The Accidental Pilgrim Part II

Sometimes, just before an epiphany, a feeling of discomfort, even torment occurs. Like birth, a deep realization can move slowly through its narrow canal until it is born into the light of one’s awareness. There are Eureka moments that splash into view occasionally, apparently out of nowhere. But in some deep bovine level of mind, that cud has been chewed until its bliss point ignites. Such was my mood as I grappled with BBQ Jesus in the blue room in Santa Fe, surrounded by icons of the Virgin Mary with my sacred soil from Chimayo on the table next to my bed. This room was unusually peaceful, with a cool breeze blowing through the window as I drifted into dreams while praying for help in understanding why the bloody image of Christ attracted people oppressed by Christian conquerors.

No dreams brought me an answer, at least none that I could remember. I awoke with a clear vision of Christ as a liberating force in the world. It wasn’t just the aspect of death and then resurrection; it was being in the trenches with the downtrodden and overthrowing tyranny. I can’t convey the unexpected force of this awakening. After years of steeping myself in the failure of Catholic and Protestant churches to truly minister the gospel of Jesus, grace found a way to open my heart. I do believe in the wholly (making whole) spirit, the comforter who has delivered me from various circles of hell, sometimes with a swift kick in the behind. I certainly did not expect to see Liberation theology playing in the theater of my mind. The next morning I talked with my friend Ralph about my new found realization – that by seeing and understanding crucifixion, we find a path to resurrection. He told me that his cousin (a nun who works with the poor in New Mexico) meditates and sleeps in the blue room when she visits Ralph and Danny in Santa Fe. I had been following the Nuns on the Bus tour, which gave me hope that there were good Catholic leaders willing to step forward on behalf of the poor. The nuns courted severe consequences from the church fathers, who felt they had become tainted by feminist ideologies, but they were determined to walk in faith. The nuns drew a line in the spiritual sand when they declared they were following the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

This spirit moves us to comfort the suffering, including the wounded savior. In Jungian terms, healing the wounded God (and thus ourselves) includes a growing exchange of energy between the ego (me) and the psyche or Self (I), aided by spirit as ally. For those interested in exploring this in depth I recommend Jeffrey Raff’s wonderful book Healing the Wounded God. As cells in the body of Christ, we share all the joy and suffering life offers together. This gift in which we are asked to grow beyond our assumptions, even of who and what we are, never stops giving. There are always moments in which we yearn for peace. Sometimes they come through grace and sometimes we must make the effort to find sanctuary. But this discomfort goads us to move and grow. It’s hard to believe the changes in my perception of the suffering Christ since I awoke in the blue room. The agony that life can bring when we see our neighbors suffering invites compassion, toward oneself and others. In each moment of pain we seek solace. Finding comfort, sharing compassion and healing brings a resurrection of spirit, of faith that we are loved. Since we began crying as babies, we learn to give and receive the comfort of love. I see the tears of Mary, the blood of Christ in the pain of the world, in every child, old person, victim and soldier. The choice to seek and to give comfort, to grow in compassion leads to resurrection in love. Love lifts us up with every glorious and tragic aspect of this crucifixion called life.

For those who wish to cultivate the presence of wholeness, of love, Christian contemplatives offer the Centering Prayer, a daily practice in which one opens to the indwelling presence of God. In the literature it is described as simply resting in God beyond thoughts, words and emotions.

Buddhist meditation goes beyond desire (including the desire for union with God) to cultivate detachment and objectivity, mindfulness – beyond the illusion of life into reality. Taming the mind by a mental focus of one-pointedness and following the natural in and out breath creates an inner calm, allowing one to withdraw the senses from the world. The awareness of three stages of being: impermanence, suffering and non-self arises as the practice takes one beyond the body and into the intuitional realm. Much preparation is done before deeper stages of meditation are taught.

All cultures have contemplative practices that help us center our focus inwardly. For those who have found themselves at the intersection of in and out, up and down, us and them, words do not explain. It becomes a way to anchor our restless mind as we stumble through the complexities of life, allowing humility to keep us on the path of love. Listen to your heartbeat, it’s synching with the pulse of the universe, or as Joseph Campbell would say, “Follow your bliss.”

The Accidental Pilgrim – Part 1

New Mexico cast a spell on me thirty years ago, though I hadn’t visited in more than two decades. Waiting at the Austin Bergstrom airport bound for Santa Fe and Taos, I was looking forward to spending a week on vacation – with no agenda and good friends to see. In a sign of things to come, two days earlier a butterfly circled my head as I came home from work and landed next to me on a leaf. It crawled onto my hand when I invited it aboard and stretched the length of its humming, vibrating body onto my index finger. What a buzz, invigorating and meaningful in a way that had yet to unfold; these things are not always obvious at the time. Butterflies have come to me in times of transformation, signaling death or rebirth, both within and without.

As I waited to take off, I noticed something unusual; there were five albino children on my flight. If this were a dream I would look up albino and expect something innocent, pure and childlike to come my way, perhaps a spiritual experience of some kind. Audrianna, one of the delicately pale children of eleven, sat next to me clutching a soft, cream-colored teddy bear named Washington (after the city where they met). Our conversation was lively and we kept each other entertained until she and her companions left for Minneapolis, while I flew on to Albuquerque. Audrianna helped me to remember how much fun summer vacations are when you’re young and heading into the tingly unknown.

Driving through Santa Fe on my way to Taos, I enjoyed the bright blue skies and the wrinkled mountains rimming the horizon, but did not feel the enchantment fully until I got closer to Taos. For the next five days I crushed on the beauty of Taos, leaving many pictorial mementos on Facebook and gushing to my friends, while scanning MLS listings to see how feasible it might be to move there one day. My friends Lucky and Becky are a magical duo; we’ve had great fun in Canada, New Orleans and Port Aransas, but we all experienced Taos at another level. We went to the Pow Wow and visited Taos Pueblo where I found a beautiful butterfly kachina figure carved out of the root of an old cottonwood tree. The colorful carving portrayed the protective, guiding spirit of the butterfly arched over its human companion, both figures connected at the root. Like my guardian angel, I felt the butterfly’s touch signal the start of a new chapter in my aesthetic life, in the process of realizing myself as an artist. The monarch butterfly’s epic annual pilgrimage exemplifies this journey of (anything but) fragile beauty, led by spirit through fields and mountains of hardship, over every horizon and home to a land it knew but had not yet seen.

Taos was alive with the bright energy of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Nurturing monsoon rains refreshed the air and the desert, bringing flowers in its wake, greening the trees and keeping the streams and brooks babbling along. The land, Taos’ friendly citizens, the healthy food and the curved, clean lines of adobe dwellings made me feel at home. Always nearby were the footprints of the Pueblo people. Georgia O’Keefe, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett, DH Lawrence, and Millicent Rogers brought many artists to New Mexico, pulled by the spirit of the mountains, entranced by native art and the harmony of nature and spirit. Millicent Rogers captures her journey of spirit in a letter to her son Paul written toward the end of her life:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural-that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me- with a great, good stillness and strength.

As the Navajo say, “In beauty it is finished.” Perhaps I left a part of my heart in Taos, but I know I will soon return to its bright mountains and good people.

I took the high road from Taos to Chimayo, relishing the mountains rolling into the desert, the villages sprinkled along the way, the peace and light. Bright white light shines from the spine of the red earth into the hills and mountains of New Mexico. I’ve been to the Sierra Blanca and the Sandia Mountains but this was my first visit to the Sangre de Cristo range in northern NM. I talked a little about Chimayo in my dining post but the experience of visiting the sanctuary, seeing the little shoes left by pilgrims for the baby Jesus, the crutches wired to chain link fences – that’s a horse of a different color. I am open to mysteries, embracing of whiffs, feather light touches and glimmers of the divine. Poems are born of those moments of connection. I enjoyed a centering meditation in the chapel and had fun picking grass for a horse living in the complex, whose lips were a fence away from some juicy tufts. A small family took over as I left, the horse reaping the benefit of our Franciscan kindness. I came away with some healing earth to share with friends who might need a blessing in times of trouble and set out to visit Ralph and Danny in Santa Fe. In spite of a lovely day in the mountains of Chimayo, my mind struggled with the tortured image of Christ center stage in the Old Spanish chapel.

I was raised Catholic, yet the grisly image of crucified Christ (hereafter known as Barbecued Jesus) still sets me on my heels. I once heard a record in Catechism that detailed minute by hour the suffering of Christ on the cross. It was morbid in a way that the bleeding, wax figure of Jesus at the San Jose Catholic Church in South Austin exalts. The primal need to kill God; to know that we, as humans, did not suffer alone and unheard is something I understand. The hate side of love bears our burden of ignorance, desolation, hunger. Can we offer ourselves fully without it? Perhaps some of the vitriol we see on the world stage – one religion attacking another in the name of God- is an expression of the hatred we cannot acknowledge. Despite my cynical response to the tortured savior I did collect some of the sacred earth from the sanctuary to give to friends and family. I can appreciate miracles, divine intervention and the triumph of compassion over suffering. All faiths bear testament to these extraordinary events and states of being.

Still, when I got to Santa Fe to see my friends Danny and Ralph, talk turned to barbecued Jesus. How could people who were forced into Christianity turn to the very image of their oppression? Give me the resurrection and help me to understand forgiveness for the barbarism of human kind, please. Once upon a time the three of us shared a multicultural approach to spirit, spoiled citizens of a time and place that advocated compassion and inclusiveness. This may become a relic of “the good old days” given the rise of religious intolerance and extremism worldwide. It was sad to confront my cynicism in the harsh light of religion and the politics that buzzed like flies around a tired old mule.

I have described myself not as a seeker, but as a finder. There are times of abeyance, of low ebb when nothing comes or goes. Just before a prayer, a movement of a focused will to be. These are the hinges that open or close the doors of past and future realizations. Part II: behind the blue door . . .