Vroman’s Books in Pasadena has my new book!

VromansIf you live near Pasadena, California, one of America’s great bookstores is currently carrying my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest.  Please consider visiting this Cathedral of Books and buying the book. Future orders depend on your support.

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Desert Spirit Places is Now in Print!

My new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest is now in print. It can be ordered from the publisher at this link or on Amazon/Kindle in 10 days. If you read the book, please post a review.


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My New Book Cover

BookcoverNEWHere is the book cover for my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, being published by Wipf and Stock in new couple of weeks.

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Sacred Space: Mondays with Father Gordon SJ

HummingbirdPurple-throated, 2010, Charles J. Sharp

Purple Throated Hummingbird. Charles J. Sharp, 2010.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,
Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

Cecil Frances Alexander

March 20017

Last night a generous spring rain drenched parched south Orange County, California.  As I sit in a chair facing Father Gordon Moreland SJ, the expansive window behind him frames a desert garden. A green-blue humming bird flits from plant to plant, finally settling within a bright yellow cactus flower.  The bird emerges, moving to the window to stare at us, turning its head right and left. A sudden strong wind gust buffets the tiny bird and it disappears.

Inside this conference room at the House of Prayer Retreat Center, the temperature is warm, and I feel safe, the kind of secure feeling that allows tense muscles to relax, breath to slow and to know that I am in the Lord’s presence.  In this place, seated in this chair, facing my friend and spiritual director Father Gordon, I want to speak honestly and transparently, as if I am conversing with God.

Through the years our friendship and trust have grown, as I have journeyed through the many health crises of our son Erik and the challenges and hard work of being pastor of an inner-city parish. As my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon helps me to notice what is going on in my life when I am aware of God.  I chose his Jesuit background because I went through a year-long meditation program with The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.  Time and again, Gordon opens my heart to remembrances of gratitude to God for daily graces.

At our session last month, I gave to Gordon a copy of my new book, The Spirit in the Desert: Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley.

Gordon, have you had time to read the book? What do you think about it?

“Your book was helpful to get a sense of how sacred space works. It works with an imagination that is attuned to surroundings. You remember foundational experiences of God and you relocate them out there in those desert spaces of the Eastern Sierra. Sacred space is a sacrament that renewed your experience of the Lord’s presence. Your description of these grace experiences gives a sense of fullness. It took me about one-third of the way into the book to get that.”

“I was in Death Valley myself a few weeks ago. We walked about looking for the flush of wildflowers that was promised after the drenching rains last December. We looked and looked and all we saw were rocks and sand; not one flower. Finally, when we were about to give up and leave, I saw a wildflower; suddenly, I could see all the flowers!”

I want to share an experience with you, Gordon. A couple of months ago Leah and Dwight Smith of the Orange County Catholic Worker called me.  We are good friends since they used to serve lunch to the homeless twice a week in our parish patio. Now they have two hundred mothers and children sleeping at the Isaiah House every night. During the day the older children go to a special County school for homeless families in Orange. But there is nothing for the preschool aged children during the day. The mothers and children all must leave the house during the daytime.  So, these mothers take their children to a Santa Ana park; the children run around, and the mothers can get into trouble.

They knew about our licensed early childhood center, Hands Together, that was serving low income families in the barrio. Couldn’t the church do something during the day to provide for these homeless little ones and their mothers?

Here is where I wonder at what God is up to: a few months ago, my lifelong and former Kindergarten classmate Carol (Grizzle) Nasr moved to Santa Ana from Nova Scotia. Two blocks from my parish. What are the odds? And she is an early childhood educator!

I told Carol about the challenge and opportunity.  We visited Isaiah House one afternoon when all the mothers and children were out. As we walked through the huge, rambling old Victorian home, we noticed most of the furniture was removed to make room on the floor for sleeping bags and mattresses. Outside on the concrete patio more mats would become bedding and a dozen tents were pitched on the grass. Two hundred mothers and children sleep here every night!

Something stirred in Carol’s heart and she proposed that we offer supervised play for the children a few mornings a week at the church and work with the mothers about being a mother.

And so it began. I visited our child care room off the parish garden patio the second day. I could hear loud children’s voices shouting and shrieking. I entered the room to see six little ones climbing the slide, bouncing balls and moving toys on the carpeted floor. Frenetic energy. But Carol was the calm within the storm, speaking softly and playing with the children.

In the corner curled up with a sleeping bag was an African American mother who worked nights at Disneyland and tried to catch some sleep.

As the children’s energy began to dissipate, Carol gathered the little ones around a large half circle wooden table. A wooden squirrel figure held a small lighted candle. The children sat on tiny chairs and Carol knelt within the circle opposite them. They were now tired and calmer. I remember that Carol had a bowl holding warm face cloths scented with lavender, to calm the children. She took the hand of one little girl and gently wiped the hand; then the other hand; then the face. Slowly. When Carol was done, the facecloth was dark with dirt. But the little girl’s face was radiant. After all were cleansed, there was a snack of cheese and crackers with apple juice. This became the closing ritual to every morning session.

As I witnessed this on my own knees next to Carol, I could not help but see Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and the warmth of the Eucharistic table.

The jumbled room of children toys and balls strewn chaotically all around us had become safe, sacred space for these mothers and children.

So, we have started this new program for homeless mothers and children. Carol is calling it Morning Garden. But I am anxious for the next steps.

I have gratitude to God for reconnecting with my old friend Carol. I am amazed at the “coincidence” of her coming to Santa Ana and the emergence of this need for care for these vulnerable little ones.  Having been through the launching of our licensed child care center and all the problems and demands that have come from that, I am anxious about this new program and how to sustain it.

“The littleness of the parents and the poverty of those children! Leave it to the Lord to water and grow this. We are tempted to move on to grandiose projects. Keep it small. You are modeling serenity for the parents. The little things will make a difference in their lives. Jesus did most of his work with small groups of people. This is so precious; don’t bureaucratize it.”

A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench. (Isaiah 42:3). Treasure what is small and fragile: these mothers and children.”

Lord Jesus, you entered our world as a vulnerable child.  Inspire us to care for and protect all your little ones; humble the hard hearted with renewed awareness of their dependency on your grace; in our own weakness may we see your face. Amen.

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Preview of New Book: Desert Spirit Places


View of Monument Valley, Utah, from Mystery Valley

My new book: Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest will be published in next few months.  Here is a description of the book and some of the endorsements:

Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, Brad Karelius.

To be published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in December 2018.

Description of book:

The iconic landscape, the American Southwest, reveals luminescent mittens, looming rock arches and vast sagebrush oceans made vivid and memorable by writer Tony Hillerman, artist Georgia O’Keefe and director John Ford.  Professor Brad Karelius, drawing on forty years of college teaching, will guide you into hidden mysteries of the sacred as revealed by the Zuni, Navajo/Diné, Hopi, Hispanos and desert mystics as you seek spiritual encounters in these desert spirit places.



Author with Don Mose at Skull Rock, Mystery Valley, Utah

Brad Karelius has mastered the art of successfully combining a personal narrative with joyful observations of the natural world. His graceful writing adds generous helpings of both humor and humility to a story of adventure and insight gained from spending quiet time beneath the towering Western sky. Well-selected quotes from scholars and mystics underline the author’s own observations about the links between the rugged beauty of the desert and the flowering of a spiritual life.  This is a book to savor and to keep at one’s bedside as an antidote to life’s anxiety. If my mother still shared our planet, it would be her birthday gift.

Anne Hillerman, Author, Cave of Bones.

For some years I have deeply valued Father Brad Karelius’ beautiful writings on the spirituality of the desert. There is a deep continuity between the sayings of the early Christian desert fathers of the fourth century and these contemporary journeys that are both physical and spiritual, though these forms of journeying cannot finally be separated.

I have found these personal writings of Father Karelius deeply moving and inspiring at many levels. The desert is here never less than a real place, but within its harsh and beautiful landscape we find also the wisdom of deep spirituality – learnt also from St. Ignatius of Loyola and many others. And then there is, for Father Karelius, his disabled son Erik, his guide into Second Naivete. Innocence and wisdom come together in this wise for book our troubled age.”

David Jasper, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Brad Karelius has invested his well-lived life in an engagement with the Southwest desert. From that life-experience he articulates deep respect for the native Americans who live there and their traditions, deep awe at the mystery or the place that he knows be haunted in holy ways, and deep faith as he mediates between the Christian Gospel and native American religious traditions. The outcome of his writing is testimony to the “otherwise” he finds there, an alternative to the self-destructive ways of our dominant culture. Other readers will find as compelling as do I his direct first-person narrative witness. My reading of his book has led me to fresh gratitude for Brad and for his son Erik.

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Here find a learned and seasoned guide to the deep desert offering so much to the seeking spirit.

John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University.

 Part memoir, part travelogue, and part self-help guidebook, Desert Spirit Places relates how the soul of one inquisitive man finds solace and experiences healing in the harshest of landscapes—and shows how others can also experience that grace.

Richard Francaviglia, author, Believing in Place.

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Desert Night Sky: The Alabama Hills

NightSky3“One may try to look at the sky, but in fact one looks through it…. for no matter how deeply one sees into the sky, there is always an infinite depth remaining.”

Thomas McEvilley

The green overhead street sight for Whitney Portal Road swings wildly in the November wind, as I wait at the signal on Highway 395 in Lone Pine, California.  To my right are local restaurants, Seasons, Merry Go Round and the Grill which radiate inviting hospitality, jammed with skiers heading to and returning from Mammoth Mountain, two hours to the north.  My Honda Pilot shudders in the buffeting blasts of wind.  With a green light I turn left heading toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada.  As I travel away from shimmering city lights, dense darkness descends.  Suddenly a tumbleweed the size of a VW crosses in front of me.

The road twists and turns, following Lone Pine Creek. Denuded cottonwood and willow trees bend in the whistling wind.  More debris flies by. Maybe I should not be on this road in such an intense desert windstorm?

I enter the narrows of the Alabama Hills, as the road climbs higher. Gnarled, weirdly shaped boulders cast haunting shadows with my car headlights.  Having driven this road many times before, I looked for familiar clues to Movie Road.  I come upon an open plateau where the wind is blocked out by the hills and rocks.  I see the sign for Movie Road, turn right and continue north on a paved section that ends in a half mile, leading to a wide dirt road.  I brake suddenly, as a mother doe and two fawn dash across the road.

I park the car here and step out into the dark night. At this point one-thousand feet higher than Lone Pine, the city lights are blocked by the Alabama Hills and I am standing on a wide desert plateau on a moonless night.

As I stand beside this desert road, the car and landscape dissolve into the darkness. I am unable to see my feet.  Facing east, I see the starry night sky on both sides of me, 180 degrees. Without reference to the ground or surrounding landscape, I seem to be surrounded by night sky, brilliant, twinkling star diamonds of light scattered about me.  It seems as if I am being lifted up into the sky, surrounded by these stars and the vast Milky Way.  The more I focus on visible stars, slowly the faint background of other stars become clearer. Millions of stars. Infinity. This is a thin place between heaven and earth, between reason and wondrous mystery.

Thomas Merton shares:

“It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.”

When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, p. 87.

Others before me in times past have stood in this same place or in other locations on earth, surrounded by night sky, lifted up into infinity and wonder, the birthplace of gods, myths and holy signs.

One thousand miles east of Lone Pine, at Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery, Abiquiu, NM, at the end of a long, difficult desert road, Belden Lane writes:

“That first night at the monastery I went to bed while it was still light, knowing I had to be up early if I was to make it to chapel for Vigils. I lay there, listening to the wind howl as night came on. The desert was dark, cold, and moonless. Unable to sleep, I pulled the sleeping bag around me and waited out the night. When three-thirty finally arrived, I pulled on clothes in the cold morning air and walked outside with a small flashlight. It was pitch black, still completely alone, I nervously felt my way up the canyon toward the chapel.”

“But as I stopped to lie down on a large rock and look up into the night sky, my uneasiness suddenly dissolved. I was home. The sky was lit with thousands of stars, stars I immediately recognized from my backyard in Saint Louis where I pray every night. Leo the Lion, Bootes the Ox-Driver, Hercules with his arms upraised—they were all there, stretched out across the heavens. A place without comfort or familiarity suddenly revealed itself as home.”

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, pp. 221-222.

I have this confession: I rarely look at the sky when I am home in Laguna Niguel, California. Our night sky is usually occluded by fog and coastal clouds, as we live near the Pacific Ocean.  For millennia, the night sky has been a celestial canvas on which people have recreated images from myths and sacred stories in their communion with the Sacred.

I encountered one night sky story in an unusual children’s book:

NightSky1Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, by Jacques J. M. Shore.

Zev loved the Jewish feast of Chanukah, the gathering of extended family, the holiday foods, gifts and games spread out over eight days. A new candle on the Menorah would be lit over eight days and his home would radiate light and joy. But eleven-year-old Zev and his ten-year-old friend David were far from home and family, confined to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they survived by sorting through huge piles of shoes left behind by those who were killed in the gas chambers.

In the growing darkness of winter, Zev’s memories of Chanukah returned, and he remember the lighting of the Menorah each night. When David recalled his own memories of family and Chanukah, it filled him with sadness. Zev began to pray for a miracle.

One night Zev and David looked up into the night sky and saw a bright star. They sang a Chanukah song quietly in the night. Each night the boys would go outside of the bleak barracks, light a candle, say a blessing, and each night another star would appear until “a semi-circular shape of eight stars appeared, emerging one after another.”

“The Night after Chanukah was over, the boys took their spot outside the barracks as they did for eight days earlier. This night, unlike all the others, the sky was filled with millions of stars. Never before had they seen such a star-filled sky. Never before could they have imagined that so many stars could exist.”

“Zev said, ‘Those stars are free, so free in the heavens. David believe me—we too will one day be free.”

“The remnants of light and warmth of Chanukah kept Zev and David alive. Zev explained and promised David that the spirit of Yehuda the Maccabee and the miracle of Chanukah that they share would ensure their survival in the camp.”

“God, who lit the Menorah in the sky, lit their way out of Auschwitz, a few months later.”

Menorah in the Night Sky

 Where Heaven and Earth CollideAmong Native American tribes, the animate and inanimate world, the earth and the sky are one unified, interdependent entity.  The stars in the night sky are living spiritual beings. The problem for Anglo-European exploration of these traditions is that in the past these earth-sky stories were suppressed by the dominant Anglo culture.  Contemporary probing and inquisitive academic explorations have met native suspicion and resistance toward disclosing the sacred stories.  Sharing information about that which is sacred dilutes their operative power.

The close relationship between people and the stars in the night sky is illustrated by the Navajo. They see the world and universe holistically, everything is connected in a system of relationships that is in constant flux.  While western science applies rational tools to study the cosmos, Navajo astronomy is at the heart of their spirituality. All things, animate and inanimate, on earth and in the heavens are living entities. Every human action effects this organic universe.

In a unique partnership between western science and Navajo spirituality, NASA and the Navajo Nation have created an astrology curriculum used in schools on the Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).

Here are some Navajo perspectives of their relationship to the creatures of the night sky:

Constellations Provide Guidance and Values.  Navajo relationships with the stars can be very personal. Star constellations can be utilized for healing body, mind and spirit. Many Navajo constellations are depicted in human form, providing principles and values for living.”

Stars as Related to Animals and Natural Elements.  Many Navajo constellations are directly connected to animals……. Porcupine, Gila Monster, Mountain Sheep.  Other constellations include natural elements such as Flash Lightning, the Sun, the Moon.  The stars are also closely related to seasonal vegetational growth and animal life processes as birth and mating.

While much of the traditional knowledge of Navajo astronomy has been forgotten, this curriculum is an attempt to knit together dispersed stories and information into a collective whole, reaffirmed at a meeting between NASA and the Navajo Nation at Window Rock, AZ in 2005.

The Navajo Elder’s NASA joke

When NASA was preparing for the Apollo Project, it took the astronauts to a Navajo reservation in Arizona for training.

One day, a Navajo elder and his son came across the space crew walking among the rocks. The elder, who spoke only Navajo, asked a question. His son translated for the NASA people: “What are these guys in the big suits doing?

One of the astronauts said that they were practicing for a trip to the moon. When his son relayed this comment the Navajo elder got all excited and asked if it would be possible to give to the astronauts a message to deliver to the moon.

Recognizing a promotional opportunity when he saw one, a NASA official accompanying the astronauts said, “Why certainly!” and told an underling to get a tape recorder. The Navajo elder’s comments into the microphone were brief.

The NASA official asked the son if he would translate what his father had said. The son listened to the recording and laughed uproariously. But he refused to translate. So the NASA people took the tape to a nearby Navajo village and played it for other members of the tribe. They too laughed long and loudly but also refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.

Finally, an official government translator was summoned. After he finally stopped laughing the translator relayed the message: “Watch out for these asxxxxx – they have come to steal your land.”

In Believing in Place, Richard Francaviglia contemplates the night sky after midnight in a visit to western Utah. “I’d looked up into the night sky and beheld a Milky Way that looked like crushed glittering glass—or pulverized diamonds—spread from horizon to horizon.”

The vast dark sky studded with luminescent lights becomes a canvas for the imagination to “connect the dots” between stars and recreate images and creatures of nature. Francaviglia echoes the imaginative minds of the Navajo, as he writes about the Milky Way and star figures:

“One of nature’s most awesome sights, this clustering of millions of stars has deep cultural significance in the Great Basin. The Paiute call it Kus’ipo’ (Dusty Trail) or, more to the point, Numu-po (People’s Trail) and they believe it to be the path traveled by the souls of the dead as they seek another, more abundant world to the south where there will be good hunting and time for gambling and dancing.  The Big Dipper shimmering overhead is Ta’noa’di, a heavenly net into which men chase rabbits. To some Native peoples hereabouts, Orion’s belt consists of three stars that are either mountain sheep or mountain sheep husbands, while the brightest star in this constellation (Sirius) is a woman called Tinagidi (The Chaser). Significantly, the heavens themselves are not the product of remote physical forces, but of Wolf (creator of both Heaven and Earth) and his trickster brother Coyote, who caused his family to flee to the sky.”

Believing in Place

It is time for me to return to the warmth of my car and the lights of Lone Pine. I am remembering the thoughts of the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who, as he also gazed into the dark night sky exclaimed, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”  I leave with a different feeling.  I could hear other sounds of nature out there in the darkness that could have triggered anxiety and fear within me.  But as the wonder that came from focusing my eyes on the stars, and as each minute went by, the dimensions of the sky and number of stars grew into immensity, I too felt a sense of homecoming, that I was being embraced in love by the Holy Creator.

 I lose myself in darkness among mythic star creatures. Until now I have lived a life attentive only to daylight, unaware of the wonders and mystery of this other half of creation: the pulsing, vibrant, numinous night sky.


 Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, Jacques J. M. Shore. (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing, 2003).

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Belden C. Lane (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Click to access 6.4.5_SD.10.NavajoSkies.pdf

Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).


Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, Richard V. Francaviglia, (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003), p. 22-23.

Bishop Visitor’s Center: The Night Sky in the Eastern Sierra.NightSky3https://www.bishopvisitor.com/the-night-sky-in-the-eastern-sierra/


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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 Audible.com 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.  https://imagejournal.org/article/conversation-walter-brueggemann/

http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/static/pdf/articles/brueggemann.pdf “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, https://christdesert.org/

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

Youtube video of Christ in the Desert Monastery:






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