Sunday, January 03, 2010

Finding Faith The Best That We Are Able

Not being what former neighbors call "churchy people" it is not that easy for Mars and me to tap in to the spiritual side of the Christmas holiday. That plus a lack of any definitive idea of what it is we are actually looking for.

My early-life experience of the spu-RIT-ual (as Sister Agnes Louise pronounced it) was limited to those few hours of blissful peace between Saturday 4:00 p.m. confession and Sunday 9 a.m. communion when I wasn't frighteningly worried that I was going to die and go directly to hell.

Somewhere along the way I (largely) lost that fear -- and its concomitant pleasurable release. I've also experienced many things -- while, for example, doing yoga to music, or making pottery, or gardening -- that effected my inner being, but nothing with that same intensity such that I really would call it Spiritual (with a capitol S).

However, as I get older, I think that my threshold test is becoming less stringent.

Mars and I spent Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico visiting with our son, daughter-in-law, and rescued greyhound grand-dog (Bram, Monica and Cheyenne), and partaking in some of the December activities in that part of northern New Mexico.

On our second afternoon there we went to listen the chanting of the monks at The Monks' Corner Gift Shop. The store supports the work of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert; a Benedictine community of more than thirty members located in Abiquiu, New Mexico -- about one hour away. Among its merchandise are religious themed items such as: a pictorial calendar of Russian church icon and fruitcake baked in Trappist abbeys; useful theological objects like rosary beads and liturgical stoles; and plain old secular jewelry.

(Mars said that its goods aren't that different from other gift shops in Santa Fe that also feature Virgin of Guadalupe and other saintly images. To which Bram responded, "But here they aren't ironic.")

There were three singers -- all from the Abiquiu abbey. The apparent leader was about six feet tall with short graying hair and a full beard. The others were younger (early twenties) -- about five and one-half feet tall and very slight. They all wore black robes with black, thick leather, lug-soled shoes instead of the sandals I had expected. One of them also sported a blue waist length jacket with the words Tommy Hilfiger written in yellow on the back.

In high school I myself had pondered, although probably not as seriously as I thought at the time, the possibility of life as a monastic. I read Thomas Merton. Now I suspect that I was just looking for a safe way to extend those confession-to-communion hours. In any event nothing became of it -- although I still can understand the appeal.

When Mars and I arrived the trio was mingling with some customers. The shop is small -- maybe thirty by thirty --with not much open space. We found a chair and footstool in a corner, sat, and waited. Our view was blocked by a display case, but after about five minutes we heard the sound of a pitch pipe followed shortly by the sound of closely pitched male voices singing church music in Latin.

A week earlier Mars and I had been to a holiday concert with several friends at a large Congregational Church in Connecticut. These choristers -- a coed vocal ensemble of twenty -- sang similar music. "There is something about Christian sacred music that goes right to your heart", said one member of our party. His face showed the strain of genuine emotion.

On that day, and today at The Monks Corner, I had some of the same feelings -- although not as intensely. We did however buy a compact disk of music performed by all of the Monks at the abbey so we could give it another try.

The next day Mars and I walked the labyrinth.

It was not my first time strolling on one of those irregular paths. I had tried it several years ago while taking a writing class at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. And in Santa Fe both Mars and I sampled one on the property of J and J for whom we were dog/house sitting earlier this annum.

Those were informal, unsupervised ambles along trails delineated by similarly sized stones placed by hand in the dirt. This time it was an official perambulation under the watchful eye of the Labyrinth Resource Group -- "a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging the creation and use of labyrinths as a path of healing, inspiration, peace, and community." It was held on Museum Hill in a professionally laid, brick walkway with a complicated route spelled out in muted red pavers against a subdued teal background.

We checked in with one of the members at a set of folding tables along the entryway to the maze and carefully read the information that was fluttering gently under the rock paperweights.

"The labyrinth is not a maze with mental challenges and blind alleys. You walk a single path from the entrance to the center and back again. There is no 'right' way to walk the labyrinth; there are no 'right' thoughts to have. Let your experience be your own.

"The path of the labyrinth is like the path of life -- with twists and turns, feelings of being lost, encounters with others in your path, a thrill of pleasure as you approach the center and sometimes a flash of insight before you leave."

And maybe even spiritual.

We were then directed to report to the official starter. She pointed out the beginning of the route and told Mars to go ahead. After a short while I too was allowed on to the course. It was a sunny day in mid afternoon, so the long shadows kept me constantly aware of my fellow travelers. In a labyrinth the way in is also the way out, therefore voyagers need to accommodate each other's passing on the barely wide enough for two feet passageway.

I reached the center just as Mars was leaving it, paused for several seconds, and continued on. During the journey my mind was very earthbound, as I needed to be constantly aware of where I was walking and of those around me. Still it was relaxing in the way that things requiring your full attention can sometimes be.

The next day was the Winter Solstice and the five of us went for a hike up to the appropriately named Sun Mountain near the St. John's College campus. In two hours we passed two other people and one dog on the trail -- one of whom wished us a "Happy Winter".

Cheyenne is a dogged, trail-bound hike leader, a result of her racetrack upbringing. But after a year with Monica and Bram she has learned to periodically cast aside responsibility and frolic in the snow.

However, in spite of her efforts, our group never made it to the top of Sun Mountain -- the trail was snow packed slippery and Mars and I had not yet acclimated to the high altitude. If we had summited at the precise moment when the earth's axial tilt was farthest away from the sun, who knows what would have happened.

Still, because of whom we were with and where we were, it was pretty special.

We spent Christmas morning at Monica and Bram's house exchanging presents and snacking on pastries from a local French bakery. It was low key and relaxed in spite of a few frenetic reactions from Cheyenne to her squeaky "stuffy" gifts. In mid afternoon we all walked over to and then along the banks of the nearby, and basically waterless, Santa Fe River.

That evening the five of us had dinner at S and J's -- along with two of their friends, and S's mother B. At one point B talked about how they "used to be Jewish". S, a caterer and radio host, prepared her first home-meal ham ever.

The food was great, the conversation fun. And, like the Christians and the Pagans in the Dar Williams song, we
"sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
...learning new ways from the old, and
Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold."

On previous Christmases we had gone with to the Native American dances at Cochiti Pueblo. They go on all day long an outdoor dirt plaza with rudimentary wooden seating on a small hillside at one end. There is no explanation provided, but based upon what we've seen and "Googled", it seems to be a Buffalo Dance.

The persistent drumming resonates off the surrounding houses and reverberates through the earth. J, of the above-mentioned J and J, is normally there -- wrapped in blankets with her back against the hillside, and her legs outstretched on the ground absorbing the rhythm. We sit in the bleachers and feel the beat through the soles of our feet.

But previous Christmases were sun-drenched with temperatures in the forties and fifties. This year the air was chilled to about twenty degrees -- in the warm, sunny locations. We opted out of the dances. For us spirituality requires warmer conditions.

One of Bram's gifts to Monica was a book of photos of and essays about Greyhounds, within which we discovered the story of Saint Guinefort -- a 13th Century member of that breed.

The dog had been left at home to guard an apparently otherwise unattended infant. When the father returned he found the room covered in blood, most notably surrounding the crib. Guinefort was sitting next to the child's bed with more blood on his mouth.

The father immediately shot and killed the hound with an arrow and then discovered the recently dead body of a snake -- could it be Satan? -- beneath the cradle. Guinefort had saved the infant's life, and perhaps immortal soul.

Overcome by guilt the father interred the dog and planted a grove of trees around the grave to honor it. Local villagers soon began making pilgrimages to the gravesite, miraculous events happened, and "Saint Guinefort" became an object of worship among the townspeople.

But the Catholic Church never formally canonized the Greyhound. Etienne de Bourbon, an Inquisitor, had the dog "disinterred and the sacred wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog." Guinefort was declared a heretic.

It didn't work. Up until the 1940's pilgrims continued to visit the site, praying for the protection of their children and nourishing their spirits.

Maybe next Christmas Mars and I should just forget about the monks and mazes, and spend more time getting to know the grand-dog.

(Photos by Mars - click on photo to enlarge)

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