Tea with Rinpoche

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Arjia Rinpoche is director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana (photo by TMBCC)

If you’re not Tibetan, your first question is likely this: what is a Rinpoche?

The word (pronounced Rin-poe-che) means “precious one” in Tibetan and is a title given to a highly esteemed spiritual leader. He–for almost all are men–gives of himself to others without hesitation, working for the good of all sentient beings. Some are also recognized as a tulku, meaning that they are believed to be reincarnations of a venerated lama (teacher) of the past.

In Bloomington, Indiana, last week, Bob and I had tea with one of these Tibetan spiritual masters, and it was such a remarkable experience that I want to tell you about it.

We met the Venerable Arjia Rinpoche at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (which I’ve written about previously on the Holy Rover). Our friend Lisa Morrison, who is both a writing colleague and a board member of the center, asked if we would like an audience with Arjia Rinpoche. It was, of course, an invitation that we wouldn’t dream of refusing.

cover_front_medWhile I had been at the center before, I’d not had the chance to meet Rinpoche (as they call him). But I knew his story through his powerful autobiography, Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule. Of Mongolian descent, Arjia was recognized at the age of two as the reincarnated abbot of Kumbum, one of Tibet’s major monasteries. He spent his early childhood being trained as a spiritual leader, until the Chinese took over his monastery during the the Cultural Revolution. Many of its members were tortured and Arjia was sent to a labor camp for 16 years. Eventually his usefulness was recognized by the Chinese, who appointed him as abbot of his former monastery, only this time under their control. In 1998 he could no longer in good conscience continue to serve as abbot and escaped to the U.S. As one of the highest-ranking Tibetan lamas to have fled to the West, he was appointed by the Dalai Lama in 2005 to serve as the director of the center in Bloomington.

Rinpoche’s dramatic life story passed through my mind as we entered his modest home on the grounds of the temple complex. On the outside it looked like a standard suburban house, but inside it was decorated with the ornate iconography of Tibet. After removing our shoes, we were ushered into a small sitting room by a young monk, who served us tea and a delicious homemade cake. As I sipped the tea, I grew a bit nervous, never having met a Rinpoche before.

A few minutes later, Rinpoche appeared, and within a couple of minutes I realized that my apprehension was totally unwarranted.

One of the truths found in all religions, I think, is that if someone has done their spiritual homework, it shows in how they treat people. And there is something about Tibetan Buddhism that shapes its practitioners in beautiful ways. You’ve all seen photos, I’m sure, of the beatific countenance of the Dalai Lama, who exudes both wisdom and a puckish sense of delight in the world. When I met Arjia Rinpoche, I was struck by how similar his manner was, only instead of being on a stage in front of thousands of people, he was sitting across from us, beaming and smiling. Despite a schedule that I’m sure is packed with important details and meetings, he acted as if we were the most important people in the world to him. He shook our hands warmly, urged us to eat our pieces of cake, and seemed as if he had been waiting all day to see us.

We visited for nearly an hour with Rinpoche (who speaks excellent English). We talked to him about how much we liked his book, the future of the center in Bloomington, and the state of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. The only time a cloud passed over his features was when he told us that he was not allowed to return to his home in Tibet, even to visit.

And then, because we felt so comfortable, the conversation turned more personal. Bob and I asked him questions that related to our own spiritual lives. We were struck by the care and attention with which he answered them. In one sense his advice wasn’t new to us (for honestly, most spiritual truths aren’t that complicated, at least until you try to put them into practice). But because of who he was, how much he had suffered, and how his wisdom was so hard won, his words seemed to penetrate into our hearts. I recalled that Lisa Morrison had told us that when Rinpoche visits Mongolia, people line the streets and hold up their babies to be blessed by him. It was as if a light blazed from his eyes that sanctified everything he gazed upon.

At the end of our time together, Rinpoche presented us with khatas, the traditional white silk scarves that are given on ceremonial occasions. He put them over our heads and shook our hands once again, thanking us for coming.

“Could we ask you for a blessing?” I asked.

“Of course!” he said, and directed us to sit down again. Then he chanted a blessing for us that went on for perhaps ten minutes, his voice rising and falling in Tibetan. We weren’t sure what he was saying, but the loving-kindness of his words washed over us in waves.

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Lori Erickson, Arjia Rinpoche, and Bob Sessions (photo by Lisa Morrison)

So that was my meeting with a Rinpoche. I’m still shaking my head at the wonder of it all. I may never again get the chance to have tea with a living saint (for that is how I would describe him in terms more familiar to Western spirituality). I hope to remember our visit as a model of how any meeting between strangers can be infused with welcome and kindness.

Let me leave you with one last detail of our encounter with this spiritual master, one that strikes me as more important than I realized at the time. In the middle of our talk, Bob interrupted the flow of conversation by pointing out a bird on the deck just outside the window. “Look, a tufted titmouse!” he said. “She’s carrying grass for the nest she’s building.”

I must admit to feeling a bit irritated at the interruption. But when Rinpoche turned around and looked, delight spread over his face. “Oh, how wonderful!” he exclaimed. For several minutes we admired the little bird, who was warming herself in the spring sunshine. Then she flew off to return to her task of nest building.

A tufted titmouse (Wikimedia Commons image)

Looking back, I realize that Rinpoche experienced as much pleasure in seeing the bird as he seemed to be taking in our visit. For the entire time she was with us, his attention was totally on her. An unexpected stranger had come into his life, and he welcomed her with joy.

And that, my friends, is a sign of a spiritual master, when one greets a tufted titmouse as warmly as visitors from Iowa or the Dalai Lama himself. Did he learn this lesson in his current life, or a past one? No matter, for he has learned the lesson very well.

 

 

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When I Was the Forest

Colorado sunset (Bob Sessions photo)

Colorado sunset (Bob Sessions photo)

When I was the stream, when I was the
forest, when I was still the field,
when I was every hoof, foot,
fin and wing, when I
was the sky
itself,

no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, no one ever
wondered was there anything I might need,
for there was nothing
I could not
love.

It was when I left all we once were that
the agony began, the fear and questions came,
and I wept, I wept. And tears
I had never known
before.

So I returned to the river, I returned to
the mountains. I asked for their hand in marriage again,
I begged—I begged to wed every object
and creature,

and when they accepted,
God was ever present in my arms.
And He did not say,
“Where have you
been?”

For then I knew my soul—every soul—
has always held
Him.

“When I Was the Forest” by Meister Eckhart, as rendered by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West

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At Machu Picchu, Where the Veil is Thin

The mountains surrounding Machu Picchu are often wreathed in clouds. (Lori Erickson photo)

The mountains surrounding Machu Picchu are often wreathed in clouds. (Lori Erickson photo)

The ancient Celts of Ireland described holy sites as “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is transparent. In exploring spiritual destinations around the world, I’ve never come across a better description for why certain places simply feel different from other sites.

I think that’s why Machu Picchu, despite its exotic setting, seemed familiar to me in some ways. I felt something there that I’ve experienced at other holy sites, from Lourdes and Ephesus to Kyoto—a kind of frisson, that wonderful French word that describes a blend of physical and emotional responses, a sensation that sends a shiver of recognition through one’s soul.

Part of my reaction came from Machu Picchu itself, because this outpost in the clouds was likely created in part for spiritual purposes. But I had another reason for experiencing the thinness of the veil at Machu Picchu. I hope my experiences there may relate to your own journeys of the heart.

Shortly before I left for Peru, a dear friend of mine died after a nine-year battle with a rare form of sinus cancer. Rich Oberfoell was 46 and had been in the peak of health prior to his diagnosis. He was gregarious, full of life, and adventuresome, a person who laughed often and made friends easily.

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Rich Oberfoell

I got to know Rich just as he was starting his battle with cancer. During those years, he endured more surgeries, medical procedures and cancer treatments than anyone I’ve ever known. His determination to live was especially fierce because of his love for his young son, Xavier, and wife, Sun Hee. But in the end even his iron will wasn’t enough to sustain him.

A couple of weeks before he died, I visited Rich in the hospital. “Where are you going next?” he asked me. When he learned that I was making plans to visit Machu Picchu, his gaunt face lit up.

“I loved Machu Picchu!” he said, and proceeded to tell me of his visit there when he was teaching in Venezuela in his 20s. He described the rigors of hiking the Inca Trail and how moved he was when he finally came through the Sun Gate to see Machu Picchu for the first time. Then he said this: “When you go there, take me with you.”

I remember how his words hung in the air of the hospital room, for clearly there were no more trips in Rich’s future. But I told him that I would, and we both knew without saying that it would be in spirit only.

When I traveled in Peru, I kept in my backpack the card from Rich’s funeral. Its pictures showed a different Rich than the one battered by cancer. He was young, handsome, athletic. As I journeyed, I thought often of his travels in South America and how he had seen many of the sites in Cusco and Lima that I was enjoying.

Have you ever taken a trip with someone who was not present in body? It’s a curious thing, this intertwining of past and present, self and other. I think it’s a more common journey than many realize. There’s a kind of bifurcation of awareness that happens, as your travels evoke thoughts of their experiences. “I bet Rich loved this place,” I remember thinking as I walked the aisles of the market in Cusco, a dizzying blend of sights, smells, and sounds, from pig’s heads hanging from hooks to baskets overflowing with spices and fruits.

When I got to Machu Picchu, memories of Rich were especially strong. At first I did the standard tourist routine, listening to a guide, taking pictures, and exploring its twists and turns on my own. But I was looking for something all the while, a quiet spot where I could sit undisturbed. By the time I found it the rain had ended and sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. I settled into the out-of-the-way place overlooking the mountains, and I sat there for almost an hour, just looking, feeling the sun on my face, watching as the clouds swirled around the peaks and birds glided past, buoyed by updrafts from the valley below.

Sitting there, I came to suspect that the reason the Inca rulers had chosen this spot for a settlement was not because of its beauty alone. It was, perhaps, because the mountains demanded it. Something about them kept drawing my gaze. Maybe Machu Picchu was built at this spot simply to make it easy for people to sit as I was doing and gaze upon those mountains, mesmerized.

In Chinese Taoism, there’s a long tradition of painting such landscapes, for it is believed that contemplating mountains, both in nature and in art, nurtures the spirit. I love the ways in which humans are included in these paintings only as tiny figures at the base of the peaks. They provide a sense of scale, showing the vastness of the mountains in relation to humans, but there is also a kind of alchemy that is created between the high elevations and the traveler, as if the two need each other to fully express their true natures. Perhaps that was why the mountains here had demanded that Machu Picchu be built.

At Machu Picchu, I was reminded of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. (Wikimedia Commons image)

As I sat on the side of the mountain with Rich’s picture in my hand, I found myself thinking of one of the last walks we had taken through the palliative care unit of the hospital. I remembered how each step was a struggle for Rich and the laboriousness of his breathing. I realized that probably that short walk had required as much determination and strength as the entire Inca Trail had for him years before.

I had a visceral sense, sitting there, of how my own travels will cease one day. They may end swiftly through an accident, or slowly, as a result of illness or advanced age. It was now my turn to sit and bask in the sunlight at Machu Picchu, but eventually I would yield my spot at such places to other travelers.

While this probably sounds depressing, the overwhelming emotion I experienced was gratitude. For Rich’s life and all he had experienced. For the fact that when he was near death, he could still take great joy in his memories of places like this. And for my own experiences of beauty around the world.

And I realized that I had been present with Rich in another thin place: the palliative care unit in the hospital as he was dying. At birth and death we stand on holy ground as sacred as Jerusalem or Machu Picchu, peering into another world, yearning to see more clearly through the veil, humbled and awed by what we glimpse.

Before I left that spot, I took a photo of Rich and wedged it into a crack in the wall (which was hard to do, because those Inca masons were exceedingly good at their jobs). Then I stood for a long time with my hand over the opening, saying one last goodbye to my friend, bidding him to keep watch over those holy mountains. I think that part of Rich is there at Machu Picchu, gliding with those birds, released at last from the prison of his broken body.

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Machu Picchu, a thin place (Lori Erickson photo)

 

 

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On Top of the World at Machu Picchu

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Hiram Bingham III first saw Machu Picchu in 1911. (Wikimedia Commons image)

In 1911, Yale professor Hiram Bingham III made a discovery that catapulted him to international fame and put a remote site in the Peruvian Andes on the bucket list of generations of travelers. In Bingham’s book Lost City of the Incas, he describes the moment:

Hardly had we left the hut and rounded the promontory than we were confronted by an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone-faced terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and ten feet high. Suddenly, I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality Inca stone work. It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together…The sight held me spellbound…I could scarcely believe my senses as I examined the larger blocks in the lower course, and estimated that they must weigh from ten to fifteen tons each. Would anyone believe what I had found?”

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Machu Picchu is one of the wonders of the world, a perfect blend of architectural and natural beauty. (Lori Erickson photo)

Bingham in one sense didn’t “discover” Machu Picchu, for its location had long been known to the natives of the region, as well as to a few Europeans who had trekked through the surrounding jungle. But he was the one who brought the site to the world’s attention, thanks to his Ivy League position and his association with National Geographic Magazine, which publicized his explorations in multiple articles. It also helped that Bingham had a zeal for self-promotion and a substantial ego (in fact, he would later become the inspiration for the movie character Indiana Jones).

So what, exactly, did Bingham find? The answer is complicated, for while much is known about Machu Picchu, many mysteries remain.

Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century during the glory years of the Inca Empire, most likely by Pachacuti, the greatest of its rulers. Its physical location is remarkable, occupying a narrow promontory of land surrounded by mountain peaks and encircled on three sides by a loop of the Urubamba River. It’s been called the world’s most perfect blend of architectural and natural beauty.

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The Urubamba River flows by 2000 feet below Machu Picchu. (Lori Erickson photo)

The site’s buildings fill much of the space between two peaks: Machu Picchu (which means “old peak” in Quechua) and Huayna Picchu (meaning “young peak”). About 60 percent of its structures are original, while the rest have been rebuilt. The hilltop settlement includes three main areas: a royal and sacred section, a secular quarter where workers lived, and more than 100 terraces where crops were grown. Machu Picchu is a marvel of civil engineering, linked by staircases and kept dry in the frequent rains of the cloud forest by an intricate drainage system. Its construction methods showcase the highest standards of Inca masons, with its huge building blocks shaped so precisely they needed no mortar.

One of the puzzles of Machu Picchu is that it did not have any obvious military or strategic use. Some scholars speculate that it was the equivalent of Camp David for the U.S. President—a royal retreat away from the Inca capital of Cusco, which lies 50 miles to the southeast. The site was occupied for only about a century and then was abandoned after the Conquistadors took control of the Inca Empire. It was never discovered by the Spanish during the Colonial Era, and gradually jungle vegetation grew over much of it.

So why do pilgrims from around the world flock to this isolated site? More than physical beauty draws them here, I think, for there is ample evidence that from its very beginning, Machu Picchu had great spiritual significance. Its location was likely chosen in part because of its proximity to mountains and a river considered sacred by the Incas. Its plazas include multiple shrines, temples and carved stones, some of which are oriented to astronomical events such as the winter and summer solstices and spring and fall equinoxes.

Take, for example, a carved block of granite known as the Intihuatana (see below), which is arguably the most sacred spot at Machu Picchu. Its name is Quechua for “the tether of the sun.” The term refers to the theory that the stone was once used as a kind of astronomical calendar. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the stone casts virtually no shadow, leading (perhaps, for all of this is speculation) to the belief that the post somehow kept the sun from retreating farther from the earth.

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The enigmatic Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu clearly had significant importance. (Lori Erickson photo)

For years tourists were allowed to place their hands on the Intihuatana, but now, alas, it is roped off, so I can’t report firsthand whether it’s full of energy, as some New Age enthusiasts claim. But its position and careful shaping suggest that this stone was considered highly significant by its creators. Another indication is that similar stones have been found at other sacred sites in Peru. All were damaged by the Spaniards, who clearly saw them as representing something important to the native people and thus a threat to their control.

I’ll tell you more about my own personal impressions of Machu Picchu in my next post, but first I must confess that I’m actually a little embarrassed by how little effort I expended to get there. Before visiting, I had the idea that Machu Picchu is only reached by hacking through dense jungle, a la Indiana Jones. Instead, I took a bus and train from Cusco and then a bus to the promontory where Machu Picchu sits. If I visit again I’ll take the Inca Trail, the arduous hiking route that leads up and down the mountains before emerging at Machu Picchu. It felt a little bit like cheating to arrive there so easily.

But no matter how you arrive at Machu Picchu, your reaction is likely to be the same: awe. That’s a word that gets tossed around so much that it’s lost much of its original meaning. To be awestruck means to be filled with a mixture of reverential respect, wonder and a little bit of fear. As I rounded the corner and got my first full view of Machu Picchu, those emotions flooded over me. The site’s visual impact felt almost physical in its force.

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Machu Picchu is known as the City in the Clouds for good reason. (Lori Erickson photo)

A light rain was falling and clouds swirled around the buildings and the terraces that are cut into the steep hillsides like stairways for giants. It seemed almost impossible that human hands could have built this grand settlement in such an isolated spot, particularly before the age of modern technology. Little wonder that Machu Picchu has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

One of the most intriguing theories about Machu Picchu has been advanced by the scholar and explorer Johan Reinhard, author of books that include Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center. His research suggests that Machu Picchu formed the cosmological and sacred geographical center for a vast region. It was the hub of a spiritual web, connected to other holy sites in the region and to celestial bodies in the sky, surrounded by deities who lived in the surrounding mountain peaks and the river far below. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to feel the pull of the sacred at Machu Picchu, as if you are also being drawn into that web.

There are only a few holy sites in the world where so many factors come together: physical grandeur, architectural beauty, and an interweaving of sky, mountains, jungle, river and clouds. That is Machu Picchu, as dazzling now as when it was a jewel in the crown of the Inca Empire.

 

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Llamas wander amid the ruins of Machu Picchu. (Lori Erickson photo)

A Few Practical Suggestions for Visiting Machu Picchu: As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, access to Machu Picchu is tightly controlled. International travelers fly into Lima and then to Cusco. From there, you can travel to Machu Picchu either by Inca Rail or by hiking. Hikers must go with a licensed guide and make reservations well in advance. Access to the Inca Trail is limited to 500 hikers a day. The classic route is a five-day expedition, but shorter options are also possible.

The less adventurous can board a train that leads to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. It’s best to stay overnight there (I highly recommend the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, which has a lovely forest setting and has received awards for its commitment to ecologically sustainable practices). The next morning, take an early morning bus to the summit to avoid the crowds. The busiest season at Machu Picchu is June to September, and visiting during the shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October is highly recommended. For more information, contact the Peru Office of Tourism.

 

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On the Road to Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu is one of the world’s great spiritual destinations. (Lori Erickson photo)

Tell me, is there any spiritual destination in the world with a more evocative and mysterious reputation than Machu Picchu in Peru? I’ve visited many holy sites around the world, and I can’t think of one that can compare. So when I received an invitation to visit (thanks to the Society of American Travel Writers), I simply couldn’t say no.

Much is still a mystery about Machu Picchu, and certainly my own knowledge of it is far from comprehensive. But my visit there intrigued and moved me, and I hope you’ll come along with me over the next few posts as I tell you about it.

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The Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, contains stunning gold pieces that were worn by the Inca elite. (Lori Erickson photo)

First, some history, for if you want to understand Machu Picchu, you need to know something of the people who created it. Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century as an outpost of the Inca Empire. “Inca” is a term for a ruler, similar to Caesar or King. During the entire history of the Inca Empire (which lasted only about a century) there were just 14 Incas. All were members of a tribe that today is known as the Quechua, who still live in the Andean mountains.

Beginning around 1440 AD, Inca rulers forged the New World’s largest pre-Columbian empire, one that stretched from southern Colombia to central Chile and from the arid plains of coastal Peru to the Amazon jungles. They did so with a combination of ruthlessness, efficiency and practicality. If a tribe or city accepted their rule, they were incorporated peacefully into the empire. If they resisted, they were swiftly conquered. By the late 15th century, the Inca Empire was a well-oiled bureaucratic machine. Powered by the labor of peasants and including some ten million people, it was wealthy and sophisticated. Inca roads connected the farthest reaches of the empire, linked by runners who carried messages between cities. You might think of the Inca civilization as the Romans of South America–masters of architecture, road-building and civil administration.

The greatest Inca was Pachacuti, whose name means “he who shakes the earth.” Like all Inca rulers, he was considered a demi-god as well as a political leader. Through conquest and skillful leadership he created an empire composed of many different tribes and ethnicities, ruled over by an Inca elite. He built grand monuments and huge fortresses, including (most likely) Machu Picchu.

Then came an unexpected threat. Soon after Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, the diseases of Europe began to filter south. Within a few years, smallpox had killed many natives, including Huayna Capac, the leader of the Inca Empire. A civil war followed, further weakening Inca society.

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A gold and silver ransom was offered for the return of the captive Inca leader. (Wikimedia Commons image)

By the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, the empire was vulnerable and fragile. Imagine the drama of this scene: In 1532 Francisco Pizarro and his band of 167 men met the Inca emperor Atahualpa in the small Andean town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa was curious about the ragtag group and was particularly intrigued by their horses, a species new to that region of the world. Though he had already made plans to kill them the next day, he foolishly allowed them to approach him.  Pizarro acted with swiftness and (one must admit) bravery, capturing Atahualpa despite the presence of thousands of Inca soldiers.

Caught in a trap, Atahualpa made a generous bargain with Pizarro. In exchange for his life, he offered him a ransom that consisted of a large room filled with treasure three times over—once with gold, and twice with silver. Over the next months, precious objects poured in from throughout the empire. As promised, the room was packed three times with the precious metals. But Pizarro, who was as cruel as he was brave, reneged on the deal and killed Atahualpa anyway.

That tragedy was a foretaste of what would unfold over the next decades. The Spanish staged a brutal take-over of the Inca Empire, greatly aided by their superior weapons and use of horses. While there was brutality on both sides, the Spanish were far more savage (Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas gives a fascinating overview of this period). The Inca people did not submit willingly, and for many years Manco Inca, the son of Huayna Capac, fought desperately against the invaders. Eventually he and his small band of followers retreated into the Amazon region and staged a guerrilla war from their headquarters in the city of Vilcabamba. They were finally defeated in 1572.

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A mummy in the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru (Lori Erickson photo)

As I traveled through Peru, threads of this story kept reappearing. In Lima, for example, I toured the Larco Museum, which has many artifacts from the Inca period. There I saw mummies (the bodies curled into a fetal position and robed in finery) and ceremonial clay pots bearing the faces of individuals who had died centuries ago. Most stunning of all were pieces of gold jewelry and sacred objects, which were among the few artifacts that escaped the greed of the Spanish invaders. Each piece evokes the mystery and splendor of that doomed civilization.

I was also intrigued by the ways in which remnants of the Inca period are still interwoven with daily life in Peru. Many of the buildings, particularly in the former Inca capital of Cusco, have Inca foundations. Builders shaped huge stone blocks so precisely that they needed no mortar to hold them together, constructing buildings that have remained standing even during major earthquakes (unlike many more modern buildings).  One might say, in fact, that the Inca Empire still forms the foundation of Peru.

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La Pachamama del Cerro Rico, which depicts the Virgin Mary as a mountain, shows the blending of Spanish and indigenous Andean traditions. (WIkimedia Commons image)

This is also certainly true in the spirituality of the Andean region. High in the mountains, many people practice a mixture of Catholic and much older traditions. The Virgin Mary, for example, is frequently depicted in forms that recall Pachamama, the earth mother of the Incas. To honor her, people will pour a splash of whatever they’re drinking on the ground before taking their own first sip. In August, which is the start of the growing season in Peru, ceremonies are held that include the offering of fruits, grains and the sacred coca leaf.

Just like their Incan ancestors, many in the Andes still believe that apus, or spirits, live in the mountain peaks. You can also see the three main totems of the Inca incorporated in many designs in the region: the condor (representing the world of the gods), the puma (symbolizing the world of humans), and the snake (which represents the underworld and the dead).

And that, my friends, brings us to Machu Picchu. In my next post, we’ll make the ascent.

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Quechua girls in the Andean Mountains of Peru (Lori Erickson photo)

 

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Honoring Your Wishes

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The death of Baldr (Wikimedia Commons image)

Today’s post is a sermon I gave Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City. Regular readers will recognize some familiar themes from previous Holy Rover posts. If you’re interested in the Honoring Your Wishes program but don’t live in Iowa City, you can find similar programs in many other places. In the U.S., see Caring Connections, which is part of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. A growing number of other countries have similar programs.

 

My friend Teri, who came from a large Catholic family in Dubuque, used to tell a story about the death of one of her aunts. As the woman neared the end of her life, her daughter called Teri to ask if she wanted to be part of the group that was gathering at her mother’s bedside.

Teri asked how many people were there. There was a pause as her cousin did some counting, and then she replied, “Oh, there are about 65 of us here.”

Teri decided that her aunt probably had enough loved ones to see her off.

Now that’s quite an image, isn’t it, of all those relatives at a bedside? I hope Teri’s aunt was a people person.

I’ve thought of this story a number of times in relation to Trinity’s new Honoring Your Wishes program, which is part of a national effort to make the American way of death more humane and gentle. The death experienced by Teri’s aunt (while perhaps a bit overpopulated with relatives) is increasingly rare in our country. Most people will instead die in hospitals, separated from those they love, often after undergoing medical procedures that have been done not to provide them comfort or cure but rather because loved ones didn’t know their advance wishes and doctors want to protect themselves from potential liability.

81lKYnfLpGL._SL1500_Physician and author Atul Gawande does a brilliant job of dissecting the problems with this system in his new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In it he says that surveys have found that most people’s priorities for end-of-life care are much broader than simply prolonging their lives. Their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Writes Gawande: “Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The question therefore is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a … system that will actually help people achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.”

The Honoring Your Wishes program is part of building that new system. LaCrosse, Wisconsin, shows what can happen when it is widely adopted. Nationally, about 30 percent of adults have an advanced health care directive detailing their end-of-life wishes. In LaCrosse, about 95 percent do. It has simply become the norm to talk about end-of-life matters in LaCrosse. As a result, LaCrosse has the lowest per capita health expenditures in the last year of life of any city in the U.S. More importantly, its citizens have been spared an immense amount of grief and heartache. Because of these discussions, people tend to have better deaths, with fewer hospitalizations, better quality of life, and less stress on families.

Here at Trinity, we have three members who have gone through Honoring Your Wishes training. We hope everyone in the parish will make an appointment for an Honoring Your Wishes session. While you may already have had discussions with a lawyer covering legal matters, this conversation is more holistic in scope. It generally is done in two parts. You’ll be asked to think about what your wishes are for your final stage of life. You’ll designate two health care agents who will make decisions for you if you are not able to make your wishes known. The result is not a check list of procedures—ventilator “no,” feeding tube “yes”—but rather a narrative that will guide those who love you. You may think this is something that only the elderly need to be concerned with, but in many ways it is best to think of these matters well before you are likely to confront them. And sometimes tragedies occur, of course, even to the young and healthy.

I know Bob and I found our Honoring Your Wishes conversation to be very thought-provoking. We consider it to be a gift to our children to have our end-of-life wishes be explicit, detailed, and known to them. The conversation has also helped trigger a deeper reflection on what makes life meaningful to us. This is one of the things that makes the Honoring Your Wishes program different from visiting with your lawyer. Health care decisions are important, of course, but confronting our mortality raises existential and spiritual questions of far greater importance. In the words of Buddhist teacher Kathleen Singh, thinking about our deaths can be like jet fuel for our spiritual practice. It’s why medieval monks kept skulls on their desks and Buddhists meditate in graveyards.

41fiKyUKqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Singh writes about the power of this path in her book The Grace in Aging. She explores the ways in which growing older can help awaken and deepen our connection to spirit. Many of these opportunities, frankly, we likely see as negatives. If we’ve relied on beauty or power for status in the world, inevitably they will fade as we age. If we lacked the time for spiritual practice when younger, illness or disability may give it back to us. If much of our life has been spent feeding the ever-hungry ego, growing older gives us the chance to look at what we’ve mistakenly nurtured with such care.

Singh uses a memorable image to illustrate how many of us live. When we feel threatened or insecure, we respond like jack-in-the-box toys. Our thoughts and habits are like that clown that keeps bouncing up from his box. We each have our clown of choice: perhaps anger, self-pity, a need for approval, a seeking after control, a desperate clinging, or jealousy. These are our habitual escape routes, well-traveled paths that condition our responses to whatever we confront.

Since reading Singh’s book, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own jack-in-the-box. Singh doesn’t present a magic formula for keeping that clown from re-emerging when I least expect him, but I think I am a little less automatic in letting him loose. And if you think you don’t have one of those jack-in-the-box clowns-—well, you’re welcome to have mine. I’m getting awfully tired of him.

The paths to spiritual growth as we grow older are many. Silence. Solitude. Forgiveness. Humility. Mindfulness. An opening of the heart. Seeing this process unfold is one of the reasons why it can be so transformative to be around those who are dying. Perhaps you have been privileged to see this happen. Old hurts get forgiven. Memories are cherished. The best in people emerges, as if dying is a fire that burns away all their impurities.

I remember visiting my great aunt when she was well over 100. There was not much left of her other than love. I was a bit startled when she told me how much she loved me, in fact, because we hadn’t been particularly close. But I think she deeply loved me then, just as she radiated love for the nurses who took care of her and for the housekeeping staff and for anyone who happened to wander into her room by accident. That’s a pretty good way to end your life, loving everybody who comes through your door.

The Bible certainly gives us plenty of messages about our mortality. Think of all those passages in the Psalms about flesh being like the grass. Or recall that powerful moment in every burial service when the priest faces the bodily remains of the person who has died and says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That same phrase, of course, we will soon hear on Ash Wednesday. As Christians we believe that the grave is not our final end, but I think our faith also invites us to wrestle with the spiritual challenges of confronting the inevitability of our deaths.

(Wikimedia Commons image)

A couple of years ago I had the chance to hear the Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr give a speech. At the end he answered questions, including one from a speaker who identified himself as a Hospice employee. The man asked Rohr why he thought so many people struggled spiritually as they approached the end of their lives. Rohr answered with this: “You don’t want to leave your homework,” he said, “until the night before the test.”

So here at Trinity, you might think of the Honoring Your Wishes program as a kind of homework. If you want extra credit, you can read Gawande’s book Being Mortal and Singh’s book on Grace in Aging.

Or here’s something you can do right now, a little exercise that I hope will help you realize why these matters are important. I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath, and then another. And I hope you will remember that these breaths are not infinite. One day they will cease. They are a slender thread that ties us to life.

One breath.

Then another.

Each one a gift.

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It’s Your Funeral. Discuss.

We seem to be on a theme of spirituality in aging these days, so in that spirit I offer to you a video recommended by my friend Lucy, who had seen singer Christine Lavin in concert recently. Lavin sang a song about what can happen when you don’t plan your funeral in advance

(Note to my family: I want my body to be put in a Viking longboat on the ocean–or the Coralville Reservoir if that proves too difficult–and have one of my sons shoot a flaming arrow from the shore to set it alight. There should also be plenty of wine served at the reception).

 

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The Grace in Aging

41fiKyUKqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Every so often I come across a book I read very slowly. I want to savor every sentence, wring every bit of meaning out of each line, and think deeply about how the words apply to my life. Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older
is one of those books.

First, let me acknowledge that it has a somewhat clunky title. It sounds frightfully earnest, doesn’t it, like the literary equivalent of bran cereal? And books on aging don’t exactly fly off the shelves, unless they’re ones on how to slow down the process of growing older.

Singh’s book is meant to appeal to those who don’t want to live their last decades on spiritual autopilot. Her central premise is that aging (whether you’re 40 or 90) is an opportunity for spiritual awakening.

In chapters that include meditations on Withdrawal, Silence, Forgiveness, Humility, Presence, and Commitment, Singh explores Buddhist teachings in an accessible way. This may be the single best book I’ve ever read on Buddhism (or perhaps it’s just that I’m more open to the truths of Buddhism now than I’ve been in the past). But Singh’s gentleness, insight and wisdom will teach you a great deal even if you’re a member of another faith or follow no organized religion.

“Are we willing to leave this unimaginably precious gift of a human life unopened?” she asks in the book, explaining that growing older gives us a wide range of triggers for awakening. Many of these opportunities we likely see as negatives. If we’ve relied on beauty or power for status in the world, inevitably they will fade as we age. If we lacked the time for spiritual practice when younger, illness or disability may give it back to us. If much of our life has been spent feeding the ever-hungry ego, growing older gives us the chance to look at what we’ve mistakenly nurtured with such care.

Confronting our mortality, writes Singh, is jet fuel for our spiritual practice.

Dying, of course, lurks behind all discussions of aging. No party, however fun, lasts forever. One can see this essential fact as depressing and tragic–and certainly in individual cases it is, and Singh doesn’t suggest we short-circuit the natural process of grief, either for ourselves or for the loss of a loved one. But if done well, a person at the end of his or her life moves through the classic stages of spiritual growth to surrender into the grace in dying.

Writes Singh:  “What we will observe, if we have the privilege to be present with someone at the end of his or her life, are the following special conditions: opening to mortality, withdrawal, silence, solitude, forgiveness, humility, the practice of presence, commitment, life review and resolution, opening the heart, and opening the mind. Those of us who are still living can take powerful lessons from the dying. Each of these special conditions is a powerful catalyst for transformation. They release us from grasping to self. Working skillfully, we can introduce and make use of these conditions in the midst of life, in these very chapters of being old. Just as these special conditions facilitate the grace in dying, they can lead us directly into the grace in living.”

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Note the fleeing rats (Wikimedia Commons image)

Singh uses a memorable image to illustrate how many of us live. We are like jack-in-the-box toys, she says, each of us reacting the same way when we feel threatened or insecure. Our thoughts and habits are like that clown bouncing up again and again from his box. We each have our clown of choice: anger, self-pity, a need for approval, a seeking after control, a desperate clinging, or jealousy. These are our habitual escape routes, well-traveled paths that condition our responses to whatever we confront.

I’ve been thinking about my own jack-in-the-box a lot since reading this book. Singh doesn’t present a magic formula for keeping that stupid clown from re-emerging when I least expect him, but I think I am a little less automatic in letting him loose.

“How many of the finite number of breaths that I will breathe in this lifetime remain to me?” Singh asks. “This next inbreath. Will it come? This next outbreath. Is it the last? We are very present in such moments. There is no frivolity. Nothing inessential sweeps us back into dull and clouded mindlessness.”

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(Photo by Bob Sessions)

 

Let me end with one of my favorite passages in the book:

“It’s a bit chastening to see how often we can think, after rising from a meditation or sitting or teaching, ‘Now . . . back to the real world.’ It’s important to rise slowly. It’s important, if we have so chosen, to remember that the intention to awaken encompasses every moment. No moment can be excluded.

There is, initially in a practice and for quite a long time afterward, a dynamic of compartmentalizing our spiritual life. We rope off many corners and many rooms in that vast, interior castle.

We want to resist that decades-old impulse to fall back into the dream of self, the sleep of form only. It’s very helpful to look at the areas of our lives that we wish to cordon off or that we don’t choose to view with the eye of spirit. What’s off limits? Is it work? Relationships? Family? What we do for relaxation? Is it vanity? Is it attachment? Or grudges? Or fears? Shame or other unhealed aspects of our psyche? It’s good to know what we hold as not available for inquiry. There lies our ignorance.

Eventually, as we continue to engage these last years for spiritual practice, we come to see that every moment, every interaction, every circumstance arises from the ground of being. Every moment is one of the places where our feet make contact with the noble path.”

 

 

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Sacred Journeys, Near and Far

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Reese Witherspoon stars in the movie Wild, which chronicles a pilgrimage on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Now that the holiday season is past, I’m back to Rovering again here at the Holy Rover. But even during my break away from writing, the theme of pilgrimage kept coming up. Today, near the beginning of this new year, I want to share some of those gleanings.

The first is the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild. I’ve been a bad girl, I’m afraid, and didn’t read the book first, but I loved the movie. It’s based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, in which she recounts her 1,100-mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. She is perhaps the most woefully underprepared hiker ever to complete this challenging route (the scenes with her ridiculously heavy backpack are worth the price of the movie). But as the film went on, it became increasingly obvious to me that she was on a pilgrimage. I don’t think the word was ever used specifically, but her journey had all the hallmarks: the seeking after meaning, the desperate need to recover from trauma and heartache, and the healing that slowly happened because of the journey. It’s a splendid film, one I highly recommend.

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PBS’s Sacred Journeys series explores six of the world’s great pilgrimages, including Shikoku in Japan. (Sacred Journeys image)

And then there’s the new PBS series by Bruce Feiler, author of books that include Walking the Bible. His Sacred Journeys is a six-hour documentary that takes viewers along on some of the world’s great pilgrimages: Lourdes in France, Shikoku in Japan, Jerusalem in Israel, The Hajj to Mecca, Kumbh Mela in India, and Osun-Osogbo in Nigeria. Like the Wild movie, this series is wonderful, full of personal stories of those making the pilgrimages as well as gorgeous photography and thoughtful meditations on the theme of spiritual journeying. Each of these hour-long episodes can be viewed for free through the PBS website. I recommend all of them.

Bruce Feiler wrote a lovely piece for the New York Times on The New Allure of Sacred Pilgrimages. In it he talks about the surprising growth of pilgrimage travel around the world despite declining levels of commitment to organized religions in many countries. The United Nations estimates that of every three tourists worldwide, one is a pilgrim, for a total of 330 million people a year. These figures include 30 million to Tirupati in India, 20 million to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, 15 million to Karbala in Iraq, and four million to Lourdes.

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Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest pilgrimage, held every 12 years on the flood plain of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India. (Sacred Journeys image)

Part of the reason for this growing interest is that International travel is far easier today than ever before But Feiler says that even more important is the increasing fluidity of religious identity. People are seeking out their own answers to questions of faith and tradition. He quotes a pilgrim who had made the journey to Israel: “The moment that you stop questioning,” he said, “is the moment you stop growing. You’re either walking in the direction of God or you’re walking away.”

I especially like what Feiler has to say about the need to be active in one’s spiritual life: “So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive a faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from on high….A pilgrimage reverses all of that. At its core, it’s a gesture of action. In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decide for themselves what they really believe.”

So as 2015 begins, perhaps the idea of pilgrimage is blossoming in your life as well. It may be a journey across the world or to a retreat house close to home. It may be an interior pilgrimage, one of illness, grief, or loss. It may come near the beginning of your adult life or near the end. But today I hope you’ll take a minute to ask yourself, “Where am I called to go? And what do I need to learn?”

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A pilgrim at Lourdes in France takes part in a candlelit procession. (Sacred Journeys image)

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After the Fire, a Rebirth in Stuart

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The Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Sometimes the stories in the news seem overwhelming, don’t they? Each day brings another tale of intolerance, injustice and tragedy. So today I want to tell you about a place that has restored some of my faith in the goodness of humanity: the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa.

Its story begins in the early 1900s when the Catholic community in this small town west of Des Moines decided to build a church. And not just any church: they wanted a BIG church, one that was loosely modeled after St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The church that opened in 1908 was a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, with an exuberantly Baroque interior complete with handpainted frescos, stained glass from Germany, altars of Italian marble and a massive copper dome 90 feet above the ground.

For nearly a century this church, known as All Saints, was a regional landmark, voted the “Most Beautiful Church in Iowa” by readers of the Des Moines Register and well-loved by the entire community of Stuart.

And then on an August day in 1995, an arsonist poured 25 gallons of gas inside All Saints and ignited a conflagration that drew 20 fire departments from a 50 mile radius. Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, by the time the flames were extinguished virtually everything in the church was destroyed except for its exterior walls. The arsonist, a man named Charles Willard from Des Moines, was motivated by a hatred of the Catholic Church and a desire to (in his words) “take the heart and soul out of a small town.”

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

Willard was caught (which wasn’t hard, since he sent letters to two bishops and a TV station claiming credit for the crime). He later served a dozen years in prison. The town of Stuart, meanwhile, struggled with the dilemma of what to do with the shell of the building. Catholic leaders had decided that the cost of rebuilding was too great and that instead a new church would be built on the outskirts of town. The loss of Stuart’s most famous landmark was a blow to the entire community.

And then a miracle occured.

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Detail from a door in the Saints Center (photo by Bob Sessions)

Well, in more prosaic terms, a lot of things came together, but it’s hard not to see the entire process as somewhat miraculous. The citizens of Stuart, a town that hadn’t passed a bond issue since the 1950s, approved a $1.7 million measure to help fund the building’s restoration. The state of Iowa contributed grant money. Individual citizens gave donations. By 2007, $4 million had been raised, and over the next two years a massive restoration project was undertaken.

In 2009 the church opened once again, this time as the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts. Today it hosts a wide variety of special events, including weddings, concerts, theater performances, and reunions.

When I visited the Saints Center recently, I found it hard to believe that this remarkable building had been reduced nearly to ruins. Today its main hall is a warm, inviting public space, filled with light from the clerestory windows underneath the dome that once again tops the structure. White walls alternate with columns of exposed brickwork from 1908. While much of the church’s Christian iconography has been removed, its original St. Joseph altar is kept in an alcove in the main hall. Darkened and damaged by the flames, it is kept as a reminder of the fire.

According to Dick Doherty, one of the prime movers in the drive to restore the Saints Center, the building’s rebirth has been a catalyst for growth for the entire town. “The Saints Center has helped revitalize Stuart,” he says. “It’s become a very popular place for weddings, in particular, and that has helped other local businesses like caterers and hotels. Thanks in part to the money that’s been brought into the town from the center, we’ve been able to build a new city hall, school, and aquatic center.”

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The fire has had another surprising legacy:  the Learning Museum for Religious Tolerance. Housed in two kiosks at the Saints Center, this self-guided, online resource explores Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Indigenous Beliefs, and Chinese Traditional Religions, as well as the path of atheists and agnostics. It includes video interviews with people living within 60 miles of the church who follow the varied traditions. They talk about their beliefs, rituals and hopes for peace among all religions.

“We wanted to show that in the end, tolerance is much stronger than hate,” says Liz Gilman, who headed the online museum project.

Here’s one of the pieces of information about the Saints Center that I found most intriguing: after the fire, structural engineers found that the steel beams in the church’s walls had actually been made stronger because of being tempered by the intense heat of the fire.

That’s what tragedy can do, is that not right? Sometimes it destroys, and sometimes it makes things stronger. That’s true for buildings, and it’s true for people too.

Someday I hope you can visit the Saints Center, to see what can happen when people refuse to let intolerance and hate have the last word.

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