This is Part II from the workshop on Spirituality for Men, which I presented at the Emmaus Spiritual Ministries Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Saturday, 4 August 2019, in Orange, California.
This recording was made within a marvelous sandstone arch and a tour given by my Navajo friend Don Mose, who is a hatali, a medicine man. He was singing a portion of the Blessing Way, a healing song and ritual spreading out over several days and has been used for Navajo soldiers returning after military service in the Middle East.
Don Mose ended with a translation: May Beauty be before me, behind me, above me, below me and in all that I do.
Reminds us of the Christian blessing of St. Patrick’s Breastplate.
At the heart of Navajo desert spirituality is Hozho: the interconnectedness between beauty, harmony and goodness in all things physical and spiritual that results in health and well-being for all things and beings.
Dis-ease is when Hozho is out of sync, and when dark spirits invade.
So, the intense spiritual work of the Dine/Navajo is through conscious living, speaking, action, praying to shore up Hozho.
“The desert wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things come together for us in an unanticipated way. Why do fierce landscapes intrigue us and take us to the edge of ourselves? We yearn for silence and solitude, the vast expanse of emptiness in which we can escape the noise and clutter of our culture. There we can release the anxious concerns of an ego overly absorbed in itself. The desert is also a place of love, where we meet God in the eternity of our despair.”
Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes
It all began with a peaceful morning walk on a sandy desert trail. Suddenly looming up ahead of me, a smudgy brown swirling cloud, a dust devil. I have seen these things from a distance, but now there is nowhere to hide. I kneel down on the trail, tug my shirt over my head and nose, take a deep breath and wait.
The wind rushes in my ears. I am pelted by thousands of sand granules. Now I am enveloped by a heavy, suffocating blanket of sand. I can’t avoid breathing the dust. After a couple of minutes, it dances on its capricious way. I feel as if my skin had been rubbed down with course sandpaper.
My Latino parishioners use the name romolinos. The twisting clouds are to be respected by making the Sign of the Cross in their direction.
Carmen Villa shares
“My dad always said dust devils came up because the devil was moving around down underground, causing a commotion. That’s why they formed the cross.”
Sickness has a spiritual cause.
Among the Navajo, dust devils can be the chindi, or the ominous presence of dead Dine. It is a good spirit if it spins clockwise; an evil spirit if it spins counterclockwise. But when you are caught in the midst of one, there is no way of knowing.
Two months later, I became increasingly fatigued, felt weaker and weaker, my joints ached, nights sweats set in, I could hardly lift my head from the pillow. It felt like someone was trying to choke me all the time.
I went to my internist, who after many tests, and remembering another similar case recently, determined that I had coccidioidomycosis, Valley Fever. A fungal disease common in desert climates. Microscopic spores in the dusty soil are stirred up by the wind and land in moist lung tissue. About 150 people die of it every year. Untreated it possesses the body with debilitating consequences. A simple but long treatment with Diflucan is effective. After two days of that, I was back to mowing the lawn.
Possession by angry desert spirits or a clinical case of fungal disease?
Into our desert journey we bring our buffered and our porous selves.
We enter Southwest desert landscapes populated for thousands of years by indigenous tribal people, who live in an “enchanted world” and we who are Euro-American do not. In the enchanted world, spiritual forces, good and bad, can cross a porous boundary and shape psychic and physical lives.
We have been tutored by the Age of Enlightenment and Science, replacing superstition and religious dogma with reason and verifiable proof. Even religious belief is pressed to be rational. We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the mind and what is out there in the world. Some fungal spore invaded my body in that dust devil; not an evil spirit because I had neglected my prayers or committed a sin.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor shares:
“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.”
“The super buffered self….is not only not “got at” by demons and spirits; he is also 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.”
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.
Our buffered self creates a firewall between our heads and our hearts. And when we encounter traditional cultures as the Navajo and Hopi and their porous receptivity to the sacred in all things, we sense that inner restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction rummaging around within us.
New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. Walking in its desert landscape and engaging with native and Hispano cultures can reconnect our hearts to the spiritual presence of God in all things around us.
A few years ago, as Erik’s health stabilized after a Vegus nerve Implant, Janice, Erik and I traveled to New Mexico to the most frequently visited Roman Catholic Shrine in America, Santuario de Chimayo, located in a little village north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On Good Friday, in 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta was praying the Stations of the Cross near his rancho. He noticed something buried in the dirt, which turned out to be an antique crucifix. The exact place where the rancher found it is called the Pit of Holy Dirt.
Today, people from all over America come here in hopes of healing.
My wife, Janice, shares this memory:
“On a lovely autumn day, Brad, Erik, and I drove from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico along a long winding country road to Santuario de Chimayo, called the Place of Holy Sand. It had apparently been a “place of the spirit” to the Native Americans long before the Spanish visited the area, so it had a long spiritual history. A long time ago, a farmer dug up an old Spanish cross in the exact place where the stories of miraculous healing happened, and they built the church next to that place. Chimayo is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in North America. In fact, we saw several people with backpacks traveling along the narrow back-country road and we wondered whether they were on a spiritual journey to Chimayo.”
“We finally arrived at a very old, tiny village with two churches and a few scattered buildings on a dirt road. We drove behind the Santuario de Chimayo to a surprisingly large parking lot near a running stream and walked up a long wheelchair ramp to the front of an old church courtyard containing timeworn gravestones, crosses and a few family monuments. Standing back, looking down on the scene, I was struck by the old church surrounded by equally old trees in full autumn glory of yellow, bright orange, mixed with green. There was a feeling of reverence to the scene, and I noticed the warm smiles from people who passed us, many of whom appeared sick and lame. I spoke to a few people in the courtyard while waiting for Brad and Erik to return from visiting inside the church. Most of the visitors came for healing and to express gratitude for healing.”
“Eventually, Erik and I made our way to a small long, narrow, dark annex beside the church. The passage was filled with various assistive devices; walkers, crutches, canes, even a wheelchair. All over the walls were posters filled with pictures and messages from those who were ill and needed prayers or healing. We slowly walked toward a small room with a low door where we were met by a man with whom I had spoken earlier. At Chimayo he had found relief from serious chronic depression and now he had a sense of purpose to guide others in their experience of this holy place. There were also two other people who warmly greeted Erik and looked at him with deep concern. Erik said hello and shook their hands before we bent our heads to enter a small room filled with ofrendas (ritual objects placed on an altar), the walls were covered with holy medals, rosary beads, small statues, and mementos left by other visitors. In the candlelight, I saw a hole in the center of the room, about two feet around and two feet deep.”
“Erik was directed to step into the hole and I held him steady so he would not trip and fall. The attendant asked me to tell them about Erik, so I said he had suffered an infection in his brain when he was four years old that left him with brain damage and frequent seizures. I explained that during his childhood, he was very ill and close to death many times, but he had survived to be rather healthy and to have a good life, surrounded by loving family and friends. As I talked about the gifts Erik has received, accepting people at face value, living completely in the present moment without fear or anxiety, trusting that he is safe with us, even during difficult medical procedures, the sad concerned faces of the three people became joyful as they rubbed his shoulder or held his hand while I was talking.”
“Erik was listening to the conversation and continued to stand in the hole of sand without moving, giving himself over to the gentle stroking and smiling faces. He looked very peaceful, so I asked him if he liked this quiet place. He replied, “I like it!” smiling at the people around him.”
“We laid hands on him in the little hole of sand while offering prayers for his continued healing, in gratitude for his health and happiness with his family. The feeling of peace and joy in the room was palpable. We continued to stand quietly together for a few minutes in that well- prayed-in-place, until Erik stepped from the hole. Before we left, the attendant took a shovel and filled a plastic bag with some of the sand for me to bring home to share.”
“I still have some of the sand, though over time the amount has diminished as we have given it away to various people who are in need of the healing sand and peace of Chimayo.”
That porous sensitivity to the Sacred, once more present in Christianity, and our longing for the Holy have not entirely left us. The wonder and gift of experiencing desert spirit places can be like the persistent grains of sand that wear down a boulder of granite. All it takes is a breeze and time and eventually the shape will change. Through time, I believe the Sacred reshapes us. That is the gift of these desert spirit places—a gift for the taking.
- Whom do you carry right now in your heart, praying for God’s healing touch?
- How have you experienced for yourself the healing presence of God?