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Memories … and then … Encountering the complex Native American spirituality at Mesa Verde

This is a reblog of one of my favorite sites, The Holy Rover blog by Lori Erikson. When I saw that her latest post was about Mesa Verde, I experienced a wave of nostalgia that made me smile. I saw this fascinating place when I was about nine but did not get out of it what I was supposed to.

Mesa Verde in July of 1965, from the family photo album

Mesa Verde in July of 1965, from the family photo album

We were traveling out West as a family and visited California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado; Mesa Verde is in Colorado. It is here that ruins were found of cliff-dwelling Indians. It’s truly a fascinating place which you will see in Lori’s blog. I had to share my little vignette though before sharing her post.

In the museum at Mesa Verde, there was a mummy on display named Esther; she was 1500 years old. I was nine at the time and was petrified when I saw her! That night when we all went to bed, my older sister and I argued about who had to sleep on the side of the bed facing the wall. I didn’t want to sleep there because I knew I’d see Esther on that wall all night long!

Guess who ended up facing the wall? Older sisters always prevail (turns out Esther freaked my older sister too and she didn’t want to face the wall. And she was always the brave one!). The next day I came down with the grip, the worst I’d ever had.

So the mention of Mesa Verde always brought up an assortment of memories which I now think are kind of funny. :-) It’s good to see what Mesa Verde is REALLY all about!

Amid the Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde

In my travels around the world I’ve learned that most spiritual sites have layers upon layers of history, meaning and mystery. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado may be the best example I’ve encountered of just how complicated the intertwining of those layers can be.

Mesa Verde; photo by Bob Sessions

When I was planning my visit, I contacted the park staff to say that I was a writer interested in learning about the spiritual traditions of Mesa Verde. I got a diplomatically worded reply, telling me in the nicest possible way that I had no idea just how difficult that seemingly simple request was.

The staff at the national park has good reason to be wary of the minefields of interpretation that exist at Mesa Verde. The people who once lived there left no written records. The Indian tribes that trace their ancestry to them are fiercely protective of their own spiritual traditions, many of which derive from what was once practiced at Mesa Verde. And so when clueless travel writers like myself arrive full of questions, there’s an understandable reluctance to be too speculative in their theorizing.

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Patience pays off – an encounter with a green heron

Yesterday’s kayak trip took place just down the street at Eckblaw Landing. Here you can take a trip down the Quinsigamond River. I’ve done this trip several times and don’t usually see all that much in the way of birds because the MA Turnpike runs right over the river. Still, sometimes you really hit the jackpot:

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This is the green heron, not to be confused with his much bigger counterpart, the blue heron:

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The green heron is not nearly as common. This one put on quite a show for me, staying for a long time and allowing me to get quite close:

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It’s hard to describe how I feel when I see such a site and have the privilege of viewing it for such a long time. I credit my mother with passing along this joy of nature to me. It fills my heart, mind and soul with things beyond words. Sitting in my kayak I found myself wishing my mother had had the chance to enjoy birding in this way, totally still on the river, watching the show unfold. She was afraid of the water and I don’t think she would have enjoyed kayaking for that reason but the thrill of seeing such a magnificent creature up close and personal might have assuaged her fear. Someday when we meet again, we will have to talk about this.

9-painted turtle2 featuredIn the meantime, I hope you enjoy the show. By the way, did I tell you I also saw a painted turtle swimming under the water? I wish I could have captured him on film but rather than take the time to find my camera, I decided to just watch another one of God’s creatures paddling under water without a care in the world.

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Accidental art: the joy of random photography

I am really digging photography. These days if all you have is a cheap camera, patience and a mindfulness for opportunity, you can come up with some pretty cool pictures.

I am a total amateur when it comes to taking pictures. I have no idea how I get some of the results I get. Taking pictures while kayaking does afford some amazing opportunities to get up close and personal, and patience can really pay off.

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My technique is so random I’m almost embarrassed to share it but I figure if it works for me, it could work for you too. Here’s what I do:

  • When I go out kayaking, I mount my camera on a small tripod; it makes it easier to have a steady hold on the camera. It also gives you added height (aka, you can’t stand up in a kayak, so you hold the tripod over your head to get the picture).
  • My technique? Snap as many pictures as you can and sort through them later. Oftentimes I can’t even see what I am photographing because of the glare on the viewfinder so taking lots of pictures is a must. Digital photography makes that quite affordable.

My late cousin Donna loved to take pictures in the wilderness; she did it because she was an artist at heart but could not paint. I feel the same way. I see images and wish I could paint them. I love searching for opportunities and setting up shots. Sometimes you hit the jackpot like I did on my last trip.

The location is South Grafton, MA in the spot known as “Fisherville.” This is a truly beautiful site as you can see:

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It being June, the mountain laurel was in full bloom. I wish I could say what the other flowers were (and if you know, please leave a comment!) but they were lovely just the same:

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In my attempt to both zoom and focus I sometimes got the opposite of what I wanted! Yet the pictures look kind of cool anyway:

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I was excited to get this spider web (considering how much the boat was drifting!):

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The jackpot was my close encounter with a chipmunk. I found him on a boulder in the middle of the stream. He froze long enough for several quick shots and then he jumped off (cheeks full of course) and quickly swam away. I had no idea chipmunks could swim. Super cute!

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While I would love to have an upgrade in my camera equipment (and I’m considering putting it on my Christmas wish list), you can get a lot done with your average digital camera.

If you’re an artist at heart and wish you could paint, try a camera and a great setting. Very satisfying. :-)

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Breathing new life into the familiar – the beautiful John 3:16

Today’s Gospel is profound and beautiful but we may miss the meaning because we have heard it so many times in the past. That old adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt” certainly plays out here. You may have even let your mind drift as I read it to you, just as my mind drifted when I read it this past week in preparation for this service.

So, let’s try reading it again. Slowly. Let’s squeeze the meaning out of it:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

john 3 16

What did it mean for God to give his only Son? Mothers and fathers of soldiers would know, especially if their son ended up making the ultimate sacrifice, just as Jesus did. They would know the intense grief of the sacrifice but would also understand that their son wanted to serve his country. Their hearts might swell with pride even as they grieve and never forget.

You may be thinking, “Yes, but Jesus is God and therefore He cannot really die.” As a man however, Jesus did die. And He suffered greatly in body, mind and heart to make His ultimate sacrifice. Just as parents suffer when their children suffer, so did the Father also suffer.

How about this part:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

Are we so concerned with avoiding hell that we fail to recognize heaven right here on earth? As children, growing up in the pre-Vatican II church (which I grew up in too), teaching the faith centered a lot on following rules, guilt and fear of hell. I remember the “fire and brimstone” homilies of the young priest at the parish of my childhood and how women would leave the church weeping as a result. Yet somehow during communion, I understood that I was receiving a taste of heaven and would think of images of a floor swept clean, glistening with the shine of wax, or of a rose bush growing in my heart. The Eucharist represented purity and beauty to me; I was blessed with a sense of heaven in my midst.

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

The last part of this reading is hard: again we are reminded of condemnation. But we are only condemned if we decide to walk away from Jesus, to turn our backs on him, to deny him. If however we love him and desire him in our lives, we will not be condemned. We will not live perfect lives for in our broken world this is not possible. Jesus’ mission centered so much on mercy precisely because he understood us. Again and again he offers opportunities for reconciliation and relationship as shown through his free association with the “sinners” of his day: the tax collectors and prostitutes. There is nothing he will not forgive so long as we choose to accept it. So long as we have breath in our bodies he will accept us. Just recall the thief on the cross who with his dying breath asked for Jesus to remember him. We know his reward: he was the first to taste paradise. The same awaits all of us who love the Lord and try each day to follow him.

So what can we do to stay close to Jesus so we can experience more of heaven on earth? Perhaps read the Bible? Listen to the beautiful music composed over the centuries that glorifies God? Just sit and think about Jesus? Reach out to someone who is hurting or lonely and be Jesus to them?

What will we choose to do today?

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Living with deliberate intent: lessons from a loss and a blessing

Donna Marie Downing Anderson, M.D.

Donna Marie Downing Anderson, M.D.

Yesterday reminded me of how suddenly life can end. Rich and I attended the funeral of his cousin Donna who was killed suddenly in a car crash. Gone, just like that. She had just returned to Minnesota from Connecticut, having spent the weekend with her parents. Her mother was brought home from rehab after several weeks away; Donna and her sisters helped to settle their mother back into her routine.

Donna was a doctor, having first served in a pediatric practice for fifteen years, followed by time spent in an army hospital and then in clinics on Indian reservations. She was well aware of all that was going on with her parents and was able to contribute her expertise. She also contributed her special brand of humor and consolation to her mother, father and sisters. Donna was a healer who was very passionate about life. Her spirit was adventurous and free, her life lived with deliberate intent.

It therefore seemed exceedingly unfair that this woman in her prime should suddenly be taken from this life while traveling home from the airport after having called her mother to tell her she was “alright.” Unfair to her mother who is still quite frail. Unfair to her father, devastated at the loss of his little girl, the youngest of the sisters. Unfair to her sisters who depended upon Donna’s gift of life.

Like all of us who attended yesterday’s funeral, I was in need of consolation. Whenever I feel that need, I attend mass at Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA. While I love my own parish of St. Luke the Evangelist in Westboro, there is something special about Holy Family; being there consoles me. It was where I received my healing of my singing voice (see previous post). St. Luke’s former pastoral associate, Fr. Steven LaBaire, is pastor of this magnificent cathedral:

 

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This morning at mass, I saw something else that reminded me of the need to live with deliberate intent. I remembered clearly the first time I witnessed it; I wept openly because I was so moved. I now want to share it with you:

Father Steve is breaking the bread which Catholics believe is the body of Christ. He then takes a piece and drops it in the chalice containing the wine which is the blood of Christ.

This is what I mean by deliberate intent.

Notice how the ritual and each little motion is done slowly, reverently, with love. By the deliberate intent of his motions, Father Steve allows us time to contemplate the mystery of the bread and wine. The breaking of that bread reminds us of Christ’s broken body on the cross and the mingling of the body with the blood which Catholics then receive as the eucharist during communion.

Christ shares himself with us through such humble means as bread and wine and in the most intimate way possible: by entering our bodies as food. This is what Catholics believe; it is what I believe.

Father Steve demonstrates living with deliberate intent by the way he celebrates this ritual which he has done endless times but never without thought.

Donna lived with deliberate intent, chasing her passions for medicine, helping others and wildlife photography while never forgetting her family. I’m told by my mother-in-law that Donna called her mother three days each day to check in.

Now she is gone but she leaves behind a legacy, not just of her love or her good works or her beautiful pictures. She leaves behind a legacy of living life with deliberate intent.

Father Steve reminded me of that today in his celebration of the mass, the most sacred of rituals.

Do we think about what we are doing? Do we pour every bit of ourselves into the present moment or do we waste time living in the past or anticipating the future?

What is our intention as we life each day?

Obituary for Donna Marie  Downing Anderson, M. D.

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Clash of civilizations, loss of heritage, courage to change: Review of “Flight of the Sparrow” by Amy Belding Brown

Note: I love historical fiction and when Amy Belding Brown asked me to review her latest book, I jumped at the chance. Her last book, Mr. Emerson’s Wife had been a game-changing book for me. I couldn’t wait to read Flight of the Sparrow given my deep interest in spiritual matters, a lifelong residency in Massachusetts plus my passion for history. I also enjoy reading about moral dilemmas and inner turmoil and how the characters resolve their issues. If you have similar loves, this is the book for you!

See the end of this review for a book giveaway!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

amy belding brown latte shop-1The last time I saw Amy Belding Brown, we were having coffee at a shop in the center of picturesque Grafton, Massachusetts talking about Mr. Emerson’s Wife (see previous post). It turns out Brown had lived in my hometown all this time and I never knew. At that get-together she talked about a new historical novel she was working on which covered the period of King Phillip’s War. Having no knowledge of that war I was to discover that in fact, that period of history was right on my doorstep, not only in the present, but in my past as well.

Setting

flight of the sparrowFlight of the Sparrow, set for release on July 1, goes back to the beginning of the Puritan settlement in Massachusetts, using historical fiction to portray the devastating consequences of the epic clash between the English and the Native American. The setting is King Phillip’s war, taking place in the mid 1670’s; its consequences are played out through one Puritan woman and one Nipmuc man.

Main characters

Mary Rowlandson was the wife of a minister in the town of Lancaster. Brown’s main character is based upon a real-life woman whose experiences are documented in a book she co-wrote called The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (available here as text and here as ebook). This religious memoir of her three months as an Indian captive was the first “best-seller” in English America (pg. 329).

James Printer, also known as Wowaus, came from Hassanamesit, a Praying Indian settlement founded by John Elliot who translated the Bible for the Indians to aid in their conversion to Christianity. The remains of Hassanemesit are located in my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts.

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James Printer helped to set the type for the first edition of Mary Rowlandson’s book. For a time after the war he resided in the sole remaining Praying Indian settlement, Natick, just one town over from my childhood home of Wellesley.

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Summary of story

After the town of Lancaster is attacked and burned, Mary is taken captive along with her three children by the Nipmuc tribe (her husband Joseph was away at the time). In the course of the battle, her sister Elizabeth is wounded and then killed by fire, Mary herself is wounded, and her youngest daughter Sarah is also wounded mortally; she would die several days later as the captives are led away bound with rope. Mary carries Sarah as far as she can, struggling to ease her daughter’s pain, knowing there is nothing she could do to save her. Adding to her burden is her separation from her other daughter Marie and son Joss.

Living in sheer terror from moment to moment during that march, Mary experiences unexpected kindness from James Printer, who frees her from the rope around her neck. It would prove to be the first of several encounters for Mary with this mysterious, handsome and compassionate man.

Collision of cultures

During the first half of Flight of the Sparrow, Brown describes Mary’s captivity, weaving in detailed, colorful and honest descriptions of Native American life. Presenting the beauty and nobility along with the cruelty, Brown brings us into the increasing turmoil of Mary’s mind and heart. Terrified of and angry with her captives one moment, she finds herself admiring their way of life in the next. She gradually accepts Indian ways, from the freestyle way of dress to time spent outdoors, finding solace in the beauty that had before eluded her. She experiences the growing pains of a personal horizon expanding, a heart growing, and the old orderly and rigid ways of her life slowly falling away. In her captivity she discovers a freedom of movement and thought denied to her as a Puritan woman. It is a freedom she will sorely miss when she returns to English society. She is frightened to discover that her rock-solid Christian faith, regimented by spoken prayers and long scripture passages, is failing her. In the end she tries to bargain with James Printer to stay with the tribe when her time to be ransomed arrives.

Personal involvement

There is of course one other problem: Mary has developed feelings for James and the feelings are mutual. She is able to talk with him freely, expressing herself in ways she never could with her husband Joseph. She finds herself thinking of him and wishing to stay with him despite her status as a married woman.

Inner turmoil

Brown does an excellent job of presenting the moral dilemmas Mary faces both in her captivity and her restoration to the English. I struggled with her status as a slave and the cruelty she endured and yet rejoiced too at the unexpected generosity and kindness of the captors towards that slave. I empathized with Mary’s painful and yet exhilarating transformation as she grew to accept and then love her life with the Indians. I mourned as she was separated from James, the man she truly loved, having to return to the oppressive life she led with Joseph, whom she no longer loved. I felt her grief over Sarah and her concern for her other missing children, her longing to be back with the Indians and her surprising loss of personal freedom as she returned to her old life of repression, rules and propriety. I mourned the loss of her faith and her inability to transcend her Puritan ingraining which favored the letter of the law over than the spirit. While she was able to embrace that all peoples are children of God thus deserving respect and compassion, she could not see that God himself existed beyond the Bible and spoken prayers.

Turmoil of a nation

The empathy did not stop with the individual characters. Brown expands that empathy to an entire nation of people who, because they lost King Phillip’s war to the English, had their way of life taken from them. Although Brown is equally honest regarding the horrific actions of both sides in the war, the consequences for the Indians prove to be the most heartbreaking.

The value of the story

The depth of research that went into the creation of Flight of the Sparrow was evident in the compelling and authentic telling of the story. Brown is not hemmed in by the facts but rather uses those facts as a means of letting her imagination create a multi-layered and emotionally satisfying story. The life journeys of Mary and James not only touch the heart but challenge the mind as well. Just as Mr. Emerson’s Wife exposed and expanded my narrow way of thinking, Flight of the Sparrow caused me to search my heart when it came to meeting and knowing people who are not like me. While Brown’s aim may have been to tell a story about a period she was not familiar with so that she could learn more about her herself and her New England heritage, she has provided that service to this reader as well.

Visit Amy Belding Brown’s website for links to sites carrying Flight of the Sparrow.

Win a free copy of Flight of the Sparrow! Be the first to comment on this post and you will win!

For a quick history of the setting for the story, visit these sites:

Grafton, Massachusetts

Natick, Massachusetts

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Who are we trying to please and why? A reflection on Matthew 6

Note: this is my monthly Gospel reflection on Catholicmom.com which ran on June 18.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

“All the world’s is a stage.” Shakespeare’s famous line reveals the inner longing of each and every human being: to be noticed, to be loved.

from blog.preservationnation.org

from blog.preservationnation.org

Even those of us who swear we are shy, who claim we long to be invisible, who hole up in our rooms, still want to be seen. It’s a validation of our existence. Nobody truly wants to be invisible.

Some of us perform by parading our good deeds. Some of us can sing, dance or act so we perform on plays and if we’re lucky, hit the big time and star in movies or TV.

Some of us command the stage when we are ill by becoming self-absorbed, and demanding of others.

And in our religious life we like to perform too. The season of Lent gives us that perfect opportunity to show the world how pious we are with our fasting, our sacrifices and our charity.

Who are we performing for? For the approval of God? For the approval of those around us?

We may not even be aware that we are performing. But God is aware.

Jesus, having been human himself, knew that inner need of validation we all have to be seen and heard. We know he struggled with it himself as shown in his forty days in the desert being tempted by the devil.

This is why today he gives us a better way to live: to live for the Father’s approval, not our neighbor’s. We do our work for the Kingdom quietly, sometimes in secret, sometimes in our inner rooms.

And by doing so, we are set free from needing to be liked.

Who needs to be liked when we are already so loved?

Ponder

Am I mindful of the fact that I am performing for others? Am I a slave to the desire to be liked by others? What can I do to change that mindset?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, you know all our inner struggles because you lived them. You knew the temptation of wanting to be the star. Grant me the grace to desire only to please you. Set me free from the slavery of needing approval from my neighbor. Amen.

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Writing lessons. Creative lessons. Living lessons from St. Paul.

I love St. Paul. And I am a woman. Yes, I am fully aware of the famous passages in which he instructs wives to be “submissive to their husbands” and how they are not to speak in public. I believe these passages need to studied carefully for their true meaning for nothing is ever as it seems, but that’s for another day.

Why St. Paul?

Remember my post on deliberate intent? St. Paul embodied that in everything he did. It began with a zealous persecution of Christians (for he was a Pharisee) and ended with himself being persecuted and killed for the faith he sought originally to destroy.

st. paul preaching in athens

St. Paul preaching in Athens

Read this passage from Acts 20 first, beginning at verse 17, and then come back to this post.

The cost of running the race

Notice how St. Paul poured himself out for the people to whom he ministered. He preached as a marathon runner would run the race: totally committed despite the pain of running. Runners risk injury for their all-out commitment; St. Paul risked life and limb. In 2 Corinthians 11 he actually boasts of his calamities from ship wrecks to beatings to stoning and so forth.

Poured out

St. Paul’s raw honesty is what captured my attention in Acts 20. He spoke plainly and passionately; the love he had for the people was palpable. Their reaction to him was open weeping as they prayed over him, knowing they would never see him again. He was returning to Jerusalem and to certain death out of love for Jesus Christ. This was the One for whom he had persecuted hundreds of believers, causing their suffering and their deaths. Now he would face death bravely, gladly; anything to glorify his Beloved.

Living and writing

As a writer I see lessons here on how to write; I must write as I live. If I do not live with raw honesty, with deliberate intent every day, I cannot write well. How can I write on what I don’t know?

Art and depth of living

The same is true with art, music and any other creative activity. We can only create what we know. If our lives are shallow, our creative efforts will reflect that like a mirror. If we live authentically, risking all we have, our art will reflect that depth.

paul writing

St. Paul writing

Fully integrated life

St. Paul didn’t live his life in fragments. He didn’t take on the role of preacher one minute, then shed the role and become a drunkard or a gossip in the next. Preaching the Word wasn’t his job, it was his life. Set on that one focus, all the pieces of his life were integrated into that focus. He gave his all and made an impact on the world that few have achieved. And the people he loved wept openly over him.

The example to follow

If I want my writing to be the best it can be I must live my life openly, in the raw, totally committed. Living life well must come first; art (hopefully great) will naturally follow.

I cannot think of a greater example than St. Paul.

Who inspires you by their life? What about their life inspires you?

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