Cutting Loose

cropped-img_3878.jpgWell, my dear Holy Rover readers, it’s time to say goodbye for awhile. Within the past few weeks the idea for a book has waltzed into my life, and she is such an insistent partner that we’re going to dance by ourselves for awhile. This project will be a memoir with spiritual themes. The style is a blend of what might happen if St. Augustine, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris and Bill Bryson were involved in some sort of weird literary plural marriage. I’ll be writing my own personal story as well as reflecting on pilgrimage sites I’ve visited. An added bonus: bears.

The title, of course, is Holy Rover.

I expect to be back sometime this winter. While I’m gone I’ll be writing furiously, just not on this blog. Be well, my friends. We’ll meet again, somewhere down the road.

Here’s one last parting gift, a poem from William Stafford about traveling and renewal:

Cutting Loose

Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason,
you sing. For no reason, you accept
the way of being lost, cutting loose
from all else and electing a world
where you go where you want to.

Arbitrary, a sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is and you
can slide your way past trouble.

Certain twisted monsters
always bar the path — but that’s when
you get going best, glad to be lost,
learning how real it is
here on earth, again and again.

—William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

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8 Top Spiritual Sites in America

Spiritual journeys can take us to places near and far. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Spiritual journeys can take us to places near and far. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Today’s post is an article of mine that was recently published by the PBS-affiliated website Next Avenue.

 8 Top Spiritual Sites in America: Refresh your soul at these sacred destinations

by Lori Erickson

From Wild to Eat, Pray, Love, spiritual journeys have been on the pop culture radar. But people have been making treks to holy sites for millennia — in fact, these types of locations are probably the oldest form of tourism.

Spiritual journeys differ from ordinary vacations in that they’re meant to nourish the soul and help us reflect on what’s most important to us. Such trips seem to appeal most of all to the unencumbered young (think college students visiting ashrams in India) and to the stock-taking adult (post-divorce, after-the-chemo-ends or on a landmark decade birthday).

More than 300 million people visit the world’s major religious sites each year. Here at home, 25 percent of Americans say they’re interested in taking some sort of spiritual vacation, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The good news is that they don’t have to travel far to find a destination. Here are eight spiritual sites that welcome seekers of all faiths:

1. El Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico

Sometimes described as the Lourdes of North America, this simple adobe church in a village in northern New Mexico attracts thousands of people seeking healing. Pilgrims gather soil that is said to have curative powers from a spot in the floor that is associated with the miraculous discovery of a crucifix in 1810. The walls are covered with crutches, photographs and other tokens left by those who give the shrine credit for cures. The most popular time to visit Chimayo is during Easter week, when many pilgrims walk from Santa Fe and other surrounding towns and cities. A welcome center includes a free museum with art exhibits and displays on the shrine’s history. Inside is a prayer tree covered with pieces of paper on which people have written petitions.

2. Shambhala Mountain Center, Colorado

Founded in 1971 by the Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this 600-acre center in the mountains above Fort Collins hosts retreats, classes and programs led by some of Buddhism’s leading teachers as well as representatives from other wisdom traditions. A magnificent stupa decorated with gold leaf and brilliant colors sits at its center (in Buddhism, stupas are landmarks designed to promote harmony and convey blessings). The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya rises to a height of 108 feet and is filled with a large, golden statue of a Buddha as well as exquisite paintings, decorations and symbolic features. Traditionally, pilgrims walk the perimeter of the stupa in a clockwise fashion, an action said to confer merit. Guests can stay overnight at the center’s retreat campus.


Bear Butte in South Dakota is both a state park and a sacred site for many Plains Indian tribes. (photo by Bob Sessions)

3. Bear Butte, South Dakota

Technically Bear Butte is not a butte, but rather a small mountain that stands just east of the Black Hills. It’s both a state park and a holy site for many Plains Indian tribes, including the Lakota and the Cheyenne. The Lakota call it Mato Paha or “bear mountain,” a reference to the fact that its profile resembles a sleeping bear. Revered leaders like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull all visited this mountain to pray, and it continues to be a place of pilgrimage for Native Americans from throughout the U.S. and Canada. Almost every tree and bush along its paths is draped with pieces of cloth and strung with tiny bundles of tobacco, considered a sacred herb by many Indian tribes. While some of the mountain is reserved for ceremonial use, a hiking trail to the top is open to everyone.

4. Amish Country of Northern Indiana

More than 20,000 Amish live in Elkhart and Lagrange Counties, making this one of the largest Amish communities in the country. Here you can gain a deeper understanding of the distinctive faith and tight bonds of family and community that are the foundation of Amish lives. Menno-Hof, an information center in the small town of Shipshewana, uses exhibits, historical tableaux and audiovisual presentations to give an overview of Amish and Mennonite history and traditions. From there you can explore the surrounding rural countryside, passing fast-trotting horses pulling black buggies and Amish children riding bicycles home from school. A free Heritage Trail audio tour CD with directional cues will take you on a circular loop through the area.

5. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

While it’s affiliated with the Episcopal Church, the Washington National Cathedral also serves as a spiritual home for all Americans. Many state occasions are held here, from memorial services after national tragedies to funerals for senators and presidents. Built between 1907 and 1990, the cathedral is neo-Gothic in design but features many contemporary touches. For example, a Space Window in the sanctuary contains a piece of a lunar rock, while one of its grotesques — an architectural detail similar to a gargoyle — is of Darth Vader. In addition to religious services, the cathedral hosts a full schedule of concerts, lectures and programs. You can also wander through Olmsted Woods, designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. It’s one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the capitol region.


A monk strikes a meditation bowl during a presentation at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky. (photo by Festival of Faiths)

6. Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky

The Festival of Faiths — affectionately known as the Sundance of the Sacred by its fans — began in 1985 as a local interfaith effort to restore a historic cathedral. It has grown to become an internationally recognized event that attracts thousands of people. Its goal is to foster interfaith understanding and cooperation, with a five-day schedule featuring lectures by some of the world’s leading religious teachers and leaders, prayer and meditation services, panel discussions, theater, music, art and films. Typically held in May, each festival has a different theme, from Sacred Journeys to Death and Transformation. Past speakers have included the Dalai Lama, Roshi Joan Halifax, Huston Smith, Richard Rohr, Karen Armstrong, Coleman Barks and Deepak Chopra. Most events are held in downtown Louisville.

7. Islamic Center of Long Island, New York

The roots of this multi-cultural Long Island Muslim community go back to the early 1970s, when members met in temporary quarters until a mosque was built between 1989-91. The center — which is currently being expanded to meet the needs of its growing congregation — blends traditional Islamic architecture with American design elements. Its heart is a prayer room that can accommodate 500 worshippers. The mosque is active in many interfaith and outreach initiatives to promote understanding and tolerance. Guests can attend educational programs, take a tour of the facility and experience congregational prayer on Fridays. Sermons are given primarily in English, and chairs are available for those who find sitting on the floor uncomfortable. Visitors of all faiths are welcomed.

8. Temple-Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, Ohio 

This 165-year-old Reform Jewish congregation has several sites worth visiting. Since 1924 it has worshipped in a golden-domed, Byzantine-style temple designed by architect Charles R. Greco. The building will re-open this fall as the Maltz Performing Arts Center at Case Western Reserve University, but will still be used as a temple for special events and High Holy Day worship. Since donating the facility to the university, the temple’s congregational life has shifted to a synagogue in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood. The Temple Museum of Jewish Art, Religion and Culture, one of the oldest museums of Judaica in North America, has gallery space at both the Beachwood synagogue and at the nearby Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Guests can tour exhibits on the history of Judaism and the Jewish immigrant experience, see religious objects and art from around the world, and then visit the synagogue to see how Jewish traditions live on in a vibrant community.


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Symphony on the Prairie


The Symphony in the Flint Hills is performed each year in a different location in eastern Kansas. (photo by Bob Sessions)

I’ve been doing this blog for a number of years, but there’s one huge category of spirituality that I’ve never written about—the spirituality of music. Well, today is the day to fix that omission.

That’s because I recently had the chance to witness one of the most remarkable musical events in the U.S.: the Symphony in the Flint Hills. This Kansas treasure combines  classical music with tallgrass prairie under a wide open Western sky.

The concert has its roots in 1994, when Flint Hills rancher Jane Koger decided to have a party for her birthday. Not being one to think small (and apparently being a gregarious person) she invited 3,000 of her closest friends to a symphony performance on her Homestead Ranch.

Ten years later, memories of that magical evening prompted a group of Flint Hills leaders to begin a similar public event. Their primary goal was to raise awareness of the Flint Hills, the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie in the nation. For many thousands of years bison grazed these hillsides. When the pioneers arrived, they couldn’t plow the region because of its rocky soil, and so the hills were used to feed cattle. Thus the rich biodiversity of the Flint Hills was kept largely intact, aided by periodic fires set by ranchers, who follow the same cycle of burning once done by Native Americans. The fires keep the trees at bay, remove dead vegetation, and stimulate the prairie plants to grow taller and more abundantly.

I’m a huge fan of prairie landscapes, and I think the Flint Hills are nothing short of spectacular—a truly international attraction. Particularly at sunrise and sunset, they are stunningly beautiful, with grasses looking like ocean waves as they sway and bend in the wind.


A musician from the Tallgrass Express String Band, which performed earlier in the day, walks through the crowd with instrument in tow. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Kudos go to both Flint Hills leaders and to the Kansas City Symphony for making this annual concert possible. The symphony has performed each June since 2004 at a different remote spot in the Flint Hills. Most of the concerts have been on ranches, though this past year the event was held at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City. A small army of 700 volunteers helps stage the non-profit concerts, which draw 7,000 attendees from around the world.

The symphony’s 80 musicians play under a portable structure that protects them from the sun and wind, but everyone else sits on  folding chairs, hay bales, lawn chairs or on the ground. At one point during the concert I looked around and just let the charm of the scene soak in:  there were ranchers in cowboy hats, farmers in overalls, elderly women wearing sensible shoes, and young couples holding hands. And all were listening with rapt attention to the music, which was a selection of pieces relating to the world’s grasslands, from Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia to the theme from the film Out of Africa.


As the Symphony in the Flint Hills came to an end, the sun put on its own show. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Actually that description is not quite accurate, because some concert goers clearly couldn’t just sit and watch the stage when there was so much other beauty to drink in. Instead they wandered out into the prairie with a faraway look in their eyes, watching as the slowly  sinking sun gilded the grasses with halos of light.

And then—and you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I’m not—over the hill behind the symphony came a herd of cows, and behind them were cowboys. The music soared into a crescendo and the cowboys and their cattle circled up the hill and it was just about the most amazing musical experience I’ve ever had. It was all planned in advance, which amuses me no end. Just think—at some point in the past, someone had the idea to run a herd of cattle through a symphony performance and instead of saying, “Now that’s a really stupid idea,” people said, “Wow! Let’s do it!” And they’ve been doing it ever since.

In the middle of the performance, cowboys saluted the concert goers. (photo by Bob Sessions)

In the middle of the performance, cowboys saluted the concert goers. (photo by Bob Sessions)

There are other things that make the Symphony in the Flint Hills a wonderful event. Earlier in the day there are art exhibits,  educational lectures, wagon rides in old-fashioned prairie schooners, and barbecue meals. But to me the entire experience was worth that single moment when I saw those cattle and cowboys came up over the hill to the accompaniment of the soaring music. If you have an ounce of romance in your veins, I defy you to experience this scene and not tear up at least a little.

So there you have it. There wasn’t a church, mosque, or synagogue within 50 miles. No stained glass, no incense, no clergy, no hymns. But it was one of the most spiritual events I’ve experienced in a long time, a perfect combination of transcendent music and glorious landscape. Most of all, it made me see the tallgrass prairie in an entirely new light—as a venue as sacred as any cathedral. For after all, what church has a carpet of blooming flowers and a ceiling of billowy clouds?

For more information, contact the Symphony in the Flint Hills and Kansas Office of Tourism.

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With the Mennonites (and the Eisenhowers) in Kansas


The Kauffman Museum in Kansas explores the history of the Mennonites, a small-but-influential denomination. (photo by Bob Sessions)

One of the religious groups I’ve always admired are the Mennonites. Though small in number, they have an influence far greater than their size would suggest. After a natural disaster, for example, they are often the first to arrive to help and the last to leave. Along with the Quakers, they are one of the historic peace churches, with a long tradition of pacifism and non-violent resistance. These good folks do much to improve the reputation of Christianity.

So on a recent trip to Kansas, I was happy to visit the Kauffman Museum, one of the largest Mennonite museums in the U.S. It’s affiliated with Bethel College, a Mennonite liberal arts school in North Newton, Kansas. At the museum I learned why south central Kansas has the largest Mennonite population west of the Mississippi River. During the 19th century, railway companies were looking for groups of people to buy lots along the tracks being laid across the continent. They sent German-speaking representatives to Europe, where they traveled to isolated Mennonite communities to try to entice them to the U.S.

The Kauffman Museum has an extensive collection of Mennonite immigrant furniture. (photo by Bob Sessions)

The Kauffman Museum has an extensive collection of Mennonite immigrant furniture. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Many Mennonites at the time were worried about the rise of nationalism, especially in Russia, and they were lured as well by the promise of good, reasonably priced farmland in a country with far greater religious tolerance. About 18,000 Mennonites came to the Great Plains between 1874 and 1884. Often whole congregations would move together, creating communities and churches in their new home.

The Kauffman Museum’s exhibits describe the experiences of these people as they established themselves in the U.S.. Its grounds include a 19th-century farmstead and a tallgrass prairie that shows what the landscape looked like when the Mennonites arrived.

While I learned a lot from the historical information at the Kauffman Museum, I was most intrigued by its display on martyrdom. This denomination was often persecuted in Europe because their members refused to serve in the military and because of their practice of adult baptism. (Killing people over baptism? Honestly, with these skeletons hanging in the family closet, sometimes I’m embarrassed to be a Christian.)  One of the Mennonite’s most important books became Mirror of the Martyrs, a 17th-century volume that recounts stories of people who died for their faith without retaliating against their oppressors.

This exhibit’s power comes from the ways in which it connects stories of the past to today.  One area, for example, poses a series of provocative questions:

“Why do good people torture and kill?”

“What beliefs are worth dying for?

“Why do the powerful fear the weak?”

“Who are the martyrs today?”

These questions are especially poignant, of course, given the news that we hear nearly every day, from the recent shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina to the stories of the victims of ISIS in the Middle East. The Mennonites have been pondering these questions for a long time. The exhibit was interesting in that it didn’t give pat answers to these hard questions, but instead detailed stories of personal bravery and quiet fortitude despite terrible oppression. This 16th-century quotation highlighted in the display sums up their response to injustice: “Martyrdom is never an affair of weakness, but rather strength. Only a hero is able to walk the path of martyrdom.”


The Kauffman Museum includes a historic farmstead with heritage flower and vegetable gardens. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Which brings me to the other Kansas landmark I want to tell you about—the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home. You wouldn’t think there would be much in common between these two sites, would you? But bear with me, for there are more connections that you realize.

Eisenhower grew up in Abilene as the third of seven sons in a family which was part of the River Brethren, a denomination closely related to the Mennonites. His mother in particular was a devout believer who tried to instill in her sons a commitment to the faith.

Dwight was a good student who wanted to go to college despite his family’s limited means, and so he applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which has free tuition for its students. Our guide at the museum told us that when Dwight left for college, it was the only time his mother ever cried in public, because she was so upset he was going to a military academy.


Despite being raised in a pacifist family, Dwight Eisenhower became one of the most celebrated military leaders in history. (photo from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum)

You know the rest of the story. Dwight Eisenhower went on to become one of the most important military leaders in history. During World War II he was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. He was responsible for the planning and execution of the D-Day Invasion, the largest military invasion ever staged. After the war ended, he was elected President, a position that also required him to send men to combat. Eisenhower was an honorable, good man, but think of all the ways in which he wandered far from his family’s pacifist beliefs.

Except maybe not so far after all. For at his grave in a chapel on the grounds of the museum, there are several quotes, each carefully chosen to distill the essence of his life of service and leadership. The one that brought tears to my eyes is a passage taken from one of his speeches, words that make me think that even after all the killing he had seen and participated in, the voice of his mother still whispered in his ear. The words are taken from a speech he gave in 1953:


This quote is placed above the final resting place of Dwight Eisenhower. (photo by Bob Sessions)


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The Grace in Dying


Robert Genin’s “Fallen” (Wikimedia Commons image)

You might say that the topic of death is hot these days. Many people are questioning the standard Western practices surrounding death, which too often occurs after medical interventions that prolong suffering, prohibit people from coming to a sense of peace about their dying, and separate people from their loved ones when they need them the most.

That’s why I think Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Dying : How We Are Transformed Spiritually as We Die is so important. Regular readers may remember that not long ago I raved about Singh’s book The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older. Both books are remarkably wise, but I think The Grace in Dying is even more profound in its insights. It came out a number of years ago, but its truths are timeless.

Losing a loved one–or facing the end of one’s own life–is almost always a wrenching, painful experience. Singh does not deny or gloss over this reality. But her book draws on many spiritual traditions, as well as the insights of transpersonal psychology, to assert that dying is more than a tragedy: it is the path of spiritual transformation.

In the late 1960s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross helped ignite interest in the dying process with her theory that those who are dying commonly go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Singh believes that these stages are only part of the profound changes that occur as people confront their mortality and enter into the mystery of death. She writes of the levels of awareness and being that transcend our personal consciousness. Dying, she writes, is a process of natural enlightenment, a journey that leads us back to the Ground of Being (or God, or Jesus, or however one describes Spirit) from which we once emerged.

247037Singh has been at the bedside of hundreds of dying people. She draws on her own experiences, her Buddhist training and practice, and her observations of the dying process to weave a powerful testimony to what she calls the Nearing Death Experience.

Singh believes that the Nearing Death Experience is similar to its better-known counterpart, the Near-Death experience, but with some key differences. She writes:

“The two processes have many similarities, although the experience of nearing death through terminal illness is slower and more protracted [than the typically sudden injuries that trigger a Near-Death Experience]. I believe, from hundreds of pieces of anecdotal evidence, that in the dying process a person makes many partial, preparatory trips into dimensions of being beyond our normal consciousness, experience, and identity. The Nearing Death Experience finds a human being flickering back and forth between realms of existence or states of consciousness, almost like a diver practicing the approach to a dive: he or she jumps into the air, then returns to the familiarity of the board, jumps and returns, jumps and returns until he or she makes the final ascent to the dive.”

Singh’s most important message is one of comfort. She says that many spiritual traditions, while different in details, assert that one’s death is not something to be feared. “Like others who participate in this awesome process of dying, I see ordinary people like you and me die in peace and in serenity, without a struggle, dissolving out of their bodies,” she writes. “They die into their True and Essential nature. They appear, often knowingly, to melt into Spirit, as naturally as a snowflake melts on the hand.”


Kathleen Dowling Singh

Singh says this about what she calls the via negativa of dying:  “The defining elements of suffering, the removal of unreality, of the inessential, and the creation of new levels of consciousness and identity are present [in the dying process.] The experience of living with terminal illness is an experience of subtracting daily. Each day, a new factor is eliminated from who it was the person thought he or she was. It is a shedding of illusory identifications or definitions of self.”

Loved ones may naturally see this as a tragedy (and indeed, for those who are left behind, death can be a terrible loss, particularly when someone dies prematurely). But for the person who is dying, this process is one of spiritual rebirth and transformation. “No more energy goes into hiding and maintaining the dreadful secret that we are ordinary human beings, just like everyone else,” she says.


Statue of a Buddha at the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kansas (photo by Bob Sessions)

Singh offers a traditional Buddhist image to suggest what the experience of death is like: Imagine an empty vase in which the space inside is exactly the same as the space outside. Only the fragile walls of the vase separate one from the other. Our buddha mind is enclosed within the walls of our ordinary mind. When we die, it is as if the vase shatters in pieces. The space “inside” merges into the space “outside.” They become one. There and then we realize that they were never separate or different. Buddhists would say this is the return to the Ground of Being; in Christian terms, we become enfolded in the arms of God. All words are merely fingers pointing at the moon of this truth, but Singh does as good a job as any author I’ve ever read of exploring the spiritual transformation of the dying process.

The Grace in Dying is a book to savor slowly, allowing its wisdom to sink deeply into one’s heart.

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The Ben Long Frescoes of North Carolina


In West Jefferson, North Carolina, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church houses three beautiful frescoes by artist Ben Long. (photo by Bob Sessions)

In 1972, artist Ben Long was looking for a place to put his newly acquired fresco painting skills t0 work. He approached J. Faulton Hodge, the rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina, with an offer to paint a fresco inside the church. “I’ll even do the work for free,” he said.

“We’ll take it!” replied an enthusiastic Father Hodge. “But tell me–what’s a fresco?”

So begins the story of a holy site located in the small town of West Jefferson, North Carolina (many thanks to Mississippi Pilgrim, dear friend and devoted follower of this blog, for introducing me to this sweet place).

Today the Ben Long Frescoes bring thousands of people each year to St. Mary’s, which is located near the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The artist, whose full name is Ben F. Long IV, has gone on to an internationally distinguished career. But back in the 1970s, both he and the church were far off the world’s radar.

Born in 1945, Long had studied at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the Art Students League in New York. After serving two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, he spent nine years in Florence, Italy, as an apprentice to Maestro Pietro Annigoni.

From Annigoni he learned one of the most challenging of all art forms: fresco painting. It’s an ancient technique, similar to the process used in prehistoric cave paintings. Wet plaster is applied to a wall, and the painting of the fresco (which is Italian for “fresh”) is done while the mixture is still moist. Because the pigment bonds so quickly to the plaster, this type of painting requires great skill and meticulous planning. Some of the most famous paintings of the Italian Renaissance were done in fresco, including Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan.


“Mary Great With Child” portrays a very pregnant Mary. (photo by Bob Sessions)

While Long made his initial contact with St. Mary’s Church in 1972, it wasn’t until two years later that he started a fresco there, his first project after returning from Italy. The piece is called Mary Great with Child. Local residents soon heard of the project and flocked to the church to see what was happening, especially after a rumor got started that the mural would feature people in the nude.

Even after locals learned that the rumor was untrue (no doubt to the disappoint of some), many took a great interest in the process and came regularly to watch as the artist and his assistants worked. People from various denominations took turns feeding and housing the visiting artists and tried to outdo each other in creating meals for them.

Over the next three years, Long created two additional frescoes for St. Mary’s:  John the Baptist in 1975 and Mystery of Faith in 1977. It’s said that during the painting of the final mural, Long continued working even during church services, though he would stop briefly to take communion. The works of art and their ensuing fame helped transform the church from a struggling parish to a true congregation.


Today Ben Long works from a studio in Asheville, North Carolina. (photo from Ben Long Studio)

As the years passed, Long’s reputation has grown (and I bet he no longer needs to offer to work for free). To date, he has painted more than 30 frescoes.  Some are in churches, including a mural of The Last Supper at nearby Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs, North Carolina. Others are in public buildings, including the largest secular fresco in the U.S. at the Bank of America’s corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Long also works in other media, and his oil paintings, portraits and drawings are included in major collections in Europe and the Americas.

If you’re traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, stop by St. Mary’s to see these lovely frescoes. You can view additional paintings on the Ben Long Frescoes Trail, which runs through seven counties in North Carolina.

To me the most interesting of the three murals at St. Mary’s is the Mystery of Faith (pictured below). It’s a haunting image, isn’t it? Its juxtaposition of the crucified Jesus and risen Christ is unusual in religious art. It has a contemporary feel to it, showing how an ancient artistic technique can be used in fresh ways.

I’m struck as well by how these murals exemplify the power of religious art. Many of the world’s greatest artistic creations were commissioned for churches, cathedrals and other houses of faith. One could argue that such works are mainly ornamental, but in reality they provide an entry into the mystery of faith in a way that words can’t.

Without the Ben Long murals, St. Mary’s might well be a boarded-up church or one attended by a dwindling number of parishioners. With them, St. Mary’s is visited by thousands of pilgrims a year, who come to sit in its small sanctuary, pray, and contemplate the beautiful works of art at its altar. When Ben Long made his offer four decades ago, the good Father Hodge gave the right response—even if he had no idea what he was agreeing to.


Ben Long’s fresco “The Mystery of Faith” covers the wall behind the altar at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina. (photo by Bob Sessions)

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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

Joseph Smith (photo from

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.

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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

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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

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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!

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