miles to the Christ in the Desert Monastery, a Benedictine community. We joined the monks for Nones, their mid-afternoon prayer of hours, and sat through a hailstorm pummeling their chapel. Because of the storm we had only an abbreviated opportunity to hear more about the monastic practices and the wisdom of this way of life with its centuries of development.
This morning we transferred from Ghost Ranch to their Santa Fe campus. On the way we stopped in Espanola, NM, to visit the western Hemisphere office and the Dharma of the Sikh community.They identify themselves as the “youngest of the world major religions.”
Our hostess was Guru (teacher) Mayer, a woman who told us the story of their founder and first ten leaders who strove to create a monotheistic faith of human equality, tolerance, gentleness, openness and peace amid the turmoil of southern Asia’s religious conflicts and caste-based social order. Of course this made their message heretical to all the local religions so over time they did develop a warrior practice of self defense and are internationally known as valiant fighters for justice. I was struck by the “two-edged” sword on their crest and, as was explained, I was reminded of the “double-edged sword of Hebrews 4:12, which always cuts toward the truths of God rather than in self defense.
Their openness and respect for other world religions was poignantly depicted by a large wall mural showing their main religious figures (persons we might call saints in my tradition) flanking the life-sized central figure in the mural—The Virgin of Guadalupe.
Without interacting with members of the Sikh community I probably would have been put off by their warrior symbolisms—to this day they carry on the practice of visibly wearing a small (but real) dagger in their worship services, including the children! But when Carol and I went back by invitation to their services the following Sunday the messages we heard presented were among the most hopeful I could imagine, for strengthening our common humanity before the Divine. Their ascetic practices of daily prayer are clearly more demanding than anything I have had to embrace to meet the minimum daily ritual commitment to be a “good” Catholic. One custom I noted was the small side room where someone from the congregation was always reading their Holy Book aloud, twenty-four hours a day every day.
We then journeyed a few miles to the Sanctuary de Chimayo, a local Catholic shrine known as the “Lourdes of America.” We were told the legend of a cross that (mysteriously) refused to remain in the local church but “returned,” apparently under its own power, three times to this site. The locals got the message whereupon this chapel was built. Soon stories of healing associated with waters from a small well (and, when the well dried up, dirt from the site would suffice) became deeply embedded in regional consciousness. They had a Museum of Healing on the site with the expected implements of disability that were no longer needed by visitors: crutches, wheelchairs, dark glasses and the whole realm of help aids along with testimonial letters and medical miracle reports.
The Easter week customs of the area still include large numbers of walking pilgrims (including the local Archbishop) on their way to the Sanctuary during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday. Everywhere in the area local Departments of Transportation place “Watch for Walkers” warning signs along the roads—along with Porta-Potties.
This morning we toured the Lamy Chapel built as a respite and retreat site by the French Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. About the same time New Mexico became part of the United States Territories there was a realignment of ecclesial responsibility for the area from Mexico to America. Lamy was sent as the Vicar Apostolate from Cincinnati to lead the Catholic peoples of the area. He remains a well known figure in the area one hundred and fifty years later, particularly for his commitment to education. He oversaw the building of the Cathedral of Santa Fe and restorations of orthodoxy to the Catholic community which had been largely abandoned by its (Spanish) clerics after the Mexican war of Independence in 1820. This, of course, was the impetus for the Penitentes movement, which is noted above.
This Chapel is the site of the famous unsupported Spiral Staircase to the choir loft. We were told engineers cannot explain how it bears weight. If you look up that story you will be amazed by the claims and the reality of its origin legend, construction materials, and beauty. The picture above shows a rail that was added in the twentieth century for “safety.”
Next we were driven to the San Ildefonso Pueblo to meet Gilbert Sanchez in his home. He is a native, one of the original peoples of the area. He discussed the spirituality of the native peoples who predated the Europeans. His themes were familiar—tolerance, personal prayer, turning away from evildoing, recognizing the Divine Presence all around us, care for others and respect for the land. These themes had been surfacing again and again.
Mr. Sanchez spoke eloquently about restoring the proper balance to the Feminine in human perceptions about God and stated that even his own people have lost some of this sensitivity over the recent years.
After lunch we visited the Upaya (Zen) Buddhist Center of Santa Fe. This center carried the Japanese architecture and attitude of a simple, calm and restorative place. A Buddhist priest met with us in the dining hall for a lively give-and-take about Buddhist history, practice and spirituality. We had thought, for some time, that it is often accurate to present Buddhists as embracing a viewpoint on life and purpose rather than a perspective on a theistic concept about “God”; we discovered that we are both correct and in error in that assumption.
They do have (sacramental?) rituals of initiation, burial, marriage, forgiveness and so on for their community. They have a priesthood that leads meditation, spiritual education, and model group and individual prayer. In these matters they function like a religion. In addition they have pretty clear expectations for ethical practices and lifestyle choices that are not necessarily theistic or identified with any one version of the Holy. Our presenter stated clearly he thought the concept of a Buddhist Christian was perfectly legitimate and did not void either tradition.
Our fourth visit of the day was with the Jewish community at Temple Beth Shalom. We stood outside this deep coral stucco modern building in a brisk, cool wind for an enthusiastic review of their local history and then (with prayer in our hearts for heat) sat in a second-grade classroom for more questions and answers about Jewish practice. Finally we sat in their worship space and watched a youth extract the Scrolls to meet with his tutor for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, during which he was expected to lead parts of that days’ worship—in Hebrew. Later we commented how appropriate it would have been to be this “practice audience.” We would have been honored to pray with him.
The precepts on the posters around the Temple revealed much about the Jewish spiritual attitudes.
On our drive back to the Ghost Ranch Santa Fe center we drove past several family shrines tucked back in neighborhoods and had tales, legends and eccentric structures pointed out to us. The common element again was usually someone’s desire to give thanks to God for some response to prayer, usually answered prayer. Their thanksgiving efforts were touching and often crudely built but always with an aura of sincerity—our exact sentiment whenever we see a statue of the Virgin Mary in an upright ground-stuck bathtub around central Minnesota.
That night Carol and I joined the Maundy Thursday services at the Santa Fe Cathedral where Archbishop Sheehan washed the feet of the thirty-nine Catechumens joining the Catholic community. I felt a familiar comfort with the service although I do recall thinking the rituals of my childhood, with a starker and more silent (read non-accompanied choir) liturgy, did more to set the tone of loss, of someone being taken away in this lead-up to Easter.
This morning we had an entirely different experience. We drove to the site of the Star Dreaming Foundation in Galisteo, NM. There we met with James Jareb who has (almost single-handedly) hauled well over forty tons of various rocks and boulders to his acres of property to create stone henges, labyrinths, art and sitting sites for reflection and meditation. His only media was the earth itself. James was a robust man and his pickup, his second one for the project, bore the scars of more than one dropped boulder. It is a miracle what one can do with leverage.
And he was a talker. His story included his 1996 vision and directive from Raphael the Angel and in most of our contact with people who make such claims we are dismissive. Now, we were willing to listen, look and accept that maybe someone who puts so much energy into creating a place for people to experience the sacredness of everything, even rocks, deserves my admiration and not my ridicule. His foundation works to promote artistic projects and Earth care.
We left Galisteo en route to the Kagyu u Shenpen Kunchab Bodhi Stupa to meet with local Tibetan Buddhists in their prayer space. Wow. What a change from the Zen form. The outside appearance of the Stupa was white and simple against the gray rain clouds still in the sky.
I was not at all prepared for the color and visual stimulation inside. Murals, flowers, a large statue of the Buddha and photos of tradition leaders took up all available wall (and ceiling) space. The closest I have ever come to such a visually striking prayer environment was the famous Meadow church in Bavaria, a rococo riot of swirls and colors and images. In both places I found it helpful to close my eyes to pray. But also in both places I resonated with the piety of those who put so much effort into preserving the images and icons of their sacred traditions.
We felt a sense of grief as our presenter told us about the tremendous losses the Tibetan community experienced of their ancient traditions following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. They lost treasured libraries, monasteries, and leaders including the escape of the Dalai Lama. His presentation of Buddhism was different in several aspects from the Zen presentation. The common items were a cyclic view of life rather than a linear one and an expectation that failure to fully open oneself to union into Ultimate Reality meant a repeat of the life experience—either again as a human or another living form. The more differing items were the ways in which corporate leadership was recognized and the honor accorded their sacred writing, the chronicles of the path toward enlightenment, or intimacy, with the Center of Being. These terms, Ultimate Reality, Center of Being, although not having the Christian connotation of a Personal God and Savior surely seem to include the desire to join the source of all that is for endless time.
Our last visitation of the Elderhostel was to the Awakening Museum displaying the work of Jean Claude Gaugy. This is a large open room of mural art (walls and ceiling) and carvings depicting events in Jesus’ life. The color blue dominates. The art form is not classical but bold, modern, symbolic and quite overpowering in the same way as the Tibetan Stupa. Gentle music could be heard as one sat on benches throughout the room to rest and reflect in the environment.
After our week experiencing presentations on differing ways to seek God it was an appropriate place for us to reflect on it all. But we were too tired! We had become worn out seeking out seekers.
Years have passed since this journey. We have changed. Our worship is now with the Lutheran tradition. Our younger spirituality of superiority to other religions was a simple declaration “We’re the right church and they are, well, just not.” We never felt comfortable with such glib retorts but could not often join people of other faith traditions as they spoke about their faith, and more important, about how, or if, they lived up to the expectations and practices of their faith.
We recognized that most people who gave us presentations had undergone adult spiritual conversions and therefore had embraced their present faith practices with a gusto that often is lacking in persons who take their faith from heritage alone. Also, we never encountered evangelical aspirations in our interactions with our various hosts, which made the interchanges comfortable all around. This informational and non-confrontational attitude seems a requirement for all the efforts at ecumenical education. To simply experience how many people are trying to live a life that will lead them to intimacy with the Divine—and in how many ways—is an encouraging and worthwhile education in a challenging and, at times, threatening world.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s skull symbol is the logo for Ghost Ranch. This example is a stained glass window in the conference dining room.