Monday, August 03, 2009

"Come away to a deserted place" (Sunday Reflections for August 2, 2009)

I am back after a truly restful week in what has become one of my favorite places: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe, despite being the state capital, is basically a big small town. Arriving here you automatically lose the intensity of city congestion but it takes a day or two to get in its groove. No one is in a hurry so you either adjust or become endlessly frustrated. I don’t think I ever heard a car horn. The mixed language slogan on a t-shirt I saw summarizes the local philosophy: carpe mañana, “seize tomorrow.”

The “real world” indeed felt far away and suddenly much less important. I looked at a newspaper once. When (out of habit) I started scanning the news online it felt like a cloud had come over me. I usually switched quickly to either looking up new restaurants to go to or just closed the window and started playing solitaire.

Two things here put “world events” in a very different perspective: the area’s stunning natural beauty and the unparalleled density of artistic talent. You can’t help but be amazed by the shapes and colors of northern New Mexico’s high desert and mountains. And it is these which have drawn artists here for over a century, resulting in Santa Fe having the 2nd or 3rd (depending who you read) largest art market in the country with over 200 galleries to wander through.

Experiencing the Santa Fe area’s boundless natural beauty and deep reservoir of human talent, the latest political tempest in Washington can’t help but seem like an enormous waste of time and energy. Places like this force you to reexamine both your own priorities and those the world tries to dictate to us.

In a place like Santa Fe it seems so obvious that we are made to enjoy the beauty of creation and be inspired to contribute to that beauty however we can. Yet in practice we do so little of the former and so often end up doing the opposite of the latter. With so much beauty around us, why is there so much ugliness in our lives and in our relationships and in our communities?

One of the surprising ways I have come to appreciate the Southwest’s landscape and the culture of its native Indian population has been through the mystery novels of Tony Hillerman. Hillerman (who died last October at age 83) wrote eighteen books set in and around the Navajo Reservation and Four Corners region. The protagonists of his stories are Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his protégé, Sergeant Jim Chee. A prominent theme of each of Hillermann’s books is the struggle of both men to integrate their lives as Navajo and as members of the predominant white culture.

Though a belagaana (white man), the Navajo honored Hillerman with their “Special Friends of the Dineh (People) Award” for his sensitive and accurate portrayal of contemporary Navajo culture. For Hillerman, telling the story of the Indians was as important as the plot of any of his books. His stories portray both the vast beauty of the desert Southwest and the deep and life-sustaining connection between that world and the lives of Indian people.

The over-arching theme of Hillerman’s portrayal of Navajo culture is that of the need to be in “harmony” with the world. For these Navajo policemen, as important as solving the various crimes in the stories is the restoration of the hozro/harmony that is disrupted by the acts of violence they are investigating. When a person lives in such harmony, they are said to be “walking in the way of beauty.” The
New York Times article about Hillerman upon his death gave this quote:

“Everything is connected,” Jim Chee reflects in “Ghostway” (1984). “The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.”

The types of things which can disrupt one’s harmony are, of course, endless. Hillerman spends much time in his books describing the many ceremonies and rituals the Navajo use to restore harmony. He does so out of recognition of how unharmonious is much of Western culture and that the Navajo have an important lesson to teach that surrounding and dominating world.

Our need for harmony, balance, and even beauty is gradually becoming recognized and accepted. They are concepts that appear increasingly in our understanding of physical and emotional health, interpersonal relations, economics, politics, and preserving the environment. For as long as people have lived in towns and cities, we have instinctively recognized the restorative and healing power of time spent in more natural environments of forests, lakes, and mountains. How appropriate that we often call our holidays and vacations times of re-creation.

A couple weeks ago in the Gospel we heard Jesus reflect this everyday yet often forgotten wisdom. To the busy disciples he says, "‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure.” Such rest, however, is much more than recuperation from exhaustion, though that is often what we reduce it to. To restore our own essential harmony, it must be a time of grounding, centering, reestablishing balance, and yes, rediscovering beauty, in ourselves and in the world around us.

Around the beginning of the third century, as persecution grew and the decadence of many Roman cities increased, Christians began moving out to the desert and establishing monastic communities. Some of these exist yet today. In addition to the few who chose this as a life, many more found them as temporary places for refuge and retreat, opportunities to rediscover one’s life purpose and find one’s bearings.

The desert can be harsh and it’s foolish and potentially disastrous to enter it unprepared. But time spent in its barrenness also provides a unique opportunity to regain moral and spiritual clarity. We all know how our over stimulated environments can keep us even from hearing our own thoughts. How unsurprising that our lives spin out of control.

Deserts can be simulated in many places, even the corner of a room. What’s important is that in retreat and recreation, we can screen out the noise and commotion, and in silence and purity find the beauty that is both around and within us.

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