If 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.
Purple Throated Hummingbird. Charles J. Sharp, 2010.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The 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.
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, HandsTogether, 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 henot 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.
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.
“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.”
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 MountainSpirituality, 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:
Menorah 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
Among 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 NavajoCultural 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 MountainSpirituality, Belden C. Lane (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and NavajoCultural Knowledge (2006).