Where the Book of Mormon Began

Since its Broadway opening in 2011, the irreverent musical The Book of Mormon has won nine Tony Awards and set box-office records. So what did the Mormons do in response to this show that enthusiastically blasphemes nearly everything they hold sacred? Did they protest, threaten, or file lawsuits? Nope. Instead they took out ads in playbills saying, “The book is always better.”

If you think that’s an easy response to take, imagine if it was your religion, political party, or deeply held belief that was being mocked. I admire the Mormons for taking the high road in their response to the musical. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people followed their example when their beliefs were offended?

Joseph Smith (photo from LDS.org)

Joseph Smith (photo from LDS.org)

Which brings me to the topic of the day: the place where the actual Book of Mormon began. On a recent trip to upstate New York, Bob and I traveled to the region near Palmyra where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr.. While I’m not a Mormon, I found this to be a fascinating set of religious sites, welcoming to all people even if they’re not part of the LDS faith.

Speaking personally, these sites also raise an interesting question: what would you do if you thought you received a divine vision? Run the other way? Or share your experience with the world?

The Joseph Smith Sr. Family Historic Farm is a good place to ponder these questions. On our visit there we learned that Joseph Smith’s father brought his family here in 1816 and built a log house on the property for his wife and eight children. This was a time of great spiritual fervor in western New York state, which was called the “Burned Over District” because of its many religious revivals. The family’s fifth child, Joseph, Jr., was deeply interested in religious matters and struggled to understand the competing claims of various denominations. In 1820 Smith went to a grove of trees near his home and prayed for an answer to the question about which faith he should join. There he received a vision that he had been chosen to found a new church and build up God’s kingdom on earth—the first of a series of revelations he received throughout his life.

We toured the Smith homestead with two Mormon missionaries, young women from Utah who patiently answered our questions and asked a few of their own relating to our beliefs. When they heard we were not Mormon, they continued to treat us with kindness and respect, telling us the story of Joseph Smith’s life but not pressing us to convert.


This log cabin was rebuilt on the foundation of the original Joseph Smith Sr. house. (photo by Bob Sessions)

With its split-rail fences, green pastures, and historic buildings, the acreage made it easy to imagine how it was in the days when Joseph Smith lived here. Two homes occupy the site: the first is a log home similar to the one originally built by the Smith family, and the second is a larger house where Joseph Smith lived from the time he was 19 to 22 years old.

To me the most intriguing part of our tour came when we entered the stand of woods known as the Sacred Grove, which is where Smith received his most significant visions. I liked the fact that we were allowed to wander on our own through the grove with no guides at our side. In fact, they invited us to stay as long as we wished in the woods, and said they hoped we would make our own connection to the divine in that holy place.


The Sacred Grove is one of the holiest sites for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (photo by Bob Sessions)

There were only a handful of other people wandering in the grove that afternoon. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees and the air was filled with birdsong. I agreed with our guides that this is still a place for inspiration, particularly for those of us who find the outdoors more full of God’s presence than any human-made structure.


At the top of Hill Cumorah stands a monument with a tall, golden statue of the angel Moroni. (photo by Bob Sessions)

A short drive took us to the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center, where we learned about the next chapter in Joseph Smith’s life. It was here that he is said to have been given a set of gold plates by the angel Moroni in 1827. Smith translated and published the text, which became the Book of Mormon. Displays at the visitor center gave us an overview of the remarkable growth of the church founded by Smith. Today the LDS Church has 15 million members, with more than half of them living outside the U.S.

Each July, this spot is the site of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, one of the world’s largest outdoor theatrical productions. First staged in 1937, the free production has grown to include more than 700 volunteers each year, who portray scenes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Elaborate costumes and special effects, plus recorded music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, make this an impressive spectacle, which is attended by more than 90,000 people during its seven-night run.

Finally, we headed to the small town of Palmyra, where we toured the Book of Mormon Publication Site. In 1830, the Book of Mormon was first printed and sold here. A handsome brick building houses reproductions of the original press, bindery and bookstore owned by publisher Egbert B. Grandin. (Though we didn’t have time to tour them, other Mormon sites in the area include the Peter Whitmer Farm, where the LDS Church was formally organized in 1830, and the Fayette Chapel and Visitors Center.)


A view of the Sacred Grove from the door of the Smith log cabin (photo by Bob Sessions)

In thinking back to our tour of these Mormon sites, I keep coming back to the Sacred Grove. It made me think of other places I’ve visited where people are believed to have received divine messages, from Mount Sinai in Egypt to the street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton had his mystical vision. It’s a curious thing to visit these sites, which are both so ordinary and so extraordinary. We can only observe from a distance  someone else’s spiritual experience, but walking in their footsteps can give us a hint of what might be possible for us.

I remember standing at the open door of the Smith home, looking out into the Sacred Grove. What happened on that spring day in 1830 when Joseph Smith wandered amid the trees? And what would I do if I received such a vision myself? Dear Readers, would you want to step through that mystical door?

Let me end with this: one day I hope to see the musical The Book of Mormon (for though I have great respect for religions in all their permutations, I also love a good satire). When I do, I expect to enjoy the humor, but I hope I’ll also remember the kindness and hospitality of the people who led us on our tour of the Mormon sites around Palmyra.

Most of all, I hope to remember the Sacred Grove, dappled by sunlight and filled with birdsong, a place of inspiration for spiritual seekers of all faiths.

If You Go: The Mormon sites are clustered around the town of Palmyra, which is located east of Rochester and north of the Finger Lakes Region. Admission to the sites and to the Hill Cumorah Pageant is free.

Posted in LDS Church | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

A Blessing for Travelers


Statue of St. James as a pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (Lori Erickson photo)

From “For the Traveler”

by John O’Donohue

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

From To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

Posted in Pilgrimage, Poetry | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Finding Ties of Connection at Ganondagan


Peter Jemison is the manager of Ganondagan, a New York State Historic Site south of Rochester. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Today’s post is by guest blogger Bob Sessions:

Construction workers don’t usually have  beautiful images of herons on their hats, but Peter Jemison isn’t your ordinary construction worker. In fact, he’s manager of Ganondagan, a New York State Historic Site near Victor (and the hat is temporary, just until the site’s new Seneca Art and Culture Center is completed).

Lori and I met Peter Jemison when we were at a meeting of the Midwest Travel Writers Association in the Finger Lakes of New York. In talking with him and touring the site, I remembered a nearly forgotten thread in my own life as well as learned about the revitalized spiritual and cultural traditions of the Seneca people.


A reconstructed long house recreates 17th-century life at Ganondagan. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Ganondagan is located on the site of a 17th-century Seneca settlement of 4,500 people. In 1687, it was attacked and burned by the French as part of their efforts to monopolize the fur trade. Three centuries later, New York State reestablished the site, rebuilding a long house similar to those of the original settlement as a way to honor Seneca traditions and educate the larger world about their history. The Seneca are one of the six nations that comprise the Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, whose democratic ideals helped inspire the U.S. Constitution.


The interior of the Ganondagan long house is decorated in traditional ways. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Part way through our tour, I had a flash of recognition when I heard the name John Mohawk mentioned. I was taken back to my undergraduate days when I first encountered Akwesasne Notes, a publication he founded and edited. For most of two decades I avidly read this journal. Because of Mohawk’s influence, I began a lifelong study of First Nations cultures, anthropology, histories, and philosophies. I taught college courses on Native American philosophies (always with some trepidation, for these are very different cultures than my own). I encountered many students who, like me, were transformed when they encountered philosophers and visionaries such as Mohawk.

I was happy to see the ways in which Mohawk’s philosophy continues to live on at Ganondagan, particularly in its Iroquois White Corn Project. Kim Morf, project manager, told us how John Mohawk had begun the initiative in the late 1990s because he realized that the deteriorating health of his people was due in part to their modern diets. His solution was a version of eating local and organic food, but with a twist—for he knew that health involves much more than just taking in nutrients.


Kim Morf is manager for the Iroquois White Corn Project. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Thus was born the White Corn Project. The Senecas at Ganondagan use a native variety of corn that dates back at least 1,400 years. Volunteers keep the old agricultural methods alive by planting, tending, husking and grinding the corn in traditional ways. In doing so, they also nurture bonds of community and continue rituals their people have done for millennia.

This ancient form of white corn, it turns out, has many beneficial characteristics, including being less sweet and more nutritious than modern corn. One of our guides told me of how she, like many in her Seneca community, suffered from diabetes and related conditions. “Western medical treatment made me sick, and so I gave John Mohawk’s way a try for three months,” she told me. “After eating white corn grits for breakfast instead of processed food my blood sugar returned to healthy levels.”

I would guess her improved health is also due to the community support and cultural grounding she receives by being part of the White Corn Project, for those are as healing as the nutrients in the corn. Everyone who works with the corn is supposed to have “good mind,” meaning that they have loving and good intentions. It is believed that this spirit passes into the corn and benefits those who eat it (you can buy various products using this white corn through the Iroquois White Corn Project).

John Mohawk founded the Iroquois White Corn Project in 1997. (photo from Iroquois White Corn Project)

John Mohawk founded the Iroquois White Corn Project in 1997. (photo from Iroquois White Corn Project)

The climax of our visit came when we toured the new $13 million Seneca Art and Culture Center, which will open this fall. It was there that I met the man mentioned above, Peter Jemison. He is a cousin of John Mohawk and has been laboring to bring the center into being for 15 years (a talented artist, Jemison drew the heron on the hard hat pictured above because he is a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca).

“This project takes us from a six-month operation to a year-round facility,” he told our group. “Our goal is to tell the world that we are not a people in the past tense. We live today. We have adapted to the modern world, but we still maintain our language, ceremonies, land base, government, lineages and culture. When you’re a native person, your story is often told by other people. Here, we tell our own story.”

The new center will feature educational displays and facilities, an orientation theater, a multi-purpose auditorium, gallery space, a catering kitchen, and gift shop. A highlight will be Iroquois Creation Story, a film produced by Jemison that is based on a retelling by John Mohawk of a traditional story.

I hope to go back to Ganondagan‘s Seneca Art and Culture Center once it opens, but even in incomplete form, I found it very moving. As we were leaving, I was proud to shake Peter Jemison’s hand and tell him of my own connection to his remarkable cousin. Despite our brief acquaintance, I felt a deep connection with him. After all, we shared the same mentor, John Mohawk, whose spirit lives on in me as well as in him.

For More Information: Ganondagan New York State Historic Site; Finger Lakes Visitors Connection

Posted in Native American | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Listen, Lovers of Wind


Ralston Creek in Spring (photo by Lori Erickson)

by May Sarton

Always it happens when we are not there —
The tree leaps up alive in the air,
Small open parasols of Chinese green
Wave on each twig. But who has ever seen
The latch sprung, the bud as it burst?
Spring always manages to get there first.

Lovers of wind, who will have been aware
Of a faint stirring in the empty air,
Look up one day through a dissolving screen
To find no star, but this multiplied green,
Shadow on shadow, singing sweet and clear.
Listen, lovers of wind, the leaves are here!

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | 5 Comments

Of Good Shepherds and Sheep

Today’s post is a sermon I gave Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City.

(Photo by Friedrich Böhringer)

(Photo by Friedrich Böhringer/Wikimedia Commons)

Of Good Shepherds and Sheep

If you’ve listened to enough sermons over the years, you probably think you know quite a bit about sheep. They are, after all, pretty common in the Bible. We know they like to wander off on their own and get lost. We know they are clueless about potential dangers, even when wolves are in the neighborhood. We know they like to have a shepherd around, but then ignore him when it matters most. We know, in short, that sheep are not the brightest bulbs in the animal kingdom.

Though I grew up on a farm, my own knowledge of sheep is largely academic. I know quite a bit about dairy cattle and pigs, and I can fake my way pretty convincingly through a conversation about chickens. But sheep are a different story. So when I read the two Bible passages this morning dealing with sheep (Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18), I realized I needed to learn more about them.

I found what I was looking for in a little book by a man named Phillip Keller. Written several decades ago, it’s called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Keller is uniquely qualified to talk about both sheep herding and theology—a combination which you must admit is pretty uncommon. A devout Christian who was born in East Africa, he worked for many years as a sheep rancher. He also spent a lot of time among the Masai people, whose sheepherding practices are similar to those of the ancient Middle East.

I learned a lot from Keller. Did you know, for example, that one of the most common difficulties of a sheep, particularly one that has a heavy wool coat, is to tip over and not be able to get back up again? I’m a little surprised, frankly, that Jesus didn’t use this fact in one of his parables, because it so naturally lends itself to metaphor. Think of all the times when we get upended—financially, emotionally, spiritually. We think we’re on the right path and then boom—we trip, we tumble off the path, and we end up upside down with our feet waving in the air like a turtle.

That’s a pretty good metaphor for the human condition, isn’t it? And this is exactly where the Good Shepherd comes in. For without one, the life of this upended sheep is not going to end well.

Keller’s book describes the peculiar qualities of sheep that make them need a good shepherd. Of all domestic animals, they require the most care. For one thing, they are creatures of habit in ways that frequently get them into trouble. Left to their own devices, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts and graze on the same hillsides until they become deserts. A good shepherd must frequently move his sheep from one pasture to another.

'Shepherd and Sheep' by Anton Mauve

‘Shepherd and Sheep’ by Anton Mauve

Both Keller and Jesus agree on what makes for a bad shepherd. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading for this morning, a bad shepherd acts only in his own self-interest. He is a hired hand, someone who doesn’t really care about the sheep. To him it’s a job. If a sheep or two run away, that’s just part of the cost of doing business. But a good shepherd, Jesus says in another beloved passage, goes searching for the one lost sheep out of a hundred. And he is willing to give up his life to protect that lost sheep. It doesn’t make good business sense, but that’s what a good shepherd does.

The key part of being a good shepherd, in sum, is to really care about the sheep. It’s fine if he has a lot of expertise (I use “he” because historically most shepherds have been men). It’s useful if he knows about anatomy and types of pasture and how to treat ringworm. But far more important is that the shepherd knows and loves his flock. He knows their histories, quirks, strengths and weaknesses because he has lived among them. He has stayed up with them through the long nights of lambing season and kept watch over them when wild animals threatened them. He knows which ones like to wander off and which ones think the grass is always greener on the other side of the valley. Because of this knowledge, he knows how best to guide them.


Bishop carrying a crosier, which is based on a shepherd’s staff (Wikimedia Commons image)

It’s interesting to think of the ways in which the church still looks to this metaphor for inspiration. A bishop, for example, carries a crosier, which is another name for a shepherd’s crook or staff. When my sons were small, they thought the bishop carried it so that he could reach out and hit anyone who was misbehaving in church (and those of you who remember Owen and Carl can understand why they were worried about this happening). But a shepherd’s staff is actually used to guide the sheep, not discipline them. A shepherd uses it to pull a sheep out of trouble or tip them upright when they’ve fallen. And as he walks through a flock, he uses it as a kind of extension of his arm, tapping their backs lightly to reassure them of his presence. Sheep like to know their shepherd is near.

So what does all of this mean for us today? Why does this agricultural metaphor have resonance for us, so much so that we make stained glass windows depicting it and use it as a model for pastoral leadership?

To answer those questions, we can look at the 23rd Psalm, for this short psalm summarizes what it means to live under the care and protection of a Good Shepherd.

One thing it does not say is that life is easy, even with a Good Shepherd. The world of the 23rd Psalm is unpredictable and dangerous. It begins in lush pastures and beside still waters, but then travels through a place of darkness and fear. It includes a table where one dines in the presence of one’s enemies—for if you’ve lived a full life, you’re likely to have them. Think of the famous line from Winston Churchill: “You have enemies?” he asked. “Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

This short psalm is actually a drama in three acts. Perhaps its most memorable line is about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In a book about this psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner believes this is one of its key pieces of wisdom. He points out that the psalmist says that you walk through that valley—but you don’t stay there. He tells the story of how after the death of his three-year-old son, for several months he and his wife attended a support group for grieving parents. He said that some of the other parents in the group hadn’t missed a meeting in 10 years. Kushner writes of being troubled by this, for to him it meant that that they remained in a place of sorrow instead of finding their way through it.

The valley of the shadow of death (or of illness, addiction, sorrow or any kind of loss) can be a seductive place, impossible to enjoy but hard to leave. The writer of the Psalm knows this fact, and celebrates God’s role as a Good Shepherd in leading him through that place of darkness. Writes Kushner: “God’s role is not to protect us from pain and loss, but to protect us from letting pain and loss define our lives.”

The end of the Psalm, finally, reminds us of what is waiting for us when we emerge into the Light. We will be anointed with oil, which in the ancient world meant that someone was designated as favored by God. Our cup will contain so many blessings that it will overflow, for God’s ability to bless us is always greater than our ability to receive all of those blessings.

Himalayan Shepherd (photo by Raja Selvaraj, Wikimedia Commons)

Himalayan Shepherd (photo by Raja Selvaraj, Wikimedia Commons)

Several years ago, I took a trip to Israel, including the region of Galilee. I remember being on a  tour of an archeological site dating back to the Roman Era. The surrounding landscape was green and lush, the preceding weeks having been unseasonably rainy. I watched as a few sheep came over the crest of a hill behind the ruins. Within a few moments a shepherd appeared, striding among them with his long staff, followed by many more sheep. I watched as the animals walked beside him, peaceful and content. Their attention was always on him, for they trusted him to lead them on the right path.

Of all my memories of Israel, this is the one I remember best. I’ve thought of it during times when I felt like a lost sheep unable to find my way. I’ve remembered it as I recited the 23rd Psalm at the bedside of someone who was dying and during funerals for people I loved.

This Psalm may well be among the last words you will hear during your life on this earth—for certainly, there is no better preparation for meeting the Good Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Posted in sermons | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Tea with Rinpoche


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.


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.



Posted in Buddhism | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

“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

Posted in Poetry | 8 Comments

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.


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.


Machu Picchu, a thin place (Lori Erickson photo)



Posted in Peru | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

On Top of the World at Machu Picchu


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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


Posted in Peru | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

On the Road to Machu Picchu


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Posted in Machu Picchu, Peru | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments