Rock-Solid Believing

Rock-Solid Believing
Lent 11

The year was 1975. A group of friends had gathered at a local pub. The conversation turned to pets and the problems the owners were having. The one without an animal waiting for him at home came up with an idea for the perfect pet. The perfect pet, he deduced, was one that would not need exercising, to be fed, fail to obey, need grooming, or could become ill. In short, it was decided that the perfect pet would be a rock. The evening ended with everyone laughing over the perfect pet and then returning to their respective homes. Gary Dahl decided he had come up with what really was the perfect pet, however, and he developed the idea. Within two years he was a millionaire and pet rocks were the new trend.

Rocks have been around as long as mankind, longer depending upon which story of creation one believes. Patricia Farmer, author of the book “Embracing a Beautiful God”, lives in Ecuador and considers admiring rocks to be an everyday spiritual opportunity. Rocks represent symbols of eternity to Farmer and are a connection with primal people who saw in rocks the faces of gods and spirits. Since they hold the heat of the sun, Farmer describes rocks as “the perfect vehicles for the re-enchantment of nature”. Rocks afford comfort and healing as well as being objects of play.

Rocks have long been involved with spirituality and were the first altars of mankind. Practitioners of Shinto in Asia participate in shamanistic rock worship. They feel rocks give off a spiritual energy. This energy not only enables people to worship but to also recognize a universal life force. In Suiseki, a form of rock appreciation, rocks represent the mountains, the home of the highest deities. Rocks formed in animal shapes represent the energy of the corresponding animal. Rocks falling from space were gifts from the gods to primitive man. These bits of meteorites as well as volcanic rocks were considered mementos and messages from the spirits and thus were revered greatly.

From the Valley of the Chiefs in Montana to Ubirr in the Northern Territory of Australia, mankind’s art has been displayed on rocks, cliffs, and in caves. Sierra de San Francisco, a part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in Mexico boasts vividly colored rock paintings of both hunters and wildlife. It is believed these were made from 1100 to 1300 ACE by a long-forgotten culture of giants. The oldest rock art in the western hemisphere dates back to 7370 BCE and is in Argentina. Located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the Cave of Hands contains hundreds of human hands drawn on the cave walls.

Sometimes entire civilizations are reduced to piles of rocks and stones. The ruins of Machu Picchu tell the story of an ancient civilization in southeastern Peru. Once an empire as large as the Roman Empire, the city of Machu Picchu lasted less than one hundred years, a victim of Spanish conquerors and civil wars. Abandoned in the fifteenth century, it was swallowed by the surrounding forests until it was rediscovered in 1911 by archaeologist Hiram Bingham. The ruins tell of crumbling temples, ornate palaces, and a thriving world that is now just rock amid the growing vines clinging to the vertical hills of the region.

For decades, the spirituality of rocks representing spirits seemed to be evidenced in the so-called “sailing stones” of Death Valley. Death Valley is a national park located in the Mohave Desert region of California in the United States of America. Death Valley is basically a barren basin which contains the lowest elevation in North America, situated only eighty-four miles from the highest elevation in the continental USA.

The sailing stones were studied and filmed as scientists tried to determine what was causing them to move. What was proven was that the rocks did indeed move and that they moved on their own. However, no one was able to figure out what made them move. Thus, as they appeared to sail across the basin floor, many felt spirits moved them. Others blamed the pull of the earth’s magnetic force. After all, some of the rocks weighed several hundred pounds and as they moved, they left tracks in the sand. Considered a geological mystery, some rocks traveled as far as fifteen hundred feet.

Recently, a team of scientists finally solved the reason behind the phenomenon of the sailing stones. As the weather changed in the area, jagged plates of ice would form. Upon heating by the sun, these plates of thin ice would break and due to gravity and the movement of the earth, would push the rocks across the flooded playa. When wind was added to the equation, the rocks would move across the wet mud and sand.

Sometimes we become rocks. We sit and vegetate until something moves us to…well, move. In finding the sacred in our every day, we cannot allow ourselves to be stagnant. We have to become the story that the rock art tells, not the rock upon which someone else’s story is written. We cannot blame anyone for our lives becoming ruins except ourselves. Sometimes tragedy occurs and often people are mean. We still have the power to control how we respond.

The typical rock is a jagged piece of stone. What turns these uneven pieces of compacted life-material into art or gems is friction. A polished stone is one that has been made smooth by water or the pressure of other stones. Contact with life turns an unpolished rock into a beautiful, valued stone. We are much the same. It is the person who has been tested by life that has the most interesting layers of beauty. We all experience turmoil, grief, problems. We cannot allow these things to cause us to hide between stone walls or to become nothing more than pet rocks that simply exist. By keeping our beliefs as the touchstones for our living, we stay connected to our world, our spirituality, and ourselves. Then the light of the world and the sun will shine not only on us but in us. The purpose of life is to take the friction it brings and polish ourselves from mere rocks into jewels of and for humanity.

Trinkets of Meaning

Trinkets of Meaning
Lent 10

It is said that there are four stages of experiencing a moment of happiness. They are the anticipation; the experience of the moment itself; expressing the happiness of the moment, either to yourself or to another; reflecting on the memory of the moment of happiness. This, researchers claim, is why we keep mementos. These treasures from our past help us not only remember the special moment but they provide a connection to all aspects of the moment. Whether it is a love letter, a picture, or a special book, such items are a testament to our lives. These connections are an education of who we were, what we did, and what we believed. These lessons about our past can often foretell our future.

In a research paper about family homes written in 1981, scientists Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton found meaning to be the ultimate goal of people. “People need to know that they are remembered and loved [and …] that their individual self is part of some greater design beyond the fleeting span of mortal years.” With this values-oriented perspective, the home becomes a place of memories. We create our home environments to express and reinforce such memories.

To this end, mankind has kept the mementos of spirituality and religion. These relics are often objects used by or bodily remains of a person deemed important to the particular faith. The word relic comes from the Latin “reliquiae” which translates as “remains” or “something left behind”. It is the same root word that the word relinquish comes from which makes for an interesting connection itself. Relics are used to remind us of the faith and to strengthen the resolve the faith requires. They are not simply the structure of the faith nor factual information. They provide a real connection to others who have lived the faith, walked the spiritual path on which we have chosen to embark.

The types of objects that become relics are things that speak of humanity – bodily remains, objects used in worship, or objects used in the martyrdom of the devout. The Basilica of Santa Croce is a reliquary in Rome, Italy which houses thorns, three wooden fragments, and a nail which are all said to be part of the crucifixion of the man known as Jesus Christ. Both Charlemagne and Napoleon were crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy which resides in Monza, Italy. The Iron Crown is a thin band of plain iron 1 cm or .4 inches thick but it is said to be made from a nail also from the crucifixion of Jesus.

The sacred relics found within reliquaries and other places of worship are not just reminders of important events or people. They afford us a relationship and become joint activities. The viewing or even touching of these artifacts connect us and become our own personal events. Their identity give us an identity and remind us that the path is not always smooth or easy but it is of value. They also hold moral value for us and, in that way, serve as not only a bond but a lesson and example for our own evolution of living.

These relics are also ties into the cognitive aspects of how we learn and remember. As we age, research has shown that we tend to remember things from the perspective of an observer rather than from active participation. Sacred mementos in our lives help us remember not only autobiographical things but the biography of our faith and beliefs. They can serve as tools for self-disclosure and to deepen our social connections. These relics express various aspects of our faiths. The housing of such relics led to the building of temples and churches as well as pilgrimages to view them. The economic effect on the routes of these pilgrimages and relics was enormous. Souvenirs were produced and sold; hostels built to house the travelers; artists employed. Mankind traveled to places of sacred items and in doing so, formed more social bonds with which to exercise their beliefs.

Today the world is full of both relics and counterfeit relics. It was inevitable. What is perhaps of greater importance is not the counterfeit relic being sold in a foreign country but the counterfeit belief we are living in our own backyards. Technology has made rapid advancements for the individual and yet, while photographs can now be stored digitally, the 2009 Whittaker et al research study showed that most people were unable to retrieve forty percent of such photos stored on computers after the passing of a year. The number of old-school items and digital files representing the sacred items of our own lives rapidly increases each year.

People are living in larger homes with less actual living space. We have the ability to digitize the sacred mementos of our lives but fail to become the necessary digital curators of such. In the process of living our busy lives we are losing the sacred aspects of our living. Recently I spent two hours looking for a book I have and have read but could not find amid the myriad of other books stacked on my various tables and desk. In the process I went through several stacks of papers. I should have thrown away a garbage can full of unnecessary papers but instead employed tunnel vision and was interested only in that particular book. I found another book on feng shui (the topic at hand) but never did, amid all the clutter and chaos, find the book. The irony of my search speaks volumes to our topic – my precious reference relic is titled “Unclutter Your Life”.

We are a world of hoarders. Whether the reason is that we live in uncertain economic times and so we might one day need that item so we put it up in a closet or whether we are just so focused on the minute we are living that we forget that others will follow which will need their own space, we live amid the chaos of the past. Most of these items do not hold meaning for us nor do they provide joy or peace. They are not meaning relics which connect us to who we are but are simply things. The word relic come from a root word which also gives us the word “relinquish”. This weekend I will strive to relinquish some of my clutter in order to give meaning to the sacred in my life. Who knows? I might even find that book! For certain, I will find the sacred and the peace, not only in my persona living space but in my soul.

Look; Don’t Touch!

Look; Don’t Touch!
Lent 9

Karl Popper once asked: “And who shows greater reverence for mystery – the scientist who devotes himself to discovering it step by step, always ready to submit to facts, and always aware that even his boldest achievement will never be more than a stepping-stone for those who come after him, or the mystic who is free to maintain anything because he need not fear any test?” In the world’s reliquaries, we find the answer is….both.

A reliquary is an object designed to house those things deemed sacred. Much like a young girl’s jewelry box which houses movie tickets from her first date or an out-of-date dictionary used to press a rose from a first corsage, reliquaries are the holding place for the holiest of material holies. From a beautiful Madonna and child in the Gothic Reliquary at The Cloisters in New York City to the telling of the story of Saint Ursula on a wooden house structure replete with oil paintings as siding, reliquaries provide physical connections to our spiritual beliefs.

Albert Schweitzer once said “Just as white light consists of colored rays, so reverence for life contains all the components of ethics: love, kindliness, sympathy, empathy, peacefulness and power to forgive.” Reliquaries not only represent the stories upon which faith is based, they also give evidence of the faithful in their lives and in their deaths. The Topkapi Palace in Turkey contains revered relics of the Prophet Mohammed. His sword and bow as well as soil from his grave, hair from his beard are housed with a cast of his footprint in stone. The Koran is recited continuously next to these artifacts. Dubrovnik, Croatia is home to an Armenian bishop thought to have saved the city from a Venetian attack. The skull of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, Saint Blaise, is encased in a silver and gold filigreed crown, part of the town’s celebration on his birthday, February 3rd.

Not all reliquaries are ornate or man-made. In Myanmar there sits a precariously balanced rock, situated on a cliff over a gorge. It is said that a single hair of Buddha’s hair has kept the Golden Rock from falling. The destination of many pilgrims, who bring gold leaf to rub on the rock which now has a gilded appearance, the golden boulder and the rock table on which it rests are actually independent of one another. Atop the boulder is the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda. Really more a complex than just one structure, there are viewing platforms, pagodas, and Buddha shrines which are reached via a staircase. A circle of gongs are located nearby with statues of nats, mischievous Burmese spirits, and angels in the center of the circle. On Full Moon Day, which is in March, the platform of the pagoda is awash in the light of ninety thousand candles, an offering of reverence to Buddha.

We also are reliquaries. Our bodies were gifts to us, whether you believe they are from a Creator or Great Spirit or through evolution. Our very lives are living proof and our daily living should be testament to the gift of life we have received. Reliquaries are not just museums. Museums exist to hold antiquities. Reliquaries hold artifacts but the very holding gives life to our spirituality and our faith. The objects of a museum are appreciated for their having been. The objects within a reliquary lead one into the future and connect with the past. They are evidence and proof of what has been but also provide hope for what might be.

Thomas Jefferson, considered the author of the United States Constitution, defended the document’s amendments saying: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched… Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

We should not use the objects within our reliquaries as an excuse to become stagnant. Neither should religion be used as an excuse to deny mankind – any part of mankind – the basic rights of human dignity, education, health, and freedom. Our very existence on this planet is sacred and our actions should reflect that. Earth is our reliquary and each person’s life on it is a sacred object.

Humanitarian, actor, celebrity, and educator Oprah Winfrey once stated: “Living in the moment brings you a sense of reverence for all of life’s blessings.” How we live is a sign of our spirituality and what we worship. “Finding the sacred” in the everyday means looking inward and then living that sacred outwardly. The best way to find the sacred is to realize the reverence of life. “If”, spoke Albert Schweitzer, “a man loses his reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life.” The greatest reliquary is our planet and we are, truly, sacred objects.

Going Around in Circles

Going Around in Circles
Epiphany 8

“What goes up must come down. Spinning wheel got to go round. Talking ‘bout your troubles and they never end….” The popular song from the 1970’s made a household name, at least to teenagers, of the group “Blood, Sweat and Tears”. Their parents were telling them to study hard and play wisely because it took blood, sweat and tears to make a good living. In their typical teenage rebellion to be unique and shake off their parents’ traditional lifestyles, they found themselves right back where they had started with the same philosophies. The process of living was a big circle and they were going along for the ride.

The cycles of life have long held meaning for the cultures of the world. One thought to be flat, the orb-like structure of the planet became the symbol for life itself. In understanding the world, mankind utilized what we call the arts to explore, to illustrate, and from which to learn. Over time these artistic endeavors and art forms became sacred, held great meaning. Sacred art is said to change the viewer.

One such art form is the mandala. From an Indian word Sanskrit word that can translate as “circle”, a mandala is much more than just a pretty drawing with the outline of a circle. A mandala is a complex thing of beauty that is said to offer solace, comfort, and hope to its viewer. It draws the attention inward and offers a reason to move forward, to walk the path of life. It is that intention, that purpose that defines its sacredness.

Mandalas offer a sense of wholeness and relationship. Life itself is a series of complex circles and the diagrams found within a mandala remind us of the interrelated circles of family, friends, and community. Used by the Aztecs to keep time, mandalas are found in many cultures and religions. Saint Hildegard von Bingen was a Christian nun who used mandalas to illustrate her visions. Other American Indian tribes used mandalas as healing circles. The Tao symbol of yin-yang represents both the interdependence we have in life as well as the opposition found in living. Monks in Tibet believed the mandala illustrated the impermanence of life and used them for meditation. Like the American Indians, they made their mandalas from sand. Today these Tibetan monks travel around the world making their mandalas.

The Tibetan mandala is made from sand, colored sand derived from crushing natural stones, some of which are semi-precious gem stones. While the outside shape of a mandala is circular, inside there are many other complex shapes. All of geometry can be found within a mandala and it often requires days to complete the intricate designs. While they represent the impermanence of life, the mandala itself is temporary. Upon completion, Tibetan monks hold a joyous and colorful ceremony with chanting and an even larger circle of spectators and creators. The mandala is then swept up and the sand gathered into jars which are then carried to a nearby body of water and emptied. Thus the circle is truly complete – from the water which gave it life and the sand, the parts of the mandala return.

Man has been building structures based around a core or center for centuries. It is one of the basic principles of architecture. The Christian cathedral, the Muslim mosque, the Jewish temple, or the Buddhist stupa all represent the symbolism of the center which then moves outward. Even the American Indian teepee is built around a center pole, the axis, also symbolic of the world axis. Architect Buckminster Fuller utilized this concept with geodesic designs. His dome structure portrays a high ration of enclosed area to external surface area with all the structural parts equal to the whole. What a great metaphor for us to try to emulate in life!

Carl Jung once said that a mandala illustrated “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” He went further in saying that a mandala was “a synthesis of distinctive elements in a unified scheme representing the basic nature of existence.” Tibetan Buddhists believe the mandala represents what they call the “five excellencies”: the teacher, the message, the audience, the site, the time. The historical Buddha often discussed the impermanence of existence. Tibetan Buddhism drew from the Indian Buddhist beliefs of individual enlightenment, the liberation of all beings, and the development of compassion while exploring the nature of reality.

A mandala is much more than a pretty geometric picture, however. The visual appeal is simply a door to help one focus on the task at hand. The mandala is said to be so intricate that it calms the brain and allows it to focus on the task at hand, whether that is healing, enlightenment, or simply relaxation. Mandalas are not just to be viewed; they can be physically explored.

A labyrinth is a mandala one walks. Unlike a maze, whose purpose is to confuse and challenge, The mandala, a word which can also be translated as “completeness”, is a guided walk towards the center. There is a single path in a labyrinth so the mind can relax and the feet simply walk the only path possible. Australian aborigines, Hopi Indians, Tibetan monks, Buddhist believers, and Christian builders all have utilized labyrinths. These archetypal symbols seem grounded in the very essence of life and living and are walked by people of all socioeconomic levels, ages, and cultures.

George Eliot wrote in the book “Middlemarch”: “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.” The making of a labyrinth begins with a line, a simple straight line. Another line is drawn to intersect and then those two lines are outlined with other lines. Soon, though, an arc is drawn to connect one line to one of the outlined lines. The circle forms by the addition of more arcs and the path becomes clear.

We tend to walk through life, seeing intersections that stop as dead ends. Perhaps the seemingly dead-ends are really offering us a chance to simply draw an arc and then provide a connection. Mary Frances Winters described life this way: “Life is like a series of concentric circles. You start in the middle and keep moving out, interconnecting circle after interconnecting circle, expanding your world, your views, and your joy.” Our walk of life will not be smooth. Nothing about life is ever perfect. In the midst of its imperfections, though, is the meaning, the sacred walk that gives us much to consider and much to learn.

The Steep Climb

The Steep Climb
Epiphany 7

In her book “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen asks: “What are men to rocks and mountains?” It is a question we would do well to ask ourselves about everything we see. What is our relationship to our world? How are we affecting it? At this point, some are probably thinking about ecological concerns, the use of natural resources, etc. Those are valid concerns and definitely things we should consider and conserve. However, what about that endangered species known as the man or woman who lives a peace-causing life – not a peaceful life but a peace-causing life?

Life is hard and nature exists not only to give us that life but to help us live it. Life is a gift; it is beautiful; it is self-creating. It is also messy. It is confusing. It is wrought with twists and turns and potential pitfalls. Our worst enemy is not someone else but ourselves. The very things that make humans unique can also make them monsters. Getting through the twenty-four hours of a day can be a very twisted path at times.

Perhaps that is why mankind has found solace along the bumps of the road of life in the bumps on the landscape of our being. Mountains have been sources of reverence and solace for every culture. John Muir wrote: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

Mountains stand out and proclaim their uniqueness. As religions began to speak of an eternal resting place in the heavens, the symbolism of a mountain stretching upward could not be ignored. Some believed that the vertical axis of a mountain, drawn from its tops to its base, connected it to the earth’s axis. Both Mount Tabor and Mount Meru were thought by the Jews and Hindus, respectively, to be the center of the earth. The ancient Greeks believed their god Zeus was born and raised on a mountain. There were over one hundred mountain cults dedicated to him. The Tibetan mountain Mount Kailas is a site revered by Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains. Located by the Ganges River, it serves the Buddhists as a place of pilgrimage, a natural Mandela (a sacred reverence we will discuss later in this series).

Shintoists in Japan believe Mount Fuji or Fugiyama to be sacred. Originally the sacred mountain of the Ainu, the aboriginal peoples of Japan, it was named after the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi. China has nine sacred mountains with four being of importance to the Buddhist faith and five to Taoists. The Tao belief holds that mountains are a way for people to communicate with the “immortals”. These mountains of China are said to be strong in telluric power, also known as geomancy in feng shui. Tellueric power refers to a current known as the dragon current which is believed to run through the earth. This dragon current consists of the yin or female and the yang or male. It is believed that mountains embody the yang force.

Vera Nazarian once said: “If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options. You can climb it and cross to the other side. You can go around it. You can dig under it. You can fly over it. You can blow it up. You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there. You can turn around and go back the way you came. Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” The Incas made attempts to do most of these things with the mountains of their native lands. Their villages were built in and on the mountains and their worship was all about the mountains. Their sacrifices were at the top of the mountains and so was the final resting place of their dead.

Nazarian could have been discussing the process of living and the daily hurdles we encounter. We have, in our lives, several ways of confronting life. We can stay the course and climb over the hurdles we encounter. We can detour around the difficulties in our path. We can also work through our problems, digging to the root of them to prevent them from reoccurring. We can also take what is called the “high road” of behavior and respond with maturity, kindness, and the knowledge that we are only truly able to control ourselves and should stop trying to live other people’s lives for them. There is always the option of giving up, of returning to whatever place and state you originally came from because the going seemed too rough. Finally we can accept our place and be comfortable where we are as we are with who we are.

“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West,” believed Robert McFarlane in his book “Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit”. While I might add that his beliefs in their importance to modern man was reflected in the culture of ancient man, I think he is right in telling of how mountains are gaining recognition for our modern-day world. “More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.”

While McFarlane sees the rational place of mountains, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu wrote of their place in our imaginations: “There is no such sense of solitude as that which we experience upon the silent and vast elevations of great mountains. Lifted high above the level of human sounds and habitations, among the wild expanses and colossal features of Nature, we are thrilled in our loneliness with a strange fear and elation – an ascent above the reach of life’s expectations or companionship, and the tremblings of wild and undefined misgivings.”

We need the modesty that mountains give us. We need the reminder that we are not all life is about but that we are just a small piece of a much larger picture. We also need the silence of the mountains and their uncertain landscape. Life has its own landscape and the topography of our lies changes with time, growth, and encounters with others. We find comfort in the steadfastness of mountains, in their strength to withstand the elements. Mountains remind us of who we are – mere mortals. They are living laboratories of life and testaments of nature’s cycles. Perhaps one day we will recognize that we too have that power and we also can either be a temple of solace and peace, encouraging growth, or we can be mere real estate that holds dead dreams. The choice is up to us. We can merely exist or we can stand tall and brave the living.

Keeping Watch

Keeping Watch
Epiphany 6

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” As I write this, it has been an interesting week. Cold weather has blanketed much of the eastern United States. It was predicted and utility companies, law enforcement agencies, and emergency responders all were on call to be of service. With sections of major roadways shut down, travelers stranded, and entire parts of states and towns without power, they were needed.

It was also a week where the ridiculous emotion of discrimination made its useless and ugly presence known. With the killing of people in Denmark that seemed to be somewhat targeted due to their religious beliefs and more beheaded simply because their tormenters erroneously think it shows power, it was a week when too many people stopped breathing, their lives needlessly ended.

Yesterday I wrote about the oldest of sacred spires, those in nature. The ancient and today’s growing trees stand vigil over the earth, a testament of what can be as they adapt, survive, and thrive in spite of the weather and what mankind has done to their natural habitat and food sources. The word vigil comes from the Latin “vigilia” which means “wakefulness”. A vigil is not just the state of being awake, the opposite of sleep. A vigil is a purposeful wakefulness.

Prayer vigils are kept as loved ones pray over the infirmed. Candles are sometimes lit, some say simply because the vigil usually lasts long hours and others believing it helps the spoken hopes find their way to a listening deity. Vigils are also said when someone is mourned. IN the Jewish faith, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim prayers are recited constantly. AS Africans were forcibly immigrated to the New World, they brought with them the custom of someone maintain watch or keeping a vigil with a deceased person until the burial.

The modern-day Italian version of the word vigil has also come to mean “eve”. Christians took the practice of keeping a vigil and applied it to the twenty-four hours prior to their high holdy day celebrations. Thus, Easter Eve known as Easter Even and Christmas Eve have nighttime masses or services said. In some religions, a vigil is kept from Maundy Thursday until the Good Friday services, based upon the religious writings that told of the prophet Jesus requesting his disciples to stay awake with him.

During the Middle Ages, knights and other warriors would sometimes require those about to enter their ranks to hold a vigil. The life of the knight was considered one of great spirituality and the vigil was a cleansing of sorts. Those about to be knighted would then be bathed and dressed in a white robe over which a red robe would be added to illustrate their willingness and expectation of giving their blood for their cause and monarch.

Today the vigil is most generally seen in the days leading up to a big release of electronic products or tennis shoes that are expected to become collector items. The morning talk shows in New York City often have people keeping a vigil for seat prior to an open-air concert by a leading musical group or artist. And yet, people say they have no time to volunteer.

This past weekend two vigils were kept. One was in Hollywood as people sat, claiming their seats to watch movie stars and other notable people connected with the film industry arrive and walk the red carpet on Sunday evening as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded their most coveted prize, the Oscar. This year’s film also portrayed vigils of different types. One honored the vigil a man continues to keep as his body succumbs to a debilitating disease that has taken practically everything except his brilliant mind. Another was in itself a vigil as those involved with the film kept a twelve-year vigil in its making. Another film marked the beginning of the ongoing vigil we all should be a part of – the vigil of insuring freedom and dignity for all people of all colors, the dream that all lives have value and matter.

Another vigil was held in Oslo on Saturday. One thousand people of one faith, the Muslim faith, formed what they called a “Ring of Peace”. They were from different sects of Islam and different cultural backgrounds. They were united, however, is their belief that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia should be stopped. Their vigil was a memorial to those injured and the two killed in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that,” Zeeshan Abdullah, a protect organizer told those gathered at Norway’s only Jewish synagogue. “There are many more peace mongers than warmongers. There’s still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds.”

We all keep a vigil of our life. We call it living. Sadly, though, some cannot maintain their vigil. They are made to feel ashamed because of their status, their color, their gender, their beliefs, their age, their preferences, their very being. There are many people in the world ready to say “You can’t” and very few shouting “Yes, You can.” Fear of those different or perceived different overrides the vigil we all should be keeping of our being a part of the larger whole that is existence.

At the Oscars last night, screenwriter Graham Moore reveled he almost stopped the vigil of his own life at age 16. In expressing his gratitude, the writer of the movie “Imitation Game” said: “I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”

None of the trees mentioned yesterday were of the same variety and yet, they have stood their vigil over mankind, giving root to man’s own existence for centuries. They each are unique and were just the tip of the plethora of vigilant trees that live on this planet. They revel in their uniqueness and serve as a shining example to all of us in the vigil that is our lives. We were made unique. We made to have value and we should bask in that – for ourselves and for others. The killing of one who is perceived different, whether by actually taking their lives or by bullying and killing their souls, benefits no one. It is not a sign a of power to take something from another; it is cowardice in action.

Vigils are meditative periods, time to realize what we have and, sometimes, what has passed. I hope you find the sacred in your life vigil today. The first place to look is in your mirror. Then look into the face of the person standing next to you, the face of a friend, and yes, even the face of an enemy. All have their moment of sacred. Then perhaps we can all join in a ring of peace world wide – a vigil for living.

Sacred Spires in Nature

Sacred Spires in Nature
Epiphany 5

The Aztecs called them Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, star-crossed lovers turned to smoking mountains. Two miles high in the Andes, it is believed that the birthplace of the sun lies, amid the bitingly cold air blowing across azure waters. Nature and spirituality have been tightly entwined ever since the first man opened his eyes. While mankind today erects steel, glass, and concrete edifices to commemorate its own success, nature has stood as evidence that everything has the potential to be sacred.

Located in the White mountains of California in the United States of America, there stands a sacred spire four thousand, eight hundred and forty-one years old. The bristlecone pine, known as Methuselah, is part of the Inyo National Forest. As such, it was thought to be the oldest non-clonal organism on the planet. Then an older bristlecone pine was discovered nearby. Its age is estimated to be over five thousand years old. That means it was germinated in 3051 BCE. Both trees are found on north-facing slopes.

The tetrameles nudiflora is a large deciduous tree found in the southern part of Asia and into northern Australia. The most famous such tree grows in Cambodia, having become a part of the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple, erected and consecrated in 1191 ACE. The large Banyan tree has kept growing despite the abandonment of the temple over the many years of Cambodia’s violent history and political struggles and genocide. Massive tree roots now cover walls which were once adorned with carvings and jewels. The movie “Tomb Raider” selected the location of the sacred trees at Ta Prohm as the setting for some of the film’s scenes. The temple once built because of its beautiful location is now tended by the huge trees which have made it part of their structure.

You might expect a tree at a botanical garden but one yew tree at Kew Botanical Garden in West Sussex qualifies as ancient with one being six hundred and twenty years old. It is said to have been planted in 1391. The yew tree has adapted to its environment with gnarled roots that tightly grasp the uneven ground it calls home. However, this is not England’s oldest yew tree. That distinction goes to a yew tree growing in a churchyard in Llangernyw in Wales. The St. Dygain’s Parish tree was planted sometime during the Bronze Age.

The Zoroastrian Sarv, or Sarv-e Abarqu, is a cypress tree which can be found in Yazd province, Iran. It is estimated to be four thousand years old and considered an Iranian national monument and the oldest living thing in Asia. Because of the creation mythologies of the area, Sarv is considered to have lived through and witnessed the birth of civilization. The Andes Mountains also lay claim to ancient trees. The Alerce or Fitzroya cupressoides is a towering tree and the oldest living specimen is thought to be three thousand, six hundred and forty years old.

Other majestic and ancient trees are considered worship sites around the world. The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria and the sacred forest of Rambakurimwa in Zimbabwe are both places where man and nature intertwine. The Cedars of God in Lebanon are cedars of antiquity and the tree is mentioned one hundred and three times in the Bible. Buddhist monks reverently tend the Bo-Tree in Sri Lanka. It dates back to 245 BCE and is said to be a cutting from Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment in India.

In her book “How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet”, Jean Shinoda Bolen writes: “The tree is a powerful symbol. Trees appear in many creation stories, such as the World Ash or the Garden of Eden. Religions, especially the Druids, have revered trees. Buddha was enlightened sitting under a Bodhi tree. Christmas is celebrated by decorating Christmas trees. There are sacred trees throughout the world. As I went deeper and deeper into the subject of trees, I entered a complex and diverse forest of knowledge, from archeological to mystical. I learned that we wouldn’t be here at all — we, the mammals and humans on this planet — if not for trees.”

Herman Hesse also spoke of the importance of trees and their place in a spiritual world. “For me,” he said, “trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier; nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow. Trees are sanctuaries.

Amid the hills of Flora, Mississippi lies a forest of ancient trees, stone trees. When living, the trees stood well over one hundred feet tall and were most likely over a thousand years old. Within sixty to eighty miles of the Mississippi River, the trees had their own flood story. Whether the Mississippi River or one of the many nearby, one river flooded and ripped apart everything in the river current’s path. AS snow melts from the north caused additional flooding over the years, the remains of the trees sank, New floods covered them up as well as bringing more to join them. The rich silt and sand covered the trees. Decay set in and then they became petrified. The Ice age brought glaciers which moved southward. Gradual warming of the earth resulted in glacier dust being deposited on top of the petrified trees. In time grasses grew up in place of the dust, only to be washed away by soil erosion. Storms created ravines and gullies which unearthed and revealed the stone logs.

Petrified trees are found in every state in the United States and in many countries. The Petrified Forest of Mississippi, however, is the only such forest east of the Mississippi River. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons trees give us comes from the Petrified Forest. We must daily renew our spirits or else we too will become buried by the pressure of the world and the demands of living. We cannot allow our morals and beliefs to become buried by society’s trends or the behavior of the “in crowd”. Neither should we close ourselves off and let our hearts become numb to the rest of the world.

Hesse believed “A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail. A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers; I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”

We speak of family trees and they are our connection with our past and our present. Our greatest connection, though, is how we live, how we stand, where we stand. The tree grows upward, never looking to go back into the ground but adapting to what challenges in life it encounters. The tree offers us a haven, a retreat in which to remember the sacred miracle of our own being. The strongest part of a tree is not the prettiest. Its roots give it a solid foundation and with its boughs, its limbs, it is constantly reaching upward. In its sacred being, the tree knows one must continually grow.