I have just gotten back from vacation. We went to New Mexico – Albuquerque actually. Just sort of picked a place on the map making sure it wasn’t too near any relatives.
“Oh, do you know someone there?” “No.”
“Have you ever been there before?” “No.”
“What are you doing to do?” “Dunno.”
That was the whole point. No agendas, no itinerary, no “oh, we should stop at so-and-so’s on the way.” Vacation.
I have never been to the desert, and I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the beauty, the surprising diversity, and the vastness. I loved the vastness. Perhaps it is in my genes to a bit, having grown up on Illinois prairie and used to wide open spaces. But Illinois prairie is still covered with grasses, corn, soy beans, silos, and trees. The desert makes you look for the little things while dazzling you with a seemingly never-ending vista.
After a couple of days nursing bitter colds, we went to the Petroglyph National Monument. There the U.S. Park Service cares for ancient carvings on volcanic rock in three different canyons. We went to Beta Negra Canyon and hiked the trails, taking snaps of the gyphs in the morning sun. Despite other people hiking the trails – some louder than others – and despite my continued drippy nose and bronchial cough, I was surprised by what I encountered on those rocks. The Holy.
With housing development right up to the boundaries of the park and the occasional cackling from groups of tourists, I did not expect to be overcome by the presence of the Holy in this place. But The Holy leached out from the rock, swirled throughout the canyon, and created peace in a place on top of “civilization.” The brutality and beauty of creation came upon me in waves as my tennis shoes climbed and slipped over “the path.” What a metaphor for our lives in general – struggling along the path that the Divine beckons us to while distractions constantly surround us.
Later that day, we hopped into the rental and drove out to the Acoma Reservation to visit the cultural center and pueblo. We were truly out in the desert, colorful geology around us in the mesas. After a round through the cultural center, waiting for the bus to take us up to the pueblo, we went outside to visit some of the resident artists. We spoke with an Acoma woman named Sharon, who not only showed us her pottery, but explained her spiritual experience in making it. Techniques handed down for generations. “This is all prayer,” she said. “We pray while we are making the pots, and the pots are prayer.” As she translated the symbols on a tiny vessel, she shared, “My grandfather said that you cannot paint if you are in a bad mood. You must be thinking – praying – good things.” Sharon chuckled. “I know. I have
tried to paint when I have been angry. It doesn’t work.” Her confession of her own faults, and her wisdom to a total stranger astonished me. I had received an unexpected gift of The Word through this woman.
Conrad was the man who was our tour guide through the pueblo. As he walked us through the village, explaining his people’s history, their lifestyle, their beliefs, he showed us exceptional hospitality and consideration.
I cannot begin to retell all that he taught us that afternoon. In his voice, though, was reverence. There is no electricity or plumbing at the pueblo; it is Holy ground. It is a great honor to live on the mesa for periods of time. (Everyone has another home in a village that is not accessible to outsiders.) Here the unforgiving sun and the ancient buildings with their restorations and additions told of a people’s endurance and vitality – an endurance and vitality that they acknowledge as a gift from the Sacred One.
When I went on vacation, I had not planned on a spiritual pilgrimage. But there you have it. Among the petroglyph rocks, among the Acoma, at the top of Sandria Crest, in Chaco Canyon in thousand year old ruins, on the trails up to dormant volcanos, and in historic churches. All of it was a spiritual pilgrimage that I had not planned, did not expect, and so needed. An unexpected gift from the Sacred One.