Dear readers of the DesertSpiritPress Blog,
I am currently working on a new book on Desert Spirituality: Desert Spirit Places. I am expanding explorations into the greater Southwest. Many of the chapters are based on blogs that have already appeared on this site. I need your help. How has your reading of the blogs been helpful to you? If you have visited some of these sites yourself, please share with me your experience. My plan is to include some of your responses in the last chapter of the book. If you look for the Contact item on the blog menu, you can share your response there. Below is a draft of the Introduction to Desert Spirit Places, which will give you a feeling for the direction of this project. Faithfully, Fr. Brad Karelius.
Desert Spirit Places
“The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.” Ancient Arabic proverb (Belden Lane p 124).
Loose rocks on the edge of the trail fall into a ravine several hundred feet below, as I walk with our disabled adult son Erik beside me. I securely hold on to his left arm, keeping him on the safer inside of the winding desert path carved within a massive granite shelf. Behind me walk my wife Janice and our vigilant service dog and standard poodle Ms. Ella.
Early afternoon sun beats upon our Stenson straw hats, but a cooler wind caresses us, coming up from Monument Valley. We are hiking into Cedar Mesa, an ancient plateau west of Blanding, Utah. Numerous canyons were inhabited by the Clovis people, going back 13,000 years. Extensive ruins attract hikers into this remote area. Many of the ruins have never been seen by Euro-Americans.
As we hike toward one of the more accessible public sites, I continue to give focused attention to Erik. His sturdy, muscled legs and calves testify to the miles he walks each day back home with his caregiver, Bill Remington. We almost forget his appearance a dozen years ago, when he was in a wheel chair, with a weak skeletal frame, surviving on IV nutrition. Today at the age of 30, he is taller than me, almost six feet, with broad shoulders and chest. Twenty-five years ago, he was struck down with encephalitis, which left him with a severely scared brain and the mind of an eternal four-year-old, with daily seizures. The early MRIs warned his pediatric neurologist that the motor area of the brain was so damaged he would not be able to walk. But here Erik is, walking beside me, step by step, into Wonderland.
His gaze is faraway, perhaps an absence seizure, but that will change and later as we walk he will begin to chatter with us. We say he is now on “one bar.”
For our short-term attention spans and fixation on iPhones, the good news is that there are no bars here. Only the sun, thunderclouds moving in from the west, the brown tailed hawk circling above, and the rabbit rustling in the juniper bush, hiding from Ms. Ella.
Our trail twists and turns around blind corners and I am thinking about how this trail we are on is like the trail of these past twenty-five years with Erik, twisting and turning around blind corners. He wakes up one morning singing lyrics from a 1950s rock and roll song, and in the afternoon he is in the ICU.
As you proceed into “Desert Spirit Places”, Erik will be a guide. Some of the sites we visit, he will share his experience in his own way. The narrative for other sites comes from my own desert retreats, where I have found solace and strength to continue to support our family on the uncertain road on which our family journeys.
For forty-five years, I have had the dual vocations of parish priest and college professor. For thirty of those years I was pastor of Messiah Episcopal Church in Santa Ana, California. The historic church building is located in the Logan Barrio, densely crowded with five story high apartment buildings. A different family could live in each room of a three-bedroom apartment. Grinding poverty and resurgent gang violence gnawes at the lives of children and youth.
In my first years in Santa Ana, I was taught to read, write and speak Spanish by a charismatic Cuban teacher, Raquel Salcinez. This opened the door to celebrating mass in Spanish and working with Father Christopher Smith, of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange to create programs to counter the evil forces haunting our neighborhood. Together we started Hands Together—a Center for Children, three early childhood centers, including one for homeless children; St. Joseph Ballet for young Latinas; Taller San Jose work training for ex-gangsters and young Latinas; Noah Project after school learning centers to provide tutoring and club activities for junior and senior high youth; Catholic Worker ministry to the homeless; and an AIDS Hospice for homeless persons.
Spanish drew me into the lives of my Latino parishioners, many whom were undocumented, celebrating the sacraments, Quinceanera (rite of passage ceremony for fifteen-old Latinas), primera comunion (First Communion), and powerful public processions through the streets of the barrio and downtown on Good Friday Night, Palm Sunday and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the midst of desperate lives, the sacred permeated daily life, which contrasted with the compartmentalized spirituality of my Anglo parishioners. For my Latino parishioners daily conversations with deceased loved ones and petitions to the saints were ongoing relationships. For my Anglo parishioners prayer and worship were scheduled events.
I became immersed in the indigenous spiritual traditions of these immigrants. I ministered to the sick with Mexican curanderos and Cuban Santeria priests. Parish life was complimented by animistic, pre-Columbian traditions from Latin America. One future parish leader is the son of an indigenous chief in a remote Mexican village near Puebla, where the people only speak Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language. David Vazquez would become a parish leader and renowned teacher of Nahuatl, featured on local television and the Public Broadcasting System.
The church was often filled with an extensive Belizean family, descendants from Caribbean slaves, who found a warm welcome at the parish. I remember many funerals, where at the cemetery the male members would insist on burying the casket themselves with hand shovels, while the women stood in the shade of surrounding trees singing gospel hymns.
All of this is to share with you that I have enjoyed years of deep connections to indigenous immigrant spirituality. I experienced the deep passion for native spirituality which pervaded daily life. I believe this fostered an intuitive interest and appreciation for the indigenous Indian tribal and Hispano traditions I encountered in the Southwest and which I will share with you in this book.
I will also share with you some reflections from my philosophy classes at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, California, where I have been an instructor since 1973. We will look together at desert spirituality and some of the philosophers who speak to our modern secular minds as we encounter the sacred: Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Merton and Charles Taylor.
As I share with my students at our first lecture session every semester, I know that there is a chronic restlessness, dissatisfaction and longing within our hearts that possessions, other people and peak life experiences do not satisfy.
As Father Ron Rolheiser writes in Holy Longing:
“…we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to simply rest….We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living live of quiet desperation.”
How we respond to these desires and passions is our spirituality. Spirituality is about how I find love, hope, peace and joy in a world of distracting and enticing energies. My promise to my students is that if they journey with me with open hearts over the next seventeen weeks of classroom lecture, reflection and outside exploration, they may find resources that will enrich and give ballast to their personal spirituality.
However, I warn them that Euro-American culture has been inoculated with suspicion and dismissiveness of personal spiritual experiences and anything that sounds like mysticism.
The old world of my Latino and Belizean parishioners, their animistic rituals and traditions, has been displaced by the modern world of reason and science. The disenchantment of the modern world was sparked by Rene Descartes, who counseled that the best antidote to the encroachment of the old superstitions was a “buffered self.”
Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age:
“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t “get it “from him.”
“This super buffered self….is not only not ‘got at’ by demons and spirits; he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling, which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses, and take on our full, buffered identity.”
As you and I journey into desert spirit places of the Southwest, we have been unconsciously tutored by this Buffered Self to keep a safe distance. As we encounter Indian tribal and Hispano culture, and their porous sensitivity to the Sacred, that inner restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction rummages about within us. We keep a safe distance, take photographs and ask too many questions. The dancing and singing we witness at ceremonials is perceived as cultural expression, rather than deeply felt prayer to the Holy.
I believe that porous sensitivity to the Sacred and our longing for communion with the Holy have not left us. The wonder and gift of experiencing desert spirit places is that it can be like persistent grains of sand blown by the wind against a resistant granite boulder. Through time the shape will change. Through time, I believe the Sacred reshapes us. That can be a gift of these desert spirit places for you.
In conversations with readers of my previous books, I hear a deep longing for encounters with the sacred; not so much as the collection of “peak experiences”, but a seeking for metanoia, life-changing encounters. As Ignatius Loyola would encourage, we may find ourselves visited by deeply felt spiritual presences, that have given us an awakened awareness of a Benevolent Presence of peace and joy. Although sensations of that direct encounter with the Holy may leave us, the memory remains. Ignatius calls this a foundational experience of the Holy, which we can revisit in our prayer and meditation.
The deserts of the American Southwest will be our stage for exploration, which Richard Francaviglia sees as “a fusion of spiritual history and spiritual geography resulting in a spirituality of place.”
In 1967, as a grad student Francaviglia initiated a study of the people who lived in desert lands. He writes:
“I asked residents in the southern Great Basin to identify the type of environment that most conveyed a sense of religion or spirituality. Significantly, when 95 percent of them chose ‘the desert’ in both word and picture, I was not surprised.” (Francavigilia, xix).
I lay on a cold steel slab covered with a thin cotton pad. My legs are confined to a molded form. I cross my arms over my chest and close my eyes. The Ultrasound machine checks my body placement and that my bladder is completely full. Oh, that does hurt! I hear the Linear Accelerator warming up and beginning to slowly rotate around my body, the machine that will hit my prostate with 360 degrees of radiation. I have high grade prostate cancer. This will be the first of forty-five days of daily radiation treatment. I close my eyes as my body slides into the circular tube of the Linear Accelerator. My mind journeys back to a foundational desert experience.
I stand with my wife Janice and son Erik at a split rail fence on a bluff outside of Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley, Utah. A full moon rises in the east over iconic mesas, moonlight illuminating the landscape. The night is quiet and I am aware of the holy embrace of a Benevolent Presence. I remember that desert spirit place as the nuclear machine attacks the cancer tumors and I pray for healing.
My this book invite you out into other desert spirit places, opening your Porous Self to the gifts and blessings that are waiting for you.