Tony Hillerman: Reading the Signs

TonyHillermanWikipediaA feeling of mystical presence is very real when one looks upon the landscape of the Southwest. A region of scarce water and endless vistas, the Southwest has been a spiritual homeland for countless people, both indigenous and transplanted to the region. And for both these groups, a return to this landscape, be it a daily awakening or a journey’s end, is a return home.

Beverly G. Six, p. 64

The deep dark Nevada night sky, jeweled with countless shimmering stars, slowly fades into desert dawn, brightening the crimson- orange eastern horizon.  From our viewpoint hidden behind craggy volcanic rocks, we see a starkly-lit military base surrounded by high razor wire-topped security fence.  Through binoculars we see an ambulance and four men in whitecoats pushing a gurney bearing an almost human form, with thin arms and a greenish head that shines in the floodlights. An alien creature? The men disappear quickly with the gurney into a grey Quonset hut.

We are watching the science fiction television series the X

files. Two FBI agents: Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate unsolved paranormal cases.  Mulder had an earlier encounter with aliens involving his sister, and he believes that aliens do exist. Scully is the skeptical medical doctor, whose assignment at first is to discredit Mulder’s theories and his pursuit of the paranormal. As they work together, the conflict changes to trust and eventually into romance, while they discover the U. S. Government’s plan to hide the reality of alien life that has been discovered on earth.

Skeptic meets believer.  Buffered Self meets Porous self.

Contrasting personalities seems to be a common motif in detective stories.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, in the essay “I Want to Believe,” suggests that an important influence on creation of the X-files was writer Tony Hillerman, whose mysteries were placed within the desert spirit places of the American Southwest.

Aggarwal-Schifellite writes:

“Before the X-Files began in 1993, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee solved crimes that couldn’t be explained by logic alone in a series of eighteen books by the American Author Tony Hillerman.  The two detectives work together and apart on their New Mexico reservation, often clashing with federal agents called in for homicide investigations, or local residents suspicious of police activity.”

The Oyster Review

For many years, in my long solo drives to Nevada to work on archaeological projects, Tony Hillerman has been my electronic guide and companion in my car. At first there were those audio tapes (which often jammed in the tape player), then CDs (half a dozen for each book) and finally the more accessible recordings.

In my world religions course at Saddleback College, we spend a week on the general study of Native American religion.  But it was Tony Hillerman who brought me into a deeper encounter with tribal spirituality and ceremony.

His writing revealed finely defined Southwestern landscapes, not as decorative backdrops to his intense mystery narratives, but as essential integration within what he called “Our Own Holy Land”, the Dinetah, the sacred land of the Navajo/Diné.

I felt a kinship with Hillerman in our shared experience of spiritual homecoming as we traveled through this spiritually potent landscape together.  HIllerman reflects:

“It is an arid landscape, inhospitable, almost empty, with none of the lush green that spells prosperity. It is built far out of human scale, too large for habitation, making man feel tiny, threatened, aware of his fragility and mortality. Perhaps that is why it is good for me—why I seem to need it, and return at every excuse.”

Louis L’Amour, Western Magazine, 1993, p.83.

There is a “meant-to-be-ness”, a spiritual homecoming for Hillerman, as I reflect briefly on his life. Born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, as a poor country boy he was the lone male student at a Roman Catholic school for Indian girls. This immersion in tribal culture sparked an intuitive awareness of the Other: his Indian classmates within Anglo culture and his isolation as an Anglo in Indian culture.

Returning from World War II as a decorated veteran, he witnessed a Native American cleansing ceremony for Marines coming home from the same war.  A renewed interest in Indian culture complimented his attraction to their value for care of the family and reactivity to postwar materialism in America.

Hillerman worked as a journalist in New Mexico and Texas, encountering stark violence and murder. Later, as a journalism instructor at the University of New Mexico, he began to write his mystery novels.

Writers search for a focus that connects what is combusting within themselves and what they experience in the outer world.  The key inspiration for Hillerman’s focus on murder mysteries within indigenous tribal culture was Australian author Arthur W. Upfield.  The hero of his stories, half-European and half-aborigine Bony Bonaparte, solved crimes within knowledge of and respect for tribal traditions.

Hillerman reflects:

“When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony made 50 years ago.”

deHoog, Kees, p. 29.

Officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Heart and Mind, Yin and Yang: a complementarity that contrasts with and includes the other.

Chee is the younger, trained as a medicine man, a singer, Hatáli, maintaining strong connection to Navajo spirituality.

Leaphorn is the older, with an M.A. in Anthropology, tutored by the Western Rational Mind to be skeptical and try to distance himself from tribal traditions.

As they work together to solve the mystery of a crime on the reservation, frequently they must work with the FBI, whose authoritarian, superior, technical approach sees Leaphorn and Chee as alien Others, who just don’t understand the proven procedures of investigation.

But in this strange land of sacred traditions, myth and ceremony, the world is in constant flux and decomposition.  Dark spirits, witches, skin walkers seek to overpower the innocent and bring sickness and death.  Attaining balance, harmony, hózhó requires constant attention, courageous hearts and help from medicine men and shamans.  This is not a world that dances to government procedures and military protocol.  Murder, mayhem, violence, theft, assault are all signs that evil forces are pressing the cosmos off balance into Darkness.

The contrasting make up of medicine man Jim Chee and rational, anthropologist Joe Leaphorn breaks down as they run into dead ends in their investigation and the incompetent FBI gives up.

“It is Hillerman’s insistence on ‘dignity and equality’ for his Native characters that makes it possible for them to rise above victimization. Leaphorn and Chee function continually as fully-realized Native characters who subtly sabotage the dominant Anglo culture, evincing their superiority to the Anglo power structure and its representatives in both professional expertise and characters.”

Beverly Six, p. 45.

Leaphorn and Chee must revert to memory of ritual, ceremony and myth for clues to another faint, hidden trail toward solution of a crime, which would mean a restoration of hozho. They must return to their communion with the land and read the patterns in the earth and creatures that give signs and clues for the next step.

In Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn investigates the murder of a young Zuni participant in the Shalako winter solstice ceremony at the Zuni Pueblo. Through Leaphorn, Tony Hillerman contrasts and compares the Anglo secular world, Zuni-Navajo-Roman Catholic spirituality and inductive police procedures. Aggressive, intimidating FBI agents push clumsily through tribal culture and the confession of two young suspects, assuming that the murder was related to a drug ring on the Zuni reservation.

“The dynamic differences between the three confessional cultures (spiritual, syncretic, and secular) and their different uses and understands of confession point to the often but not always fraught relationships between spirituality, social justice, and secular police work that Hillerman pursues in each of his Navajo detective novel.”

Emily Cammack, Tony HIllerman Portal, University of New Mexico. June 3, 2014,



To solve the mystery of violence on the Zuni reservation, Leaphorn must search out Navajo wisdom about nature and landscape, to seek out a pattern of clues leading to resolution:

“When the dung beetle moves,” Hosteen Nashibitti had told him, “know that something has moved it. And know that its movement affects the flight of the sparrow, and that the raven deflects the eagle from the sky, and that the eagle’s stiff wing bends the will of the Wind People, and know that all of this affects you and me, and the flea on the prairie dog and the leaf on the cottonwood.” That had always been the point of the lesson. Interdependency of nature. Every cause has its effect. Every action its reaction. A reason for everything. In all things a pattern, and in this pattern, the beauty of harmony. Thus, one learned to live with evil, by understanding it, but readings its cause. And thus, one learned, gradually and methodically, if one was lucky, to always “go in beauty,’ To always look for the pattern, and to find it.”

Dance Hall of the Dead, p. 77

Once Leaphorn locked into memory of this foundational wisdom of the interconnection of all things, his senses opened to the signs and clues in nature and the landscape that would lead him to resolution.  The murders upset the balance and harmony of all things on the Zuni reservation.  Nature and landscape would reveal the answer to those who have eyes to see. Ultimately, resolution would not happen in finding and punishing the criminal, but in setting things right

Tony HIllerman: A Critical Companion, John M. Reilly. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Hosteen reminded Leaphorn of the Dine myths and parables which explain the nature of things, Native Science if you will.  Leaphorn brought this collective memory into his police training. He adapted his root spirituality to the application of rational police science.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, we follow Leaphorn’s pursuit of the crime through interviews with people close to the events of the crime.  His police training utilizes his rational mind to discover a rational, orderly explanation.

“….we see further importance in the attention Hillerman lavishes upon Leaphorn’s method in Dance Hall of the Dead.

Hillerman’s emphasis on the sources of Leaphorn’s detection method in his deeply felt knowledge of Navajo philosophy indicates that the intellectual method of his detection embodies his essential identity as well as the technique of his police work. Fidelity to his method amounts to fidelity to Navajo culture.  Moreover, by making Leaphorn’s use of his detection method and his intellectual approach to the criminal puzzle the thread of the novel’s plot, Hillerman inserts the issue of intellectual integrity deep into his narrative’s structure.”

Reilly, p. 64.

At the end of the story, as in most murder mysteries, the Detective, Lt. Leaphorn, reviews all the evidence he found, the narrative of cause and effect within the clues and evidence.

“In confirmation of the strength of purposeful reason and the efficacy of Navajo-inspired methodology, Leaphorn presents the solution, though not a resolution.”

As I reflected on Leaphorn’s movement through Dine spiritual roots and rational police investigation procedures, I do not see a dualism in conflict. This is a complementarity, a working together of opposites, which do not contradict each other, but include each other.

How can we harness mind and heart to read the signs of nature and the signs in our own life?

There are books that can give us clues to find our way in the wilderness, e.g. Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.

“The roots of a tree indicate the sun’s direction; the Big Dipper tells the time; a passing butterfly hints at the weather; a sand dune reveals prevailing wind; the scent of cinnamon suggests altitude; a budding flower points south.”


There is a deeper seeing and knowing on this path. Beyond words, there is an engagement with the Book of Nature that the footsteps of the Holy One walking beside us

Henri Nouwen writes “Beyond books and people, nature also points to God and offers signs and wonders indicating God’s presence.”

Discernment, p. 53.

Joe Leaphorn harnessed mind and heart to make his way through nature’s signs, not only to solve a crime, but to restore hózhó and balance, to return to the sacred.

Walking the landscape in our journey, reconnection to our kinship with Nature is a doorway to communion with the sacred and guidance toward our heart’s desires.

“Often I look up into the clouds and daydream about a better world. But my dreams will never bear fruit unless I keep turning my eyes again and again back to the dust of this earth and listen to what God is saying to me on the road of life. For I am connected to the earth and to all who walk the earth with me. Nature is not the background of our lives; it is a living gift that teaches us about the ways and will of the Creator. My friends who are more aware of the way nature teaches have shown me how to slow down and savor the way God’s presence is woven into the natural world.”

Discernment, pp. 54-55.

Is that not our common desire as we discern the way ahead: in conflict and desire, in hope and longing, to find harmony, balance, homecoming with the Sacred?

“Instead of theological treatises, Hillerman offers his readers two Navajo Tribal policemen who, in answer to the primal need to find wholeness in a re-unification of animus and anima with essential Unity, seek meaningful relationships with the women in their lives, struggle with questions of personal integrity and identity, and emerge as agents of Original Grace. For Leaphorn and Chee, the question is never about professional advancement or money; it is not even about ‘bringing criminals to justice.’ For Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the seeking and struggle is about hózhó.”

Six, pp. 209-210.

Hózhó is the path or journey in which we strive for wellness through harmony in relationships, respect and spirituality.

Kahn-John, Koithan.

This is the gift of Tony HIllerman: to remind us, Native American and Anglo-American that hózhó is the goal for all of us.



 Slaying the Monsters: Native American Spirituality in the Works of Tony Hillerman, Beverly G. Six, A Dissertation in English, Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Accepted May, 1998.

“Our Own Holy Land”, Tony Hillerman, Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, 1993, pp. 83-89.

deHoog, Kees; Hetherington, Carol, eds. (2011). “Upfield: The Man Who Started It”. Investigating Arthur Upfield: A Centenary Collection of Critical Essays. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-1443834957.

“I Want to Believe”, Oyster Review, October 2015.

Louis L’Amour, Western Magazine, 1993, p.83.

Emily Cammack, Tony HIllerman Portal, University of New Mexico. June 3, 2014,

Tony HIllerman: A Critical Companion, John M. Reilly. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Dance Hall of the Dead, Tony Hillerman (New York: Harper Collings, 1973).

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri Nouwen (New York: Harper One, 2013)

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, Tristan Gooley (New York: The Experiment, 2014)

TonyHillermanWikipedia“Living in Health, Harmony, and Beauty: The Diné (Navajo) Hózhó Wellness Philosophy,” Global Advances in Health and Medicine, Michelle Kahn-John (Diné) and Mary Koithan, May 2015.





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Second Naivete

Blogphoto“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again”

Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil

Holy sand that heals? Stone fetish carvings that are alive? Desert monks who see visions? Wilderness weeds which cure? Entheogens that help you see God? Desert winds that bring sickness?

As we have journeyed together through the desert spirit places of the Southwest, have you changed?  Has a deep place within you recognized anything here that has animated your soul?

Can you remember a time in your childhood when you read a book and the stories were so real that your imagination awakened with vivid excitement: all of this truly happened?

. Perhaps that book became tattered and worn by your frequent return into the realm of wonder.

However, as you grew older, the book fell back into a dark recess of the bookshelf.  Perhaps, as you perused through childhood memorabilia at a later age, the book revealed itself, and your spirit stirred for a moment of precious memory, which soon passed, and the book returned to the shelf or to the trash bin. Or you began to read the story again with new eyes, admiring the old yet carefully created drawings, and phrases that you had at one time memorized.  With new eyes you read again, and the story becomes alive.  Perhaps you are now reading the book aloud to your child, or grandchild, and the eyes and ears of wonder in that child begin to radiate energy toward you.

This experience could be called “Second Naivete”, and French philosopher Paul Ricouer helps us to understand its deeper meaning.

I am grateful to Linards Jansons for his insight about Ricoeur’s three stages.  In contrast with childhood storybooks, Ricoeur reflects on sacred texts like the Bible.

In the Pre-critical Stage, stories in the Bible like Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Flood are received as true accounts.  This supernatural world is real.  This naïve perception of the Bible was the norm in Europe until the Enlightenment of the 17th century.  I reminded my world religions students that “myth” does not mean an untrue story. A myth is a story that describes who we are, how we came to be, our relationship to creation and with God.

The Enlightenment shifted the source of knowledge from the Bible to the Book of Nature.  As people traveled to new lands, the exposure to other religions challenged rigid Christian Orthodoxy.  Jewish and Christian scriptures were studied and analyzed in their earlier languages, rather than Latin.

We enter the Critical Stage.  There is now a distance between the world described in the Bible and our world.  There is distance between the porous, supernatural world and our own buffered world of Reason and the scientific method.

In the late 1960’s in seminary, as I prepared to be a parish priest: to teach and apply the spirituality of Jesus and the Bible, I encountered a brittle, dry, “desert of criticism” in the classroom. Analysis, suspicion and skepticism seemed to be the dominant stance as we studied the sacred stories of faith.

Linards Jansons reflects:

“….this is no ordinary desert, but a “desert of criticism”, an intellectual desert, part of our Western cultural topography. How did we get there? Should we be there? And who is this “we.” Our Ricoeurian proverb suggests that whoever “we” are, we are ready to move on. We wish to be “called”. By who? And why “again”. When was the first time? And why beyond the desert” Where are we now being called? Back from whence we came, or on to a new place.?”

Linards Jansons, What is the Second Naivete?

For many of us, the what next has faded out. We are distracted by enticing diversions. For some the sacred has no meaning because the stories were never told, or skepticism and Reason killed the faith.  But I am convinced of the power of a Holy Longing, the deep desire within every human for direct, personal connection to the sacred.

Ricoeur’s Post Critical Moment suggests that we work with and carry the gifts of Reason and textual criticism; we explore the anthropology behind the text, story and sacred tradition; we consider explanations that speak to the world we live in now; and we continue forward with the journey, which is now an inner, intuitive, mystical path. All critical insights are welcome. We are not going back to the pre-critical medieval Europe. We are not stuck in the skeptical desert. We press on.  I believe that the “call beyond” of Ricoeur is an inner voice that seeks to awaken inner eyes to perceive the sacred.

My friend and teacher, Walter Brueggemann shares:

“I was educated in historical criticism, as everyone was, to keep the text in the past and to presume that it had one recoverable meaning intended by the author. It became clear to me that I had to find a way, while taking historical criticism seriously, to move beyond it. By accident, I started reading about the theory of the imagination with reference to Paul Ricoeur. That led me to see that what we always do with the biblical text, if we want it to be pertinent or compelling or contemporary, is commit mostly unrecognized acts of imagination by which we stretch and pull and extend the implications of the text beyond is words.”

A Conversation with Walter Brueggemann, Bradford Winters.

In the late 1960s, during of the cultural transformation of America, I entered seminary in Berkeley, California.  The Episcopal Church did not know what to do with young adult males who had experienced any spiritual awakening, so the Church sent us to seminary.  Many of us came from that Pre-Critical Phase, with a naïve understanding of the Bible and sacraments.  In seminary we faced the Critical Stage head on.  The old Orthodox stance that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses was replaced by Form Criticism, and the theory that various authors writing at various times wrote the Pentateuch.  As we studied the gospels, we encountered scholars questioning the kerygma/teachings that really did come from Jesus and the overlay of tradition coming from the early Church.  We were taught to be rigorous academics, which fostered a distant skepticism.

In 1970, I began parish ministry in Laguna Beach, California, amidst Hippy drug culture and the first encounters with homeless people and immigrants.  Ministry pulled me out into the community to respond to human need. As St. Francis taught, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”

The first twenty years of preaching sermons was more of an academic exercise for me: exegesis/research on the cultural context of the scripture at the time it was written and how to apply those teachings to our own lives, with witty anecdotes.

That all changed in 1990, when I began spiritual direction with Sister Jeanne Fallon of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.  At a very troubled, depressing time of life, in the first few years after Erik’s catastrophic illness, I was searching, and an inner voice was calling me forward.

Sister Jeanne encouraged me to begin the year-long program of the Spiritual Exercises, created five hundred years ago by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish mystic. So, it began. The curriculum involved meditating every day on a passage from the Bible.  After an initial period of deep self-reflection on my humanity and relationship to the Creator, I progressed into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  I sat in silence for thirty minutes every day, after reading the assigned scripture. I invited Jesus to be with me and open my imagination and draw me into the scripture. This was not a calming experience. Rather, inner conflicts, anger, and grief flowed to the surface, like flotsam and jetsam after a shipwreck.  After each meditation I wrote down in a journal what I heard God saying to me.  I met with Sister Jeanne every week to reflect on what this encounter with scripture and Jesus meant to me.

As I consider the insights of Paul Ricoeur, this year of meditation changed my life.  The old skeptical distance faded.  I had direct experience of the presence of God in Jesus.  I listened to the words of Jesus as if they were spoken for me to hear today, for the first time

We are “called again” to the place of wonder that we once knew many years ago.  Ron Rolheiser shares:

“We do this by making a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality. We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery, that we do not yet understand and that we must read chastely, carefully, and discriminately, respecting reality’s contours and taboos. Concomitant with this effort comes the deliberate and conscious attempt at purging ourselves of all traces of cynicism, contempt, and all attitudes which identify mystery with ignorance, taboo with superstition, and romance and ideals with naivete.”

Saying ‘Yes’ to Santa Claus”, Ron Rolheiser.

In our visits to these desert spirit places, asking for the Holy Presence to be with us, in silence and solitude, our primal senses will open in remembrance of our natural communion with all things.

G.K. Chesterton created this poem:

When all my days are ending

And I have no song to sing,

I think I shall not be too old

To stare at everything;

As I stared once at a nursery door

Or a tall tree and a swing….

“A Second Childhood”, G. K. Chesterton

I have my own guide into second naivete in our disabled son Erik.  I am walking with Erik after dinner, a one-mile saunter around the Big Block.  The full golden October moon rises over the hillside to our right.  I hold Erik’s hand, as his gait is unsteady.  Although his brain is heavily scarred by disease, he has remarkably strong hearing. Every slight sound stimulates his response: a chuckle at a breaking branch, a sour frown at a barking dog. He hears everything. As we walk, he says little, but his senses are on high alert.  There is mystery and wonder out there in the darkness.  As we walk around the Big Block, orientation to the moon changes.  Several times we stop and look up at the starry night.

“Where is the moon now, Erik?”

“Over there”, pointing with his finger.

We walk on into the night-blooming jasmine scented night.

“Where is the moon, now, Erik?”

“Over there.”

“Erik, did you move the moon again?”

He raises his index finger upward to the moon and moves it.

“I like it!”

May your own journey through these desert spirit places of the Southwest awaken memories of innocence and an embrace of Homecoming.



“A Conversation with Walter Brueggemann”, Bradford Winters, Image Journal, Issue 55. “Where is the Scribe?”

“Saying ‘Yes” to Santa Claus, Ron Rolheiser, OMI, May 3, 1984.

The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton, (Classic Reprint), Forgotten Books, 2017.

 What is the Second Naiveté? Engaging with Paul Ricoeur, Post-Critical Theology, and Progressive Christianity, Linards Jansons, p. 349.

Paul Ricouer, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 349.

The Second Naivete (Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics), Mark Wallace (Mercer University Press, 1996)








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Revelations in Mystery Valley


View of Monument Valley from Mystery Valley

Father Brad: How do you know when you are in a sacred place?
Harry Nez: Wherever I am at this moment is a sacred place. The sacred is all around us.

Fine red powdery desert dust covered the tires of the Ford Bronco up to the hub caps. If we stop on this road we will be stuck.  So, our Navajo/Diné guide Don Mose keeps the car moving forward at a fast past, as my wife Janice, son Erik and I bounce up and down in our seats and shift rapidly left and right in frantic movement. Erik is laughing.

The road into remote Mystery Valley is crisscrossed with side roads and desert washes.  I would become disoriented and lost, but Don Mose knows the way and keeps up the conversation with us.

I first greeted Don in Monument Valley, Utah, north of Mystery Valley, at the meeting place for Navajo Spirit Tours. A Dine’ guide is required in order to enter the restricted access into Mystery Valley.

“Ya’at’eeh abini”, (Good Morning).

“Very good. Yes, good morning.”

Don segwayed into a story about his many years teaching the Navajo/Diné language at Monument Valley High School.

“You know, our language is the second most difficult language to learn, next to Chinese.  It was difficult teaching the young people, as you can’t get them away from their cell phones”

“At Goulding’s Trading Post this morning I said ‘Ahéhee’ (Thank you), I replied. “ The lady corrected my pronunciation and said that what I said was “I am married.”

At least this was not as bad as some of the mispronunciations I made when I first celebrated mass in Spanish.

At the time of communion, instead of saying “Los Dones de Dios para el Pueblo de Dios” (The Gifts of God for the people of God), I said “Las Donas de Dios”. (The Donuts of God for the People of God).

Nevertheless, my attempts at the Diné language was reaching out in communion with Don Mose.

A faint trail on the right brought the SUV through dense juniper and pinyon pine and what looked like the end of the road: a steep granite shelf juts upward before us.

“Time to engage first gear, four-wheel drive,” cautions Don Mose. “I hope this works. I wouldn’t dare do this in my own car.”

Remarkably the weather-beaten Ford Bronco slowly ascended the rocky face, as Don expertly navigated the cracks and niches to a level place high above.  Don stops the car and invites us to go outside.

In the distance is the iconic landscape of Monument Valley (Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, Valley of the Rocks).  Sandstone buttes erupt here and there. I could imagine John Wayne riding on top of a stage coach in the movie of the same name, filmed in Monument Valley in1939 by director John Ford.  We are in the Navajo Tribal Park with its own time zone.  In fact, this is a timeless place, where ruins and rock art remind us of the ancient ones who once lived here.

Don Mose finds a way down from the precipice and we are on another sandy road winding through buttes and clumps of yellow-blooming rabbit brush.  Some divine hands have shaped the sandstone cliffs with arches and deep-set crevices.


Square House Ruin

We come to a hidden corner of high red cliffs and in the distance a breathtaking sight: a well-preserved Anasazi (Ancient Puebloans) ruin can be seen within a recessed cave.   The Square House Ruin. As we walk toward the scene, I see the stone walls of the ruin glisten in the sunlight, looking as if they were constructed recently, rather than one-thousand years ago.

Janice, Erik and I stand with Don Mose upon a mound of the fine red sand that wind and rain removed from the red cliffs above us.


Don Mose demonstrates the creation of a butte

“This was all covered by a great ocean millions of years ago.”  Don Mose, the eternal teacher, made a small mound of the sand and compressed it with his hands.  He took a cup of water and poured it around the mound, until the sides fell away. He gently removed some of the sand and there it was: a miniature of the gigantic buttes around us. “This is how the wind and rain slowly carved these wonderful buttes around us.”

Haunting images of the vast expanse and geological wonders of the Colorado River Plateau, which includes Monument Valley and Mystery Valley, have excited Anglo-American imaginations for more than a century.  Although for these visitors it seemed like a kind of blank, undeveloped landscape canvass to be explored, studied and interpreted, for thousands of years this landscape has been sacred land for the First People, which includes the Ancestral Puebloan/Anasazi, Ute, Hopi and Navajo.

Thomas J. Harvey captures the meaning of this desert space to both the Native and Anglo-American cultures in his book:

Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West.  He presents the idea of “American Occidentalism,” in his review of Anglo-American explorations. In their expeditions using modern tools like geology and anthropology, Anglo culture painted on an assumed naïve blank canvass their construct of the American Southwest.

“Using the term “American Occidentalism,” however permits the discourses and practices that produced the twentieth-century Southwest as an exotic space juxtaposed to modern life to be identified within their particular cultural context and historical moment. Like (Edward) Said’s Orientalists, American Occidentalists were, as they moved through Native spaces, engaged in a form of imperialism. Yet, the other aspect of this Occidentalism was that it exposed a hollow longing, an unremembered past, an emptiness of the heart of the very culture that modernization had helped to produce.”

Thomas J. Harvey, p. 7.

That phrase “something hollow lay at its core,” connects with an ongoing theme of this book: the blessings and production of our rational scientific age have left us with a gnawing dissatisfaction and longing for something intangible, but which finds an unconscious homecoming within desert spirit places.

Marshall Berman reflects:

“It appears that the very process of development, even as it transformed the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside of the developer himself.”

Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, p. 5-6.


Ancient Puebloan Ruin

As we drove into Monument Valley yesterday, we had to be vigilant and watchful.  As the road curved around a blind corner, people would be standing right in the middle of the highway gazing at and taking photographs of the massive rocky spires of Monument Valley. They were in some kind of trance, oblivious to surroundings.

It seemed that the desire to find and live out one’s True Self could not be found in the restless, changing dynamics of modern urban life.  These Southwestern desert spaces and the native people fed a search for substantial reality. Time and again, as we watched the faces and behaviors of hundreds of visitors who arrived at Monument Valley by the hour, we could see persons caught up in euphoria and wonder.  There was something real, authentic, and substantial here in Monument Valley.  The ancient ruins, vibrant native culture and geological wonders seemed to touch an inner longing within the Anglo American, European and Asian visitors.

“The exposed land forms created over millennia, the presence of Indians still living in traditional ways, and the location of ruins of now-vanished ancient races contributed to this sense of the Southwest as a storehouse of the past and, therefore, primitive and authentic.” (Thomas J. Harvey, p 9.)

But the Navajo landscape has a story of its own. This is where I believe Don Mose and our guide two years earlier Harry Nez, are so important.  They are Evangelists, “message bearers,” who share some of the Diné/Navajo  narrative with visitors such as my family. This land is not a blank canvas only to be interpreted by Anglo American culture.  For thousands of years this has been sacred space for the First Peoples.

In the three hours our family spent with each of Harry Nez and Don Mose in our tours of Monument Valley and Mystery Valley, they opened up some of the sacred story of the Diné people.

I kneel with Don Mose in the mound of fine red desert sand. Don is no longer a tour guide but a spiritual teacher. Someone later said that he was a medicine man (hatalii), one who has been trained in the healing ceremonies.

“Our Diné people do not have a word for religion. I think that for the Anglo Americans religion it is a separate part of life.  But for our people the sacred is everywhere.  The world is filled with powerful spirit presences. There are Holy Ones who bring healing and protection.  There are dark spirits and witches who seek to bring disharmony, sickness and suffering. What we have to do in our personal life is work at balance and harmony, Hozhooji. Walk in beauty. We want to keep our connection with Mother Earth”

“Here, let me show you about our sacred land.”

He draws the four cardinal points in the sand.

“We have four sacred mountains. Here is Blanca Peak/Dawn or White Shell Mountain. That is in Colorado.  Mount Taylor/Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain in NM in the south. The San Francisco peaks/Abalone Shell Mountain in AZ to the west, and Hesperus Mountain/Big Mountain Sheep in Colorado. We remember these sacred directions in the four colors of the corn: blue, white, red and yellow. And see, right here in the middle are the Hopi people.”

What is a sacred place? For the Diné people a sacred place is:

“1) a location mentioned in legend; 2) a place where something supernatural has happened; 3) a site from which plants, herbs, minerals and waters possessing healing powers may be taken; and 4) where man communicates with the supernatural world by means of prayers and offerings.”

Navajo Sacred Places, Editha L. Watson (Window Rock, AZ: Navajoland Publications, November 1964, p 22

The Diné belief is that this whole area of Monument Valley is a huge Hogan.  As in the Diné hogan homes, the door faces east near the Visitor’s Center where I met Don this morning.  The center of the Hogan is the butte behind Goulding’s Trading Post, near where we were camping.

Don Mose continued: “We have many ceremonies that we use to heal or prevent people from being sick.  We sing our prayers for healing.”

“I will sing you part of a blessing.”

Don Mose closes his eyes and sings a sacred chant. The holy sound is amplified in this recessed canyon with the ancient ruin looming above us. The wind carries the holy song out over the desert.

Here is a YouTube recording of Don Mose singing his healing song.

St. Augustine said: “he/she who sings, prays twice.”

Healing for the Diné is to understand that illness is a dis-ease; something is out of balance and needs to be restored to harmony.

After the singing, I gaze at the land around us: pinyon pine, sagebrush, juniper, pottery shards on the ground, a tiny, ancient corn cob, and crumbling stones that have fallen from the ruins above.  This is not dead space filled with ancient debris.  This place is alive, the rocks, trees, wind, and ruins are spiritual presences.  The ancestral spirits are a communion of saints who can bring peace, harmony, and beauty.


Father Brad with Don Mose at Skull Rock

Late afternoon the crunch of tour buses, the crowds of international travelers, and the clusters of RVs have moved on.  Some have settled into hotel rooms, others continue to Kayenta or Flagstaff. Tranquil Quiet settles over the Visitor’s Center and the Diné View Hotel overlooking Monument Valley.  Janice, Erik and I sit on the patio behind the hotel.  The valley drops dramatically below us and in the distance are iconic buttes that are much photographed.  We are alone on the patio, awaiting Nature’s show.  The sun is setting in the west. The dull red-brown texture of the majestic buttes begins to change into a brilliant red. For only five minutes the buttes change to a luminescent gold.  I look quickly around me. “Is no one else catching this? What a wonder!” The sun is setting. The buttes become deep purple. As darkness descends, they become shadowy silhouettes.  This is no blank canvas of a landscape, only recently discovered and studied by Anglo-European culture.  This is an ancient canvass on which the Creator paints wonder and glory every day.


 Tony Hillerman’s Navajoland: Hideouts, Haunts, and Havens. Laurence D. Linford. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2011.

The Owl in Monument Canyon: and Other Stories from Indian Country, H. Jackson Clark. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993.

Native Roads: The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations, Fran Kosik.Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2005

 All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

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The Road to Abiquiu



Christ in the Desert Monastery

Christ in the Desert Monastery

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 11.


The East German border guard held my passport photo beside my face and sighed, followed by a long silence.  Suddenly he shouted something at me in German.  I am fluent in German, but this time I was having a brain freeze.  He shouted the same phrase at me two more times and the guard next to him bristled to attention.  I looked at the lady guard to his right.  She responded with a soft voice, “He wants to know where you are going today.”

“I have a hotel reservation in Magdeburg.  Here are my reservation papers.”

She quickly gazed at the papers and returned them to me with the passport.

“Thank you. Have a nice visit to the German Democratic Republic.”

Bad cop. Good cop.

Heart pounding and with parched dry mouth, I drove the rented Mitsubishi Colt past guard towers.  I could see several guards watching me leave this DDR checkpoint at Helmstedt, heading east on the autobahn toward Magdeburg.

The year is 1980. I am on a two-week study trip in Germany doing research for a magazine article contrasting the vitality of Christian spirituality in West Germany and East Germany.

I had visited Braunschweig, Germany, fifty miles west of Helmstedt to interview seminary professors and pastors about West Germany spirituality.

A Evangelical Lutheran seminary professor reported, “My experience has been that many of our students who study for ministry had as a first choice for profession to be a lawyer or university professor.  They did not past the entrance requirements and chose pastor as the backup plan. It is not a bad choice. The State gives financial support to the Church through taxes.  The work is not difficult and if you like to read and study, this is the place to be.”

In West Germany, there seemed to be none of the anxiety about fundraising or parish conflict that American pastors know so well.  But West German State support of religion resulted in active participation of less than 3% of the population.

As I headed east on the Berlin autobahn toward Magdeburg, into the depths of Cold War Russian occupied territory, what would I find?

The first sign of the city is a massive pile of ancient stones faintly visible in the distance, the Magdeburg Cathedral.  My hotel, The Internationale, was nearby. After checking in, I walked through the old town toward the majestic Elba River.

Barges loaded with coal and lumber pushed upstream, perhaps toward Dresden.

I walked toward a church a block away to my left.  A surprise. Clustered outside was a group of university age students.  I introduced myself as a college professor from California, needing to keep the parish priest identity under wraps. I saw a short, stocky older man walking toward us. After introductions and with my professor identity revealed, Pastor Georg Nuglish invited me into the assembly.  In a large hall, several tables were pulled together to create an inclusive square of seated participants. I could see that there were over one-hundred in attendance.  How strange.  These young people had lived their whole lives under the atheist theology of Communism.  Here they were, so many of them, at a church event.  Pastor Georg told me before the meeting that this was the largest college age religious group in the DDR.

The presenter that night was a Roman Catholic priest from Karl Marx Stadt, whose topic was “the Socialist themes in the Gospel of Mark.”

“We meet every Wednesday for discussion of theology and philosophy.  The students really want to be here and it is not without risk.  Participation here can compromise their advancement at University.”

“So, you have to be careful about your discussion topics?” I asked.

“Yes, of course.  I know there are Stasi agents or informers here. The philosophers we choose to discuss are on the margins. We do push the envelope.  But I want to help them be critical thinkers.  That will not happen in their university experience.”

After the presentation and discussion of the evening topic. Pastor Georg introduced me. California! Exotic.

Students gazed at me with hard, focused looks.  The questions flew like barbs:

Why do Americans abuse Black people? Why is there so much racism in your country? Americans are polluting the world.

My responses did not seem to be adequate. Tough questions.

As the meeting closed, all were invited downstairs to the Bierkeller. Now this was amazing.  A college age church group with their own beer cellar.  I went with the group and shared the beer. That was when the real questions were asked.

What is life like in California?

Had I met the Beach Boys?

Do they still have cowboys?

Had I ever seen a movie star?

A wonderful ending to the tensions of the discussion group.

The next day I invited Pastor George and his wife Ulla for an outing. We drove to the medieval town of Tangermunde, which still had the ancient city walls and six hundred year old fachtwerk houses.

Pastor George and Ulla shared with me what life was like for them in the DDR.

“Being a pastor here is a precarious profession. The family suffers.  When Ulla was in the hospital last year, they put her in an isolation ward to limit access to her.  Our daughter graduated at the top of her high school this year, but she can’t go to the best university, because her father is a pastor.”

“What could happen to you if you cross the line? Would you go to prison?”

“That is unlikely. Probably they would kick me and my family out of the DDR as corrupting influences.  The ones I really worry about are the students.  They have a passion for our religious studies.  They begin to question life as it is and if they become too critical, there could be real trouble for them.  Some students have disappeared. Maybe they are in the prison at Bautzen.”

On Sunday, I attended the Gottesdienst at the church.  The service was much like the Lutheran liturgies I had participated in in the West, but the building was packed.  One reason was that the city had been severely damaged in WWII bombing. Few churches were rebuilt.  But there was wonderful energy in the singing and presence of the parishioners.

Was spirituality stronger in Communist East Germany? There was certainly a price for discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared.

My observations about State support of religion and the dilution of spiritual passion in West Germany contrasted with the fervor and spiritual seeking I witnessed among East German students.  I am reminded of an earlier time of State support of Christianity.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine gave Imperial endorsement of Christianity after decades of violent persecution of Christians, great church buildings and basilicas were constructed.   The underground, secretive house churches were no longer necessary.  Christianity could grow and thrive openly in this new world of official sanction.

But there were others who felt that this compromised the demands of life with God.  The answer for them would be found in the desert.


St. Pachomius

Pachomius grew up in a pagan Egyptian family.  At the age of 21 he was conscripted into the Roman Army. He was in effect a slave recruit and kept in confinement at night.  He encountered Christians who visited him and others in prison and brought food and clothing.  After several visits from the Christians, he asked “why do you do this?”

“We are Christians. This is what our Lord commanded us to do.”

“Tell me what it means to be a Christian.” The door to faith opened to him.

He was able to escape from the army, joined the Christians and was baptized in 314.  Passionate Christians at this time were leaving the cities of Egypt, Palestine and Syria and heading out into the desert for solitude and silence, to be closer to God.  In this desert Pachomius met Anthony of Egypt.

Male and female Christian hermits sought isolated wadis, arroyos, or dry washes where they dug small caves into the embankments and lived off the land. Solitude and silence were preferred.  Occasionally, they would gather for a worship event.

These “Desert Fathers and Mothers” sought a life stripped away, leading to their true self, their Christ self. They wanted to be freed from their false self (who I am, what I have, what I do, and what others think of me).  Much of the collected wisdom of these desert sages would be practical guidance for the journey to the true self and away from the temptations of the false self.

Pachomius believed that God told him to build shelters where the monks could live together. This was his first monastery built around c. 320 at Tabennisi, Egypt.  Soon his brother John and about 100 monks had gathered there and Pachomius organized them into a more formal unit.  The Rule he developed as Abba or Abbot became foundational for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

This Rule anchored their life with God and together in community. However, at the heart of their desert spirituality was discernment centered in intimate relationship with God.

St. Anthony counseled:

“Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.”

Verba, Number 1.

As Thomas Merton studied the wisdom of these desert fathers and mothers, he saw the hard work of detachment from ego.
“He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self. He had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known, and lost in Christ.”

Wisdom of the Desert, p. 7

The wisdom of these desert fathers and mothers gives guidance to us today.  There is a raw simplicity that comes from their personal experience of wrestling with the false self and seeing their true self emerging from the practice of silence, solitude and prayer. Their sayings were passed on in an oral tradition and endure today because they give practical guidance to how to love God and our neighbor.

Here is an example from this tradition:

“They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time, I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus, I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.”

VI, p 26, Wisdom of the Desert.

 Thomas Merton, one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, had his own desert monastic experience at the Monastery of Christ the Desert, near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Jemez Mountain and Sangre De Cristo ranges frame Santa Fe, enclosing a powerful desert spirit place.  For over a thousand years, Pueblo Indians have encountered the sacred here, as well as more recent Spanish Catholicism.  As eastern religions immigrated into America in the 1970s, Santa Fe has become a center point for world spiritualities, including Sikhism and Tibetan Buddhism.  I wonder what it is about Santa Fe that has made it so fertile for spiritual exploration? My experience has been that recent residents have come here as spiritual seekers.  Many seem to be people of means and college educated.  It is a sophisticated population, including artists and writers.

Thomas Merton joined the Trappist Community of Gethsemane, Kentucky in the mid-1940s.  He chose one of the most severe Cistercian monasteries, where silence was the rule, food and housing were spartan, and the monks worked hard at manual labor.  In this vestige of medieval Christianity, Merton found freedom and creativity.  His famous book, Seven Story Mountain, is his autobiography. He didn’t want to write it, but the Abbot, discerning the creative writing talent cooking within Merton, ordered him to write it.  It became one of the best-selling books on spirituality.

Rather than letting the silence and solitude foster a withdrawal from the world, Merton found that these elements drew him deep into communion with God, whose inspiration ignited in Merton more passionate writing about struggles in the outer world for civil rights and nuclear disarmament.  As a mystic, he found partnership in other world spiritualities.  He became a serious student of Chinese philosophy and Zen Buddhism, fostering deep friendships with spiritual leaders as the Dali Lama.

For several years I have used the DVD of the film: Merton: A Film Biography, to help my world religion students at Saddleback College see how an orthodox Roman Catholic Monk could become a foundational bridge between world religions.

By the 1960s, Merton received a rare gift which was permission from the abbot to live as a hermit, living in a forest hut by himself away from communal life in the monastery.  Here silence and solitude enriched his long hours in prayer and meditation.  In his reading from scripture and the desert fathers, the image of the desert became an inviting companion to silence and solitude.

In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he contemplates:

“The desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.”

“The mountain may be the most pervasive image in Merton’s journey metaphors, but the desert—-mysterious, deceptively barren, frequently foreboding—was a special and holy place for him. The desert theme resonates through his life and work—from the images in his poetry to those in his journals. There was, of course, his book The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) in which he ‘rendered’ several of the stories of the Desert Father of the fourth century.”

P 9 Thomas Merton: the Desert Call, Tobert E. Daggy (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1993).

The problem with being a famous writer and monk meant for Merton a constant flow of friends and visitors.  He received permission from the Abbot to explore another place for his hermitage.

In 1968, Merton came to the Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert at Abiquiu, New Mexico.


Distant View of Christ in the Desert

You have to want to come to this raw desert wilderness within the Chama River Canyon, 75 miles north of Santa Fe. Driving past Georgia O’Keefe’s home and the Ghost Ranch Center, you would turn on to Forest Road 151, a 13-mile rough dirt road off US 84.  You drive through a sagebrush ocean walled in by looming rusty red cliffs. It is a breathtaking drive as the road climbs hundreds of feet about the Chama River.  This is a Class I good dirt road, but when it rains, the road has the consistency of pancake batter and is impassible.

At the end of the road is the “mystical nowhere” Merton sought, Christ in the Desert Monastery.

Merton describes the scene:

“The monastic church, designed by the Japanese architect George Nakashima, fits perfectly into its setting. Stark, lonely, stately in its simplicity, it gazes out over the sparse irrigated fields into the widening valley. The tower is like a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak. The architectural masterpiece is a perfect expression, in adobe brick and plaster, of the monastic spirit.”

Woods, Shore, Desert.

 I find that it takes at least one day to mentally shake off the journey and detox from the daily stimulus that caffeinates my restless life.  The dry, sweet silence and solitude along with breathtaking beauty seen from every angle, desert spirit seeps into the body with a precious embrace.   Every few hours, there is a chapel service with the monks, based on the 1500-year-old schedule set up by St. Benedict in his Rule. Ora et Labora.  Work and prayer build a healthy monastic community. The monks chant several psalms at each service, sung antiphonally, one side sings, then the other, in a hypnotic rhythm.  I listen to the readings from the Bible and the voice of God sounds like it speaks to me in the here and now of my life.

Merton arrived at Christ in the Desert, searching for a mystical “nowhere.” In the desert, he found communion with the people of the Exodus, totally dependent on God’s grace for daily survival, and with Jesus, whose temptations revealed to him his true self as God’s beloved.  Merton’s restless searching brought him here.

This desert spirit place revived him as he considered what was ahead for him personally and for his monastic community in Kentucky:

“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life, and this is certainly good, but is it good enough? I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure, live in peace, let change com quietly and invisibly on the inside…A return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit. Hang on to the clear light!

Woods, Shore, Desert.

 After his last visit to Christ in the Desert, Merton traveled to San Francisco, where he was hosted by his old friend and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  He flew to Bangkok, Thailand, for a conference for Christian and non-Christian monks.  The Communists tried to control their Buddhist monks. Merton made a presentation in which he contrasted Marxism and monasticism, contending that the philosophy of the common life doesn’t work with Marxism; it does work within monasticism.  At the afternoon break, Merton took a shower to cool off from the humid weather. His body was discovered a brief time later. There has been a mystery about that death. Did someone not approve of his criticism of communism? The consensus today is that his body was found close to an electric fan. He must have touched the ungrounded fan with his wet hands and was electrocuted.  He was a vocal critic of American involvement in the Viet Nam War. Ironically, his remains returned to America in a US Air Force plane along with remains of American soldiers killed in that war. Thomas Merton was buried at his Gethsemane Abbey home in Kentucky, perhaps the best-known monk of all time.

Christ in the Desert extends traditional Benedictine hospitality to visitors seeking that mystical “nowhere.” Men and women can stay in eleven rooms in the guest house for private retreats and join the monks for worship and meals. The minimum stay is two nights. You may help with “labora”, manual labor with the monks, which may include the monastery garden. The rooms are comfortable with no electricity in the guest houses. No cell phone or internet service. The water comes from the monastery well. The church bell signals meal times and prayer times. They make their own brew from hops grown in the garden. The beer is sold at Whole Foods markets.

Walking around the property reminds me very much of Mt. Calvary Episcopal Monastery that was high in the hills above Montecito, California, but was destroyed in a fire several years ago.  I made many retreats there over the past fifty years. Both have extensive desert plantings and both have walks down to a river. Christ in the Desert has trails leading to the Chama River, which runs all year.

The Chapel is rich in iconography. There are large icons of St. John the Baptist, the ultimate desert saint, and St. Benedict. The Blessed Sacrament is closeted within a  montage of icons.  Behind the altar are huge windows which give views of high vaulted cliffs which are the protective backdrop to the monastery.

The monks at Christ in the Desert want you to know that you are invited to visit and make retreat at this special desert spirit place.


 Wood, Shore, Desert, Thomas Merton (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1982)

The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp, 1960).

The Monastery, BBC Series 2005

The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, Douglas Burton-Christie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

A History of Spirituality in Santa Fe: The City of Holy Faith, Ana Pacheco (Charleston, SC: the History Press, 2016).

Christ in the Desert Monastery,

Merton: A film Biography. (2003). DVD.

Youtube video of Christ in the Desert Monastery:





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Living on Bread and Water


Blue-green waters of Havasupai Falls

“We used to climb a little hill at the end of the day, all the work done, and look out over the land and just feel good to be alive.”

Lemuel Paya, quoted in Life in a Narrow Place.

The swirling cloud of fine, red, volcanic desert dust rose into the sky like an immense crimson tornado, obscuring the dangerous edge of the Grand Canyon mesa, which drops off two-thousand feet to the Colorado River below.  The helicopter rotors slowed and finally stopped.  The dust cloud dissipated, as my father exited with the Havasupai pilot.

September 1972. My father, Lyle Karelius, has arrived as a field engineer for Thomas Concrete Pumps, a Division of Royal Industries. Two weeks ago, he was in the high mountains of Bolivia, consulting on a silver mine. He will spend the next ten days working on a water project at the bottom of Havasu Canyon, in one of the most isolated Indian reservation in America.


Havasupai Women 1900

Water is life for these First People who have lived in this area for almost a millennium. The Havasupai were not originally canyon dwellers. Their ancestral lands were on the plateau of the south rim of the Grand Canyon, extending as far as Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona. It is an old story: silver miners and railroad barons displaced the tribe and the US Government established a tiny reservation. As the Grand Canyon National Park developed, the National Park Service took more of the native plateau lands, hemming the tribe into the narrow canyon.

The tribe financially depends on the 20,000 visitors each year who hike a ten-mile trail to the famous blue-green waters of Havasupai Falls.  The tourist destination has become so popular it is almost impossible to secure a reservation without going through a tour company.

“The canyon that summer visitors view as a landlocked Polynesia, the Havasupai viewed in winter as a prison. The lack of winter sunlight stops all agriculture from November to March, and the canyon turns from a lush oasis to a barren place of confinement.”

Life in a Narrow Place, p. 8

My father tells me that he peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon at Hualapai hilltop, looking for the village of Supai.  The Indian pilot guided my father’s vision to a faint cluster of green.  This is where they will go in the helicopter to inspect the construction site for concrete pipes and cistern.

For six hundred years the Havasupai had constructed ha ya gewa ditches which ran on both sides of the creek.  They need the water to grow their crops of corn, squash and beans and irrigate clusters of fruit trees.  This plan had worked for centuries, but by the early 1970s the dominant Anglo powers in the plateau above had created complicated rules about water storage that made water less available to the tribe. Then drought years hit.  My father’s work on the new water project would help conserve water. The concrete encased pipes and cistern would be less vulnerable to the powerful flash floods that violently thunder through the narrow canyon.

For the next two weeks, lines of concrete bearing trucks drove down Route 66, then on to the dusty desert Bureau of Indian Affairs Roads 18 to Hualapai hilltop. Two helicopters carried buckets of mixed concrete suspended on long cables in rotation, back and forth from the Grand Canyon plateau to the Supai village three-thousand feed below.  I remember a photo of my father from this time, his bald head and face streaked with wet grey concrete. He was smiling. He was alive living in his element. The Indians workers bantered in their native Havasupai-Hualapai. Bottles of Coca-Cola glistened in ice packed metal tubs next to a cluster of cold watermelon: enticing gifts from the helicopters.

My father remembers the day of completion.  A Havasupai Shaman blessed the new pipe system with burning sage bundles and tobacco.  A signal fire was lit in the village and workers on the plateau above opened the control valve. The water flowed with a creaking, thunderous roar through cast iron pipes from above to the cistern and pipes below.

My father shared this memory with me in 2013, when he was 95.  Although his short-term memory is a challenge of him, his recall of these events forty years ago was vivid and highly detailed.  As he described his experience, his eyes were wide open and hands gesturing energetically. His face filled with delight.

The battle for water rights continues.  In 2017, an intense court battle negated a Havasupai lawsuit over commercial pumping of groundwater reserves.


Episcopal Bishop presides at baptism at Supai Village 1946

Over thirty books have been written on this isolated tribe of Native Americans.  I was surprised to find another personal connection to them when I discovered that my Episcopal Church has had a mission to this tribe since 1923.   As you read this, you may think that this was from the same old Anglo script: conversion to Christianity meant suppression of the old religious traditions and culture.  This was not the case.  The Episcopal mission built relationships of friendship and trust.  Some of this involved bringing assistance for education and nutrition.  Because the Episcopal Church has been deeply involved in social justice and advocacy for civil rights, this body was a key advocate for the tribe in the early 1970s for the return of 93,000 acres from the US Government.  The return of that land happened in 1975.

I found an old copy of Life Magazine, July 15, 1946. Bishop Arthur B. Kinsolving, Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, rides horseback down a dangerous, rocky trail into Cataract Canyon of the Havasupai.  It was the bishop’s annual visitation for baptism and confirmation.  His old friend Chief Big Jim would be confirmed at the age of 100.  The old Havasupai religious traditions coexisted alongside of the Episcopal spirituality.  Chief Big Jim saw in an image of Jesus a similarity to the Indian God Bagaviova.

In the shadows of the landmark El Tovar Hotel, at the very edge of the Grand Canyon, clusters of pinon pine form verdant greenbelts around the parking lots. Jan, I, and our son Erik walk within the cool shade of the trees toward our GMC Sierra truck. After a couple of hours hiking along the rim and caught breathless by vast beauty, we are fatigued. As we settle into our seats in the truck, I pause to see a large, fleshy woman, wearing an oversized Northern Arizona University sweatshirt. She is bent over, walking beneath the trees in front of us. Has she lost something? She is carefully searching. Then I know what it is. The month is October. Here are pinon trees. She is a Native American looking for pinon seeds that have fallen from the tree.

I get out of the car and walk carefully toward her. Jan joins me. “Are you looking for pinon seeds?”, I ask. The woman stands up straight, looks at me and with a smile of shared knowledge, she says, “Yes.” She holds up a half-filled Ziploc plastic sandwich bag filled with pinon. We come closer. “How do you know where the seeds are?” Jan asks. “It takes a while for your eyes to adjust. See, here is one.” Jan gets on her knees beside the woman and they quietly go about the search for pinon. Jan is getting pretty good at this, as she has a handful in fifteen minutes and gives the seeds to our new friend. I join the women are my knees. Searching for pinon was like looking for dark pearls among dense pine needles.

I asked the woman if she lived near here. She said yes. “My people are the Havasupai. We live in the Cataract Canyon in the Grand Canyon. But it is too cold down there for me in the winter, so my family lives up here.”

I remembered my father telling me a story about working for the Havasupai many years ago. He worked on the concrete project that built a new reservoir and irrigation system. All the concrete was brought down into Cataract Canyon from the rim high above in helicopters carrying big metal buckets. The woman said she was a little girl at that time and she remembered this. It was the first time she had seen a helicopter. They were like noisy, mechanical birds.

I was remembering the chapter on pinon pine that I wrote in The Spirit of the Desert: how the pinon was a primary food source for the Owens Valley Paiute.

“The little tree produced the fuel, building materials, food, and medicines that enabled prehistoric Indians to establish their cultures on the Colorado Plateau—and to survive into the present as Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Navajo. It was the pinon that made the Great Basin the coarse-grained Eden of the pine-nut eaters who picked their winter sustenance from the treetops.” Ronald Lanner, The Pinon Pine.

I asked our friend, “Do you still pull down the green pine cones and roast them and shake out the nuts into a blanket?” She said that was what she had done all her life, but her children and grandchildren have drifted away from these traditions. So here she is, seeking pinon nuts in the median strip surrounded by hundreds of tourist cars. Mother Earth continues to feed her. As we helped to quickly fill her plastic bag of seeds, she would break the shell of a seed in her teeth, and eat. “They taste better when they are roasted.” But the look on her face was one of holy pleasure. For this woman, these seeds are manna, holy sustenance and communion with her ancestors.

As we drove back to our RV trailer in Williams, Arizona, I thought about this woman gathering pinon. Manna. Bread of heaven. My mind drifted to the vast, frightening wilderness of Sinai 3200 years ago. The Hebrew people had been freed from slavery but wandered for years in a wilderness. They were totally dependent on God’s care to find water and food. One of the desert foods that miraculous appeared was manna.

The Book of Exodus describes manna as having the color of white coriander seeds. It would appear as dew in the morning and had to be collected before it melted in the sun. The Book of Numbers tells us how manna was baked into cakes. It tasted like wafers made with honey. The manna could not be collected and saved, as it spoiled quickly. Therefore, each day the Hebrews were dependent on the grace of God to get through another day of life. I read somewhere that manna could have been a secretion from tamarisk trees, sweet and aromatic.

The Holy Quran mentions manna three times. In the Hadith, the collection of commentary and sayings of Mohammad, it is said, “Truffles are part of the ‘manna’ which Allah sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eyes.”

Because we humans are forgetful of blessings, the Torah of God commands the Hebrew people to remember what happened in the Sinai wilderness by a commemorative meal called the Seder. This Passover Meal was to be celebrated every year to recall the story of the Passover of the angel of death over the Hebrew homes in Egypt and their liberation from slavery. The Haggadah is used today in Jewish homes as a ritual retelling of the sacred story. Most of the time, the Hebrew verbs are in past tense, remembering. At one point, the verbs become present tense, as those who participate today in the Passover Seder are transported in time and space to share in the exact event of the Exodus.

On Holy Thursday Jesus gathered his disciples together to celebrate this sacred meal. As he knew that his suffering and death were near, he took the unleavened bread and the wine into his hands and told them, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” He said that whenever they gathered in his name to share this meal, he would be present with them. After the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the community of disciples was galvanized by the fulfillment of Jesus promises. He would always be with them.

Since the earliest days of the Christian community, followers of Jesus have gathered to celebrate this Eucharist and in these earliest days, as expressed in the Seder meal, they experienced in the present tense the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.

I write this blog after attending Sunday evening mass at St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel, California. I have been an Episcopal priest for 42 years and retired one year ago after thirty years as pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. I really missed that richly textured multicultural congregation and I have not been able to translate all of that to another Episcopal congregation nearby. When I am not filling in for a priest on vacation, Janice, our disabled son Erik and I attend the Sunday evening youth mass at St. Timothy’s. It is only three blocks from my home.

In the past, when I visited a parish, it was easy to evaluate how the priest celebrated the liturgy or compare the programs with what we had in Santa Ana. However, for a solid year, Janice, I, and Erik have been regular participants at St. Timothy’s. Because we are not Roman Catholics, I do not press the priest, who is a dear friend of mine, to give me communion. However, I must share this with you. At the time of communion, I am almost always overwhelmed with a powerful embrace of the Holy Spirit that squeezes me so tight I have to work really hard to hold back the tears of joy.

I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I hunger for this Eucharistic manna to stay alive. Even when I do not actually receive the sacrament, I am being nourished by this daily manna to keep me and my family alive in the desert of our lives.

In chapter six of the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “Unless you eat the bread of life, you will not have life within you.” John links this bread of heaven, the body of Christ, to the daily feeding that the Hebrew people received from God in their desert years. I am told that when this manna was eaten with food that the Hebrew people brought out of Egypt, it tasted bitter. But if they took the manna as their only food that day, it tasted sweet.

There is a tradition among Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and some Anglicans of daily Eucharist. This spiritual discipline is allowing ourselves to receive God’s daily physical embrace. The ritual of the scripture readings, prayers and communion is a life-giving ritual, a daily gathering around the Word of God and the sacrament of bread and wine. This transforms us, I believe, so that we go out into the world as manna ourselves.

Almost every night my wife Janice, our son Erik and I come together for dinner in our home. Frequently our daughter Katie comes over to join us. We begin the meal with grace, thanksgivings for the day and petitions for those in need. We share our simple meal and talk about how the day went. These rhythms and rituals of coming together, praying, eating, sharing are part of what makes us family. Just as the Church offers us this daily manna, we need the daily manna of presence to each other.

Eucharist as New Manna,” Ron Rolheiser, March 3, 2011.
The Pinon Pine, by Ronald Lanner.

Life Magazine, July 15, 1946, pp. 64-66.

Life in a Narrow Place, Stephen Hirst (New York: David McKay Company, 1976).

People of the Blue Water: A Record of Life Among the Walapai and Havasupai Indians, Flora Gregg Iliff, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985).

Havasupai Legends: Religion and Mythology of the Havasupai Indians of the Grand Canyon, Carma Lee Smithson and Robert C. Euler, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994).

Havasupai Habitat: A. F. Whiting’s Ethnology of a Traditional Indian Culture, Steven A. Weber and P. David Seaman, editors (Tucson: University of Arizona Press 1985).





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Zuni Fetish: Living Stones

zuni coronado

Coronado Sets Out to the North, Frederick Remington

In the distance silver helmets and breastplates reflected the brilliant July sun, as Spanish soldiers mounted on majestic Lipizzaner stallions marched toward me in a swirling cloud of dust.  Franciscan monks carried crosses and the flag of Spain. Leading the desert procession is Francisco Vazquez de Coronado y Lujan, searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540.  They came upon the Zuni homeland of Shiwannagan spread out over six towns, where the A:shiwi have lived for about 4,000 years.

I imagine this scene as we retrace the Spanish explorer’s route in our journey from Gallup, New Mexico on Highway 602 to the Zuni Pueblo.  We note weather-worn pickup trucks parked off the highway.   As we drive by we are unable to spot anyone, but since it is October, families must be out among the pinyon pines gathering pine nuts.

Coronado did not find the Seven Cities of Gold, only the isolated pueblo villages of the Zuni.  Today about 10,000 Zuni live in the largest of New Mexican pueblos. There are adobe ruins of former settlements.  The homes that we could see were of simple cinder-block construction.  Isolation from other pueblos of New Mexico made their language and culture distinct.  The physical presentation of the place did not have the romantic aspect of the terraced old adobe buildings of Taos.  But if you spend the night at the Inn at Halona or talk with some of the notable artisans, you will have a deeper sense of Zuni.

Roger Thomas, owner of the Inn at Halona shares:

“You have to want to come here. Our visitors tend to be better educated and more culturally aware. Their reward is often a very profound experience.” (“The Boundaries of the Sacred”).


Zuni Bear Fetish

For years I have collected stone-carved Zuni animal fetishes and used them in my college lectures on native American spirituality.  I had a vague understanding of their sacred power, but I wanted to visit the source of the fetishes to understand their connection to the sacred.

Another spiritual explorer as myself visited the Zuni Reservation in 1879 with the J. W. Powell Expedition. The U. S. Government sent Frank Hamilton Cushing to investigate the mysterious power of the legendary fetishes. Could they be a threat to America?

Cushing immersed himself among the Zuni, gained their trust and learned the obscure language. He was initiated into the Bow Priesthood as a War Chief and given the name Medicine Flower.  You can read about his experience and what he learned about fetishes in his book Zuni Fetishes.


Zuni Girl With a Jar, Edward Curtis, 1925, LOC

 Cushing encountered an enticing animistic world where “all inanimate objects as well as plant, animals and men, belong to one great system of all conscious and interrelated life. Any element in nature is endowed with a personality analogous to that of the animal whose operations most resemble it’s manifestations.” (Cushing, p. 9).

For Cushing, the Zuni stone fetishes were sacred living stones.

“It is supposed that the hearts of the great animals of prey are infused with a spirit or medicine of magic influence over the hearts of the animals they prey upon, or the game animals; that their breaths, derived from their hearts, and breathed upon their prey, whether near or far, never fail to overcome them, piercing their hearts and causing their limbs to stiffen, and the animals themselves to lose their strength…..Moreover, these powers, as derived from his heart, are preserved in his fetich, since his heart still lives, even though his person be changed to stone.” (Cushing, p. 15).

Thus, the Zuni fetish is a vital spiritual aid to a successful hunt.

How did the Zuni translate the power of the great animals into the stone fetishes?

Kent McManis reveals an answer from Zuni mythology in his book Zuni Fetishes:


Zuni Eagle Fetish

“The Zuni believe that the world was once covered with floodwaters, which left it swampy. The Sun Father, revered by the Zuni as the giver of life and light, created twin sons. The Twins realized the world was too wet for humankind to survive and needed to be dried. The Sun Father had given his sons a magic shield, a bow (the rainbow) and arrows (lightening). The Twins placed their shield on the earth crossed the rainbow and lightning arrows on top of it, and shot an arrow into the point where they crossed. Lightning flew out in each direction creating a tremendous fire. Although this dried the earth, it made it too easy for predators to catch and eat people. So, to save humans, the Twins struck these animals with their lightning, burning and shriveling them into stone. But deep within, the animals’ hearts were kept alive, with instructions to help humankind with the magic captured in their hearts. When a Zuni finds a stone that naturally resembles an animal, he believes that it is one of these ancient stone beasts.”

(McManis, p. 6).

Janice, Erik and I stop at the Visitors Center on the north side Highway 53, half way through town.

Zuni tribal drummers beat a loud cadence behind me as dancers swirl and stomp, feathers flutter and bells tingle on their costumes.  At this Fall Festival in front of the Zuni Cultural Center artisans have set up tables to display their work.  I approach a woman seated at her table, head bent over in concentration as she works with a lump of native turquoise.  I want to be respectful and not ask too many probing questions.  I walk cautiously forward, close enough so that my shadow covers her work and she looks up. She greets me with a beautiful smile and twinkling eyes.

“Hello. Please sit down.”

I am meeting the Zuni fetish artist Verla Lasiloo Jim.

I do not need to ask a lot of questions, because Verla may see my interest in her work and she shares her story.

“My husband passed away several years ago.  He carved the fetishes.  I always watched him at his work and wondered how he decided what animal he would carve. He said he could see the spirit inside the stone and what he was doing was helping the form become what it was meant to be.  When he died, it was a tough time and I didn’t know what to do.  I began to work with his tools and some of the stones that he had.  I began with turtles and frogs.  Sometimes what came out was ugly.  But I would save it to remind me.  There is one over there.”

I could see on the table some very small fetishes, which looked as if they could be placed in a medicine bag as a kind of sacred talisman.

The Spanish invaders and the Christian missionaries tried to stop the practice of fetish making as it seemed like idolatry.

Ms. Lasiloo-Jim had a friend who was a buyer and he began to sell her fetishes and slowly her popularity grew. She is a member of the Mahooty, Lasiloo and Laiwakete interrelated family clan, known for their use of a variety of materials such as stone, wood and shells.

The drumming is growing louder and I must draw closer to Ms. Lasiloo-Jim, as she has a soft voice.

I asked, “Are all the fetishes sacred?”

“If the medicine man blesses them, they should be used in the traditional manner. They need to be cared for by feeding them with blue corn meal.  Some people keep them in turquoise encrusted pots”

“Are they alive?”

“I can tell you that if I am bothered by a problem or worry, I can pray over a fetish and the answer to my concern will be given to me.

She seems to be inviting me to stay as long as I wish, as she continues to work on the turquoise.

“What will it become.”

“I don’t know yet, but I think it is a bear.”

I purchase a fetish.

As I decide to leave and join my family, she says:
“Here is my card with my address.  Let me know if you want me to make something for you. You can even send me a drawing or a photo.  I see your black poodle over there.  I can make a poodle for you. Please let me know.”

A few days later we are at a gift shop at Grand Canyon National Park. Sheltered within a glass case are an array of Zuni fetish.  I see a stone bear with a turquoise line running from its mouth to the heart.


“An inlaid, carved, or painted “heartline” represents the breath path leading to the magical power in the fetish’s heart…A bundle consisting of various stones, shells, and/or arrowheads is sometimes tied onto a fetish. The bundle serves as an offering that empowers the fetish to better aid the user.”

McManis p. 10.

How do you choose a fetish?

Kent McManis suggests:

“I  have simple rule of fetish selection; if the fetish talks to me, I buy it no matter what the animal is or who carved it. I believe that fetishes usually pick you out.”

McManis, p. 139.

I am at Richardson’s Trading Post on Route 66 in downtown Gallup, New Mexico.  In my hand is a turquoise bear fetish, which somehow caught my attention. The red heartline runs from nose to heart.  Was it calling to me?  Am I holding a quaint relic from a “primitive” culture?

Tutored in the mindset of the Enlightenment, I feel dissonance.  Philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes his helpful insights from A Secular Age (2207):

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

Like my European ancestors five hundred years ago, the Zuni world today is a porous world, aware of demons, witches and dark forces that can threaten, and at the same time open to ecstatic and mystical experiences with the Creator.  We “modern” folk with our buffered self are closed off to both kinds of powers

Yet there continues to be a fascination, a longing, a restlessness that brings spiritual seekers like me to Zuni and Vera Lasaloo  Jim.

Johnathan Napier describes the divide between the spiritual and the secular in Charles Taylor’s work and how it is not relevant to Native American world views.

“…..Taylor introduces his “immanent frame” which describes how people understand their relation to the supernatural. People either live in interaction with the supernatural or live separate from it. Taylor depicts this as a divide between the porous and the buffered self.  The porous self has an enchanted worldview; it see itself as interacting with the spiritual world; it is vulnerable and open to forces beyond the physical realm.”

Napier pp 83-84.

Sacred power is found in objects (e.g. Zuni fetish) and places. In the West, with the influence of the Enlightenment, Science and a focus on human reason, a process of disenchantment set in and the buffered self dismissed or compartmentalized spiritual experiences.  Initiated by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, this new modern self turned radically inward, becoming personal and private.

Indigenous cultures as the Zuni, in contrast, focus outward toward nature, the land and communal relationships. There is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm: all is infused with the sacred.  While the West compartmentalizes, the Zuni seek harmony and balance in a unified world.

As I hold the bear fetish in my hand, a soft-spoken, patient Navajo saleswoman speaks to me across the glass display case about the fetish.  A porous soul speaks to a buffered soul about the sacred.

“The bear is the best mediator with the Creator because it has the closest resemblance to humans.  The bear has power, strength and intelligence to help you.  The bear can help you make peace in times of conflict and guide you when you have spiritual challenges.”

I purchase the bear fetish and she wraps it carefully in cotton and places it within a protective box.  She smiles as she hands me a transparent plastic bag with the fetish and a tiny zip lock bag filled with what looks like blue cornmeal.

I am at our home in Laguna Niguel, California.  I hold the bear fetish, which I keep in a glass case above artifacts I have collected over the years of the Day of the Dead.  The fetish feels warm in my hand.  It is not one of the sacred fetishes blessed by the Zuni priest, who would have animated the figure with a real spirit presence.

I trace with my thumb the red lifeline running from the bear’s mouth to its heart.  The artist who created this believed in “The Spirit that lives in all things.” The bear fetish would be a messenger and protector from that Spirit.

As I hold the bear, the word that comes to me is “kinship.”  The Zuni believe that all created things, animate and inanimate, are connected.  There are similar words from St. Paul in my Christian tradition:

“In Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16,17.

At the heart of the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola is the belief that we encounter God in all things.  Our spirituality and awareness of the presence of God grows deeper as we draw closer to our kindship with all created things.

I am remembering Thomas Merton’s words:

“it is good and praiseworthy to look at some real created thing and feel and appreciate its reality. Just let the reality of what is real sink into you..for through real things we can reach Him who is infinitely real.”

In my study of world religions, most traditions create sacred images.  Most of these have been animated by blessings from a priest or shaman. While they may be sacred and fed, like this bear fetish, a statue of Shiva in a Hindu temple, or a statue of Quan Yin in a Taoist Temple, they are tangible mediums to connect with the Divine.

The Zuni may pray to the bear fetish for courage as he meets a particular challenge.  I may kneel in church and pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe. They are not the same but similar connections to the Sacred.

Our Buffered Self fostered by science and Enlightenment philosophy has distanced us from our kinship with the natural world.

John Swanson observes:

“In modern society, animals have lost their central role in cultural organization. When animals are no longer viewed as guiding spirits nor connected to us by sacred rituals that guide our behavior, animals lose their significance retaining only their function as secular emblems. Vestiges of these connects between animals and societal groupings remain in the naming of our sports teams and lodges: the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago Bulls; in the Lions Club and Elks Lodge, and in the stuffed animals we buy for our children. Revered spirit animals are reduced to team mascots.”

  1. 107 Communing with Nature: a Guidebook for Enhancing your Relationship with the Living Earth, John L. Swanson, Ph.D.

I am grateful for solitary sunset walks into desert spirit places, renewing my kinship with all created things.


Zuni Fetishes by Frank Cushing. 1990. Facsimile edition by KC Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada, from the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, submitted by J. W. Powell. Original Printing 1883.

Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis (Tucson:  Rio Nuevo Publishes, 2004).

“The Boundaries of the Sacred—a Visit to Zuni Pueblo”, April 27, 2015.

Spirit in the Stone: A Handbook of Southwest Indian Animal Carvings and Beliefs by Mark Bahti.

“Interfaith Dialogue Theory and Native/Non-Native Relations”, Jonathan Napiter, University of Calgary (Illumine: Journal of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society: Graduate Students Association), Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011, pp 77-90.




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Leaving the House of Prayer


Entrance to the House of Prayer

“However, (Thomas Merton said), the usual road to contemplation is through the desert, a barren land with no trees, beauty or water. This prospect is so frightening that we are afraid to enter. In that desert God is nowhere to be found. Yet some people sense that peace is to be found in the heart of darkness, so they keep still, they stop trying to force prayer and meditation and other spiritual exercises, and they patiently trust in God. In the midst of darkness and emptiness, God leads them to the promised land.”

William O. Paulsell, Rules for Prayer.

The heavy feeling hit the pit of my stomach as I walked through the portal into the House of Prayer for the last time.  Another June heat wave descended over southern California and these dry foothills of Orange Park Acres, but the desert plants surrounding the complex of Santa Fe style adobe casitas radiated resurgent life.  On my left, I admired a thirty-foot high agave century plant in full glory, the thick green stem topped with a huge vanilla colored flower.  Soon it will wither and collapse unto itself. But I can see baby agaves emerging around the mother plant.  This is a fertile place for desert plants and desert souls.

I have come to my last spiritual direction session with Father Gordon Moreland, SJ, before he departs to a new pastoral assignment.  I first came to this priests’ retreat center for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 1992, five years after Father Gordon arrived and only six years after our son Erik’s catastrophic health crisis.

I walk about the desert garden planted along the walkway leading to individual retreatant rooms and the chapel.  I take photographs to help me remember this place.

Father Gordon greets me as I enter his office.  I sit in a chair facing him and the windows behind him frame images of more desert plants outside, more agave and cactus.  We often shared information about growing and caring for desert plants.  Too much water will kill them.


Walkway to the Chapel

For twenty-five years I sat in this old chair once a month facing Gordon and the desert outside.  This has been a sacred place as I have passed through spiritual deserts.

Walter Bruggemann writes:

“Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued.”

(The Land p. 5)

As I look about Gordon’s office for the last time, I gaze at a large portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola. Behind me hangs a calligraphed Chinese poem flanked by two Chinese figures. Father Gordon has visited China every autumn over the last few years, connecting with his Jesuit missionary roots.  My attention returns to Gordon. Behind him a coyote dashes through the garden.

In this last visit, I reminisce about my life before coming to the House of Prayer.  In 1990, after Janice and I returned from Massachusetts General Hospital, where Erik had hospitalization for a month as he fought the raging brain fever of encephalitis, I visited Sister Jeanne Fallon of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange at their Spirituality Center.  My initial motivation was help in dealing with the aftermath of Erik’s return home and our daily routine of care for a severely disabled child.  But deeper down, it was my life of hidden secrets that compelled me to seek Sister Jeanne’s counsel.  As I look back, this was a grace of God that was compelling me.


Walkway to Retreat Casistas

Sister Jeanne saw the inner turmoil gnawing at me and urged me to begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius with her.  For one year we met weekly.  I followed this five-hundred-year-old curriculum of daily contemplation of a Bible passage, leading me through the events of the life of Jesus and his resurrection.  We focused on becoming more aware of God’s presence and the movements of grace in my life.

After more than fifteen years of ministry as an Episcopal priest, you would think that at this point in my life I had my spiritual life moving along at a good pace.  However, in these weekly sessions with Sister Jeanne, I came to know Jesus again for the first time.  Scriptures upon which I meditated each day had been in the past lessons upon which I preached sermons at Sunday mass. But in my contemplation, the words seemed as if they were written today.

Sister Jeanne warned me that the Spiritual Exercises were a process not a program to calm and sedate me in the stresses of life. She warned me that there are no secrets with God and the invitation for me was to be real and honest with God.

In this context, my addicted life opened up to the light: how I had been using credit cards to pay for family needs, personal pleasures and parish projects.  I owed about $12,000 at this point and my wife Janice did not know this.  Yes, I could have rationalized that eventually I would pay the bill off and our tight income necessitated this overspending.  But I was barely able to make minimum payments and I was hiding this from Janice.  I began to reveal my fears with Sister Jeanne about being discovered.  Finally, one day I resolved to tell Janice about the credit card debt.  I thought the world was going to end, but her own experience with Al Anon urged me to go to an addiction recovery group. That first night I went to an Open Alcoholic Anonymous Meeting in Dana Point.  I was feeling a spiritual high, as the Secret was out.  When I came to the door to the AA meeting, greeters were at the door to welcomed me.  There was joy in this place. New Life. In the Open Meeting, three persons in recovery shared how they first decided to come to AA. The surprise of the evening was the testimony of one of my current philosophy students at Saddleback Community College.  He shared how his life had collapsed. He had been at the verge of suicide because of his long-time addiction to alcohol.  But something led him to his first AA meeting and his life changed. This was like hearing the best sermon on Easter Day.

I began to attend Saturday morning meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics at the psychiatric facility in San Juan Capistrano.  I learned that my compulsive spending and secrets were common to many persons coming out of an alcoholic family.  The antidote to secrecy is honesty.  My life had become disordered and unmanageable.  The grace of God and working a program of honesty and transparency will lead me through each day.

Ron Rolheiser writes:

“Sobriety is ultimately not about alcohol or some drug. It’s about honesty and transparency. And, like honesty and transparency, it is not all or nothing, but has degrees. We are all sober according to more or less, according to the degree that our lives are an open book with nothing hidden in the closet.”

Honesty as Sobriety (8-31-2008)

He adds:

“To live in the light means to live in honesty, pure and simple, to be transparent, to not have part of us hidden as a dark secret.”

“All conversion and recovery programs worthy of the name are based on bringing us to this type of honesty. We move toward spiritual health precisely by flushing out our sickest secrets and bringing them into the light. It’s the hiding of something, the lying, the dishonesty, the deception, the resentment we harbor toward those who stand between us and our addiction, that does the real damage to us and to those we love.”

To Live in the Light, (4-22-2012).


Sister Jeanne sent me to Father Gordon to continue spiritual direction.  He is a revered retreat leader and spiritual director.  He is not a therapist.  He brought me back to the practice of some of the essentials of the Spiritual Exercises, reminding me of God’s deep love for me and the invitation to friendship with Jesus.  I practiced the Examen of Conscience each night before sleep, which goes something like this:

  • Presence: I invite God’s presence and help.
  • Gratitude: I recall two or three things that happened today for which I am grateful. I savor them and thank God.
  • Review: I review the day from beginning to ending. I notice where I sensed God’s presence. I try to remember everything from large to small. When did I feel and give love, joy, hope and peace?
  • Sorrow: I may have some regrets about today and offenses I may have committed and ask for God’s forgiveness.
  • Grace: I ask for God’s grace for the next day.

As I prayed this Daily Examen, it helped me to see my entire day as an ongoing prayer.  I could look back to see and remember where God was with me and be grateful.

I walked through many life deserts with Gordon and Jesus. In those first ten years at the House of Prayer, we did not know if Erik would live much longer, because of many ER visits and hospitalizations.  Life at my parish was sometimes messy with conflicts with my bishop, parishioners or staff.  I had several opportunities to move on to the episcopate or a larger parish.  Through all of this Father Gordon helped me with the tools of the Spiritual Exercises for discernment: how to make the decision to which God is guiding me, when spirits of light and darkness pulled at me.  I always seemed to have short term memory of the grace events where God brought my family, my parish or myself through a crisis.  I could rejoice briefly in amazing grace and then, as a new crisis or challenge arose, I would forget that grace.  If there is one gift Father Gordon gave to me that I most treasure, it is his ability to help me remember again those graces that have brought me home.

I contemplate how remembrance of amazing graces and this place, the House of Prayer are connected.  As I prepare to leave, the feelings of longing and dis-place were strong, because of the gift of Father Gordon’s friendship.

Memory is embedded in a place, this House of Prayer. The memory is more than my personal story. There is also the narrative flow of all those who have received spiritual direction, stayed here for retreats, participated in support groups and the daily mass in the chapel.

“Each person effectively reshaped (this place) by making his story a thread in the meaning of (this place), and also has to come to terms with the many layers of story that already exists (here at this House of Prayer).”

Phillip Scheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, p. 16.

I will remember all that God has done for me through these years at the House of Prayer.  While I will continue to visit Father Gordon for spiritual direction at his new location, I leave this House of Prayer grateful for the peace, joy and hope that I have found here. I leave some of my own spirit here as a blessing for those yet to come.


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