The Spirituality of Morning Coffee


Morning coffee on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado (Bob Sessions photo)

If I get to heaven, I hope St. Peter will give me two things once I enter the Pearly Gates: a cup of coffee and a lawn chair. I’m going to tell him that while I tried my best with more standard spiritual practices, some of my most transcendent moments have come while sitting in a beautiful spot while camping, a steaming cup of java in my hand.

I had this epiphany about the spiritual power of coffee while on our recent trip to Colorado, where Bob and I camped and hiked our way across the state for three weeks. One morning we were sitting overlooking the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a 48-mile formation of steep, jagged cliffs cut by the rushing waters of the Gunnison River over millions of years. It was six o’clock in the morning and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. Below us was a thousand-foot drop; around us on the rim was an expanse of short-grass prairie. As we gazed downwards from our perch on the rim, we could see far below a hawk gliding on the updrafts created by the canyon walls, gracefully spiraling around and around in a pirouette with the wind.

As I sipped my coffee, I thought of what a holy communion it was.

Communion—that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? In Christianity it refers to the Eucharist, the bread and wine that represent the body and blood of Christ. But Christians have no monopoly on communion, for many traditions seek a blending of divine and human realms. On that canyon edge, we experienced a holy communion with the sky and earth, accompanied by a choir of warblers. At one point a raven flew so close that I could hear the whoosh of his wings—though I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it had turned out to be an angel in feathered disguise.

It was, quite simply, The Best Morning Coffee of All Time.


The Black Canyon is so deep and steep that parts of it receive less than an hour of sunlight a day. (Bob Sessions photo)

You may think that’s an exaggeration, but I’m somewhat of an expert when it comes to morning coffee. While I savor this caffeinated ritual each day, my favorite morning coffees have taken place while camping. Bob and I have enjoyed coffee on the North Shore of Lake Superior, on the banks of rivers in Iowa, on beaches in New Zealand, and on more mountainsides than I can remember.

I’m telling you this not to make you envious (for you too can have morning coffee wherever you happen to be). But it relates to something I’ve been thinking about for some time, and that’s that we often make spirituality too complicated. We think it’s all about doctrine, practice, and effort, about reading the right things, doing the right things, and thinking the right things. But the older I get, the simpler it seems to be. It’s about noticing the small things. The warmth of a coffee cup in your hands. The first shafts of light breaking on the horizon. The sound of a meadowlark greeting the dawn. I think God wants us to slow down and notice the things that He put so much effort into making (“You want to see some pretty rocks? I can show you some pretty rocks!”).

So why is coffee an essential part of the experience? For one thing, you can’t work very hard when you’re sipping coffee. It forces you to stop, to savor, and to sit quietly. I suppose other beverages would work as well, but for me coffee is the magic elixir. And as you sit, you can watch the light slowly shift (this works perfectly well out a kitchen or bedroom window at home, let me assure you).

But if you’re lucky, at least occasionally you’ll get the chance to enjoy that morning coffee in a place as spectacular as the Black Canyon. As long as I have you here, let me tell you a little about it, because you must put it on your list if it’s not there already. It takes its name from the fact that it is so narrow and steep that little light can penetrate it. Shrouded in shadows for much of the day, each morning and evening the slanting light illuminates one facet of the canyon after another, almost as if a spotlight is being shone into it (as indeed I guess it is).

Part of what I loved about the Black Canyon is that not very many people visit it. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and loved that too, but my, there are an awful lot of people there. The constant chatter of one’s fellow tourists takes some of the grandeur out of the experience. But relatively few people come to the Black Canyon, tucked away in a remote corner of western Colorado. The Gunnison River that surges through the base of the canyon is too dangerous for boat travel, and so when you look downwards, you’re gazing on true wilderness.

Here’s my advice. Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Get up early, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go sit on the rim. Do absolutely nothing except sip the coffee and look around you. Repeat as necessary until you reach Enlightenment.


While the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is beautiful all the time, occasionally God adds a little extra bling, just because He can. (Bob Sessions photo)

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With the Ancient Astronomers on Chimney Rock


Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado preserves an ancient astronomical site of the Ancestral Puebloans. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today we travel east from Mesa Verde for about a hundred miles to Chimney Rock National Monument. Now I realize Chimney Rocks are a dime a dozen around the world. But I think the more you learn about this one in Colorado, the more intrigued you’ll be.

Chimney Rock National Monument preserves an ancient astronomical site on top of a high mesa surrounded by mountains. A thousand years ago, the mesa was occupied by Ancestral Publoans (the same civilization that lived at Mesa Verde). The site is remarkable both for its two jagged spires and for the elaborate buildings that were constructed here in the 11th century.

For a long time, Chimney Rock was a mystery to archeologists. While the mesa has a good view of the surrounding mountains, why would anyone labor so hard to build structures on top of it? The mesa has no water source and no arable land, and all building materials would have had to be carried up 1,000 feet from the valley below.


Chimney Rock National Monument is visible from a great distance. (Bob Sessions photo)

J. McKim Malville, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Colorado, solved the mystery. Malville is an archeoastronomer (an astronomer who studies the sky watchers of the past), and for many years, Chimney Rock had intrigued him. At first he thought that the site might be connected in some way to the summer solstice. But when he trekked there at the appropriate time of the year he was disappointed to see that the sunrise happened well to the south of the twin spires. He investigated other astronomical possibilities, but none proved correct. Then he hit upon another theory: maybe the twin spires framed a lunar standstill, a phenomenon that happens just once every 18 years. A lunar standstill happens when the moon reaches the outermost point on its orbit, rising and setting far to the north on the horizon. At high latitudes the effect is amplified, making it a major event for anyone studying the night skies.

Malville was able to test his theory on August 8, 1988, a night when he calculated that the moon would rise between the two towers if viewed from the ruins atop the mesa. In his book Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest, he writes of taking a group of students to the top of the mesa that night. They were skeptical that staying up until two in the morning would be worth the effort, he says, but they had their cameras ready. And then, as if by magic, the moon rose exactly between the spires. “Everyone was stunned,” writes Malville. “I felt like a Yankee in King Arthur’s court.” (If you remember, in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a time-traveler amazed the populace by successfully predicting a solar eclipse. I trust that Malville’s students were equally impressed by his wizardry.)

There’s another piece of evidence that corroborates this theory: according to tree ring data, the main structure on top of the mesa was built in two phases. The first floor was constructed in 1076 and the second floor in 1093. And lo and behold, lunar standstills happened in December of 1056 and December of 1093.


The Great House on Chimney Rock was constructed from building materials brought up 1,000 feet from the valley below. (Bob Sessions photo)

I’d like to pause briefly here for a moment to say, “Isn’t this COOL?!” At first you probably thought being an archeoastronomer was deadly dull, and then you realize they get to do things like this.

Other scientists (the more run-of-the-mill archeologists) have discovered additional information about Chimney Rock. After analyzing the design and construction methods of its so-called Great House, they believe Chimney Rock was likely a satellite settlement of the civilization based in Chaco Canyon, 93 miles to the south.

This Great House was one impressive building. In its glory days it included two large kivas and 35 rooms on its ground floor, with the second floor having perhaps another 20. It may have been plastered white and would certainly have been visible for many miles from below.

Today visitors reach the site by driving up a winding road and then hiking the final quarter mile. At the entry to the mesa stand the ruins of what was probably a guard tower, and nearby are the remains of the Great House. From there the narrow causeway leads to the twin spires.


The narrow causeway on top of the mesa is just big enough for the ruins and the twin spires. (Bob Sessions photo)

In his book, Malville speculates what it might have been like to live in an time when the night skies had an immediacy and power far greater than today. In many cultures, both the day and night skies were peopled with gods. It was the astronomer-priests who navigated the relations between worlds, scanning the heavens for clues. As they did so, they discovered many scientific truths that they used to set the dates of festivals and mark the changing seasons. They would have been greatly aided in this, Malville believes, by an irregular horizon, which makes it much easier to track movements in the sky (think of how hard it would be on a prairie to remember just where the sun rises each morning, let alone exactly where it rose six months ago).

So sometime in the distant past, someone was on Chimney Rock at just the right time to notice the moon rising between the two spires. Word of this wonder eventually spread to the people of Chaco, who were master astronomers in their own right. They began to build an outpost at the site in preparation for the next lunar standstill. Later, they expanded that site in time for another standstill.

It’s thought that there were signal fires that brought the news of the lunar standstills to Chaco Canyon. According to Malville, Chimney Rock may have been the Greenwich Observatory of the ancient Four Corners Region. Just as our watches are set according to calculations made at the Greenwich Observatory in London, this remote spot high atop a mesa was also a fulcrum of time.

The buildings on Chimney Rock were abandoned sometime after 1130, during the period when the Chaco civilization was also declining. Today many Indian tribes continue to regard it as a sacred place. And (judging from the number of tie-dye-clad, gray-pony-tailed guys who were part of our tour group) it also attracts a lot of Taos types as well, seekers who follow the spiritual trails across the Southwest.

But even sober scientists can get caught up in the mood on Chimney Rock. “Even today,” writes J. McKim Malville, “to walk gradually upward along the causeway seems a transition from ordinary space to sacred space, especially when approaching the rising moon or sun. The overall sense of [Chimney Rock] is that it was not built for practical purposes but for its commanding view of the double spires and the surrounding heavens.”

From that mesa today, I think one can see not only through distance, but also through time.

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In the Kivas of Mesa Verde


At Mesa Verde National Park, a ceremonial kiva has been reconstructed at Spruce Tree House (Bob Sessions photo).

(Below is Part 2 of my Mesa Verde reflections; Part 1 is here)

My recent trip to Mesa Verde National Park was actually my second visit. I had toured there about 30 years ago, but with the passage of time I had forgotten almost everything about the experience except for this: being in a kiva (a ceremonial underground room) looking up at the light coming through a small opening in the roof.

Something about the luminous quality of that light made a deep impression on me. Sunlight can be brutally intense in the Southwest, but in the kiva it warmed but did not overwhelm. I remember the encircling walls of the structure, the wooden logs that formed the ceiling, and the intriguing sense of mystery about the place.

And that, dear readers, was my reaction long before I discovered my love for holy sites. You can just imagine how intrigued I am now by kivas.


The kiva is entered through a ladder placed in a small opening in the roof (Bob Sessions photo).

If you have to choose one take-away from a visit to Mesa Verde, that memory from inside a kiva is a pretty good choice. Kivas were the symbolic heart of the civilization that once flourished here. In trying to explain their importance, the national park guides compare them to churches, mosques and temples. But that analogy only partially conveys their importance.

Kivas (the word comes from the Hopi language) are found in or near virtually every living area at Mesa Verde as well as in other sites of the Ancient Puebloans. Archeologists say that each extended family likely had their own kiva, which were excavated out of either sandstone or soil with considerable effort. Because space was so precious in the cliff dwellings, these subterranean rooms likely served a mixture of social, storage and—most importantly—religious purposes. They would have provided a cool shelter from the relentless sun of summer and a warm sanctuary from winter’s cold. They were entered through a hole in their roofs, which were sturdy enough to be used as living space on top. At Mesa Verde kivas are typically round in shape, with a central fire pit and a ventilator shaft that allowed fresh air to flow through. An air deflector stood in front of the fire to keep the flames from being blown out by the fresh air. The kiva’s sides contained a banquette (similar to a bench) around its perimeter and usually had six pilasters, or pillars.

Perhaps the most important part of a kiva was deceptively small: the sipapu, a round opening in the floor that served as the entrance into another world. Sipapu is Hopi for “place of emergence.” Like many cultures (think of the story of Noah’s ark) the Hopi believed that this was not the first world to be created. Hopi oral tradition says that far in the past humans emerged from their former home into this one, passing through a liminal place now symbolically marked by the sipapu.

Modern-day Pueblo elders have given some insights into what may have gone on in these kivas. Craig Childs writes in House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest:

Some modern Pueblo people in the Southwest still use the kiva as their holy chamber, and among those who speak the language of Tewa, the kiva is called te’i, “the place of the cottonwood tree.” The kiva is thought to be a bridge between the underworld and the world above, and the hole traditionally placed in the kiva floor, just beyond the deflector stone and in front of the ladder, represents a place of emergence. In Tewa this hole is called p’okwi koji, the “lake roof hole,” which leads up from a mysterious underground lake. The kiva is where a radiant green tree grows in the spareness of the desert, as if it were a flag raised on barren ground announcing the presence of water below, a sign of hope and fertility.

Childs’ book (which I highly recommend) provides a fascinating look at what is known of this Ancestral Puebloan civilization, including the many ways in which it was shaped by water. In the semi-arid land of the Southwest, drought was an ever-present danger. The difference between a year of plenty and a year of famine often depended upon a single big rainstorm. Water was hoarded and conserved, carefully trapped in small dams on the tops of mesas and harvested from underground springs. When weather patterns shifted and an area became too dry for farming, its residents had to move. The history of the pre-Columbian Southwest can be viewed as a series of back-and-forth migrations chasing the rain.

It’s no wonder that the mysterious hole in a kiva would lead to a metaphorical lake.


At Balcony House, two kivas exist side by side—note the small sipapu hole in the floor. (Bob Sessions photo)

Bob and I got the chance to view dozens of kivas, both at Mesa Verde and on a day-long tour in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which is adjacent to the national park. The Utes are not descended from the people who once lived at Mesa Verde, but for many years they have been caretakers of some of their ruins. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park offers tours of remote sites that are not the tidied-up, restored dwellings one sees at Mesa Verde. While some have been documented by archeologists, most have been left in the same state as they have existed for many centuries.

What a day that was! The entire tour had an Indiana Jones flavor to it. We bounced along on dirt roads, hiked on narrow paths that snaked along the sides of canyons, and climbed steep ladders to peer into cliff dwelling sites. In some, we could see the colored plaster that had once covered the walls, the designs faded but still recognizable. Pieces of broken pottery and other artifacts could be picked up and examined without a park ranger getting upset. I remember at one point holding a piece of rope in my hand. I could see how it had been constructed of different types of fibers, the pieces twined carefully around each other, and it seemed impossible to believe that nearly a thousand years had passed since it was made.

A braided rope from a cliff dwelling (Bob Sessions photo)

A braided rope from a cliff dwelling (Bob Sessions photo)

But once again it was the kivas that most fascinated me. Unlike at Mesa Verde, these kivas were often collapsed in on themselves, with their original roof beams lying in disarray. Our guide told us that before a group left an area, they commonly burned the roofs, as if to ensure that no one else would have access to the power contained within.

What would it have been like to live above one of these kivas? To know that underneath your living space was the entry into a place of mystery and wonder? There are so many possible symbolic meanings of a kiva that one hardly knows where to begin. They recall the darkness of the womb and the safety of the cave. They were betwixt-and-between places, pregnant with possibility. In emerging from them, perhaps the people felt they were reborn anew, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

At Mesa Verde, I learned that the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans come back on a regular basis to use the kivas for religious ceremonies. It pleases me to think of how that busy national park is full of tourists during the day, but after hours it once again becomes the property of those who are spiritually tied to it. The rangers depart, and the sacred spaces come to life, like a heart that beats once again. Perhaps this is the reason why the cliff dwellings seem surprisingly alive, with spirits that shift and move among the ruins.


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Amid the Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde


Mesa Verde preserves the ruins of a civilization that flourished for seven centuries in southwestern Colorado (Bob Sessions photo)

In my travels around the world I’ve learned that most spiritual sites have layers upon layers of history, meaning and mystery. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado may be the best example I’ve encountered of just how complicated the intertwining of those layers can be.

When I was planning my visit, I contacted the park staff to say that I was a writer interested in learning about the spiritual traditions of Mesa Verde. I got a diplomatically worded reply, telling me in the nicest possible way that I had no idea just how difficult that seemingly simple request was.

The staff at the national park has good reason to be wary of the minefields of interpretation that exist at Mesa Verde. The people who once lived there left no written records. The Indian tribes that trace their ancestry to them are fiercely protective of their own spiritual traditions, many of which derive from what was once practiced at Mesa Verde. And so when clueless travel writers like myself arrive full of questions, there’s an understandable reluctance to be too speculative in their theorizing.

That said, over several days Bob and I learned a great deal, helped out by knowledgeable rangers, some fascinating tours and a wonderful book by Craig Childs called House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. Over the next few posts I’ll tell you some of what we learned, with the caveat that all of what I write is tentative and partial. But I am certain of this: Mesa Verde and the surrounding area is a spiritual treasure, worthy of pilgrimage. And what’s the value of a holy site that has no mysteries?

Mesa Verde National Park preserves more than 4,500 archeological sites left by a civilization that used to be known as the Anasazi. That term has now fallen into disuse, for it’s derived from a Navajo word meaning “ancient foreigners” and bears no resemblance to what the people actually called themselves. Instead, those who lived at Mesa Verde are now called the Ancestral Pueblo people, for their descendants include the Hopi of Arizona and the peoples of the Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico.


Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table,” a reference to the verdant tops of its mesas (Bob Sessions photo).

These Ancestral Pueblo people lived at Mesa Verde for seven centuries beginning around 550 C.E. At first they dwelled in shallow pit houses excavated from the soil, but over the centuries they became master builders, constructing elaborate complexes tucked into the sandstone cliffs of this dry region in southwestern Colorado. Because these structures blend so seamlessly with their surroundings, you may not even see them at first when you scan the landscape, until you look more closely and see how cleverly they are built into the rocks.

Why did they build the cliff houses? Archeologists have a variety of theories. Perhaps they were trying to defend themselves from rival tribes. Maybe the buildings were a way to cope with the region’s extremes of temperature, from blistering sun in the summer to the cold winds of winter. Or perhaps these people simply enjoyed the stunning views from way up high. Whatever the reason (or reasons, for probably there were many), the Ancestral Puebloans built a wide array of structures ingeniously fitted into the confines of the surrounding cliffs. Some likely held just a few people and others, such as Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and would have housed approximately 100 people.

While the Ancestral Puebloans lived tucked under the cliffs, they clearly didn’t stay there all the time. Using precarious hand- and toe-holds chiseled into the canyon walls, they traveled back and forth to the mesas above, where they hunted for game and grew corn, squash and beans. They also raised domesticated turkeys, which were valued both for their meat and their feathers.


Mesa Verde’s Balcony House is reached by a steep ladder (Bob Sessions photo).

Bob and I got a sense for the high-altitude vibe of life at Mesa Verde on a tour of the Balcony House, which is reached by climbing a 30-foot ladder propped against a cliff. After gingerly ascending the ladder, we emerged into a living space that seemed more like an aerie for birds than a home for humans, with a sweeping expanse of canyon visible from the balcony in front.

“How did you live here if you were afraid of heights?” I asked Bob, a bit dizzy as I peered over the edge.

“The ones who were scared of heights probably didn’t last very long,” he said.


This tiny passageway is the original entrance to Balcony House at Mesa Verde (Bob Sessions photo)

The height wasn’t the only challenging part of living in Balcony House. While visitors today enter via a ladder, in ancient times it was accessible only via a brick tunnel, a narrow passageway that is just big enough to crawl through on your hands and knees. Why this was constructed in such a way is just one of a myriad of mysteries at Mesa Verde. (How did they haul in food and other supplies? What if you were elderly?) Perhaps the tiny entry was a way of keeping out enemies, though surely the day-to-day inconvenience must have been incredible. Or maybe Balcony House was a center for ceremonial activity and its inaccessibility was linked to its symbolic meaning.

As I crawled through that narrow tunnel on our way out of Balcony House, I recalled that in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one has to bend low to get through an opening known as the Door of Humility. It is a way of physically enacting the spiritual process that one is to go through to become worthy to enter a holy place. Perhaps that was true at Balcony House as well, and the narrow passageway was just the first of a series of tests that one had to go through to be part of the community there.

Balcony House is one of about 600 cliff dwellings in the park. Many have yet to be fully excavated and documented, but enough is known that archaeologists regard the Mesa Verde civilization to be among the most culturally, artistically and religiously sophisticated cultures in pre-Columbian North America.


The walls of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are constructed from blocks of sandstone, with mortar made from dirt and water (Bob Sessions photo).

One of the great mysteries of Mesa Verde is why it was abandoned in a relatively short time period. In the late 1200s people began to move away and by about 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. This period coincided with an extended period of drought, so perhaps that was the reason for their flight. Or maybe the natural resources of the area had become depleted, the game over-hunted and soils leached of nutrients. Or perhaps it was simply that this formerly nomadic people, a culture that was used to picking up stakes and moving on, moved because there were other places where the figurative grass looked greener.

For whatever reason, Mesa Verde fell into a prolonged slumber and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the larger world became aware of the ruins. Scientific work began soon after, with pioneering archeologists working to investigate and stabilize the structures. In 1906 it became a national park, the first to preserve an archeological site. Today it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the patrimony of all humans.

As I toured the ruins, I thought many of the rooms had a surprisingly modern feel, as if they were high-rise apartments waiting for the return of their residents, who would soon come back to sweep away the dust and begin housekeeping once again. But in thinking back to my time there, I find myself returning again and again to that narrow portal that led into the Balcony House. It lent a dreamlike feel to my visit there, making it an almost Alice-in-Wonderland sort of experience. What was it like to live perched high above the earth like that? And why did it feel like there was still a living presence in the ruins of Mesa Verde?

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Christ Has No Online Presence But Yours


Photo courtesy of Social Media Sunday

Did I get your attention with that headline? The catchy phrase comes from a digital initiative to be held this weekend, when churches around the country will stage a Social Media Sunday, including my own parish of Trinity Episcopal in Iowa. Parishioners are encouraged to bring electronic devices to church and to live tweet and post during the services.

With apologies to Teresa of Avila, the organizers explain the initiative this way:

Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours,
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours.

I love it! For not surprisingly, I’m a big believer both in the power of the Spirit and the power of the Internet. In my home town, for example, I’m greatly impressed by what the newly launched Journey Church is doing with its engaging and vibrant media presence. It’s just one example of the growing number of faith communities that skillfully blend digital and in-person communities.


The Holy Rover is like the TV series Cheers, only instead of Norm you might find Thomas Merton at the bar.

And certainly this blog is a on-going source of inspiration and meaning for me–and I hope for many of you as well.

You may be interested in an update on how things are going here at The Holy Rover. As you old-timers may remember, this blog began in 2009 and a year later became part of the larger Spiritual Travels website. I like to think of The Holy Rover as a kind of online Irish pub, serving drafts of spirituality instead of Guinness. Like the bar in the TV series Cheers, it’s frequented by a regular group of customers who have come to know each other through the magic of flying electrons. Spiritual Travels, in contrast, is like a library, with material that is more easily accessible to folks who want to dip in with a single question. What’s it like to stay in a Buddhist temple in KyotoWhy do people go to Santiago de Compostela on pilgrimage? are some of the search queries that lead people to the site.

Each month, about 8,000 unique visitors (more if you count repeat visitors) wander into the Spiritual Travels library, reading about 20,000 pages. Some stay for a minute, and some read 50 or more pages (while I can’t see individual addresses, the diagnostics for the website give all sorts of other details–for example, while about half of my readers hail from the U.S., I’ve had clicks from Tanzania, Mongolia, and Indonesia, coming from people whom I hope have used the translation button at right). Every few weeks I’ll get a personal note from one of these readers, often telling me about some trip they’ve taken as a result of my suggestion. These emails make my day, as you can imagine.

For those of you who hang out at The Holy Rover, you may not even be aware that Spiritual Travels exists. If you want to check it out, I invite you to browse its Destinations page. A lot of this material may look familiar, for much of it started as blog posts.

There are a variety of reasons why I continue to labor over Spiritual Travels. I get some money from donations (Thank you very much, generous patrons! You’ll find the donations button in the upper right corner of the page.) There’s a small trickle of funds from advertising. There are speaking gigs that come to me as a result of this website (send me a note at if you want to learn more about the various Dog and Pony Shows I can present). I’m also happy to write for other print and online publications on any aspect of spiritual journeying.

Most of all, I love having the excuse to go to a place I’m interested in and ask lots of questions. I’ve met the most fascinating people through my travels–from Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns to Lakota wise men. And I’ve met you, my faithful readers, mostly online but sometimes in person.

So if you enjoy this blog, I hope you’ll help spread the word about it. On Facebook, type in Holy Rover and you can “like” it. Tweet it; talk about it; email a friend about it. However you communicate, I appreciate the good words. And drop in any time at The Holy Rover. There’s always a seat waiting for you at the bar.

Finally, you might want to watch this video about why it’s not such a bad idea to tweet your way through a church service this coming Sunday:

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Where the Music Died (and Lives)


A farmer’s field near Clear Lake, Iowa, is the site of a memorial marking the place where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died on February 3, 1959. (Bob Sessions photo)

It’s not the cheeriest of thoughts, but isn’t it interesting how many spiritual sites are connected with death? From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and Normandy Cemetery in France to the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, places associated with tragedy are often considered sacred.

On a recent trip to northern Iowa, I added another such site to my list, one that at first might seem an unlikely pilgrimage destination: the farmer’s field where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash in 1959. If you’re of my vintage, you may know of this tragedy as “The Day the Music Died,” a phrase from the song “American Pie” by Don McLean (that melancholy song was part of the soundtrack of my generation’s teenage years, each line endlessly parsed for symbolic meaning.)

To be honest, it took me awhile to realize that this is a place of pilgrimage. But as I stood at the simple memorial, suddenly it clicked. I saw the offerings left on the ground. I realized I’d met pilgrims as I approached the site–a couple from Norman, Oklahoma, who had made a detour on a cross-country trip to pay their respects. I could see another group of visitors walking down the path. Yes, this is a pilgrimage site, all right–one that is connected not to religious faith, but instead is intertwined with music, memory and lost youth.


The path to the crash site is marked by a sculpture recalling Buddy Holly’s iconic eyeglasses. (Bob Sessions photo)

As with most pilgrimage sites, there’s a narrative that helps shape the meaning of this place, one that is told and retold by visitors. It begins the evening before the three musicians died, when they played a concert at the nearby Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  As rising stars in the new genre of rock ‘n roll, they drew a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Surf. Buddy Holly in particular was on the fast track to fame, thanks to a string of hits that included “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

That evening, Holly decided to book a small private plane to take him to the group’s next gig in North Dakota rather than travel by the drafty and cold tour bus. There was much discussion about the two other available seats. Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s band, was offered a spot, but he graciously gave it to Richardson, who had come down with the flu. The last seat was wanted by both band member Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens, so the two flipped a coin. Allsup lost the toss and won his life.

The plane went down soon after take-off, plunging into a farmer’s field. The three musicians and pilot, Roger Peterson, were killed instantly. And ever since pilgrims have been coming to this spot in the middle of rural Iowa. Marked with a metal memorial made in the shape of a guitar and three vinyl records, the site attracts one kind of offering more than any other: coins, given in recognition of the fateful toss.

It’s interesting to speculate on why this place continues to draw people from around the world. Part of it is simply that the musicians died young, at the height of their fame (Holly was 22, Valens was 17 and Richardson 28). Part of it is the way that their music helped define an entire era, in a way that music, segmented as it is today into so many different genres, no longer does. And part of it, I think, is that the tragedy makes one reflect on the passing of one’s own youth.


Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom is one of the nation’s music landmarks. (Bob Sessions photo)

But if this is where the music died, I must also tell you about where the music lives. The Surf Ballroom–the site of the last concert of the three–is as much a pilgrimage destination as the crash site.  If it wasn’t for the Buddy Holly connection it’s unlikely the Surf would have survived, but the fame brought by the last concert attracts a steady stream of patrons and musicians to its doors. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland has designated the Surf a Rock and Roll Landmark. Travel + Leisure Magazine has named it as one of the Coolest Music Venues in America, an honor shared with Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

“People come from around the world to honor the memory of those who died,” says Nicki Barragy, education coordinator for the ballroom and museum. “But the Surf is a living place as well, full of dances, concerts and events. That’s the best way to honor their legacy.”


The Surf Ballroom has been restored to its 1950s glory. (Bob Sessions photo)

The original Surf opened in Clear Lake in 1934. After being destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt across the street in 1948, decorated in a tropical theme with murals of surf and palm trees and faux clouds projected on its midnight blue ceiling. Holding up to 2,100 people, the Surf has hosted many of the entertainment world’s top names, from Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers to Martina McBride and B.B. King.

Today its 1950s interior, restored to pristine condition, is like a time machine, its hallways lined with publicity photos of guest artists from past decades. Musicians have also left their mark on the walls of the Surf’s dressing room, which is covered with hundreds of signatures (including a handwritten stanza of “American Pie” signed by McLean).


The Surf Ballroom preserves the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their last phone calls. (Bob Sessions photo)

The Surf’s museum, located in a lounge adjacent to the main ballroom, gives information on the three musicians who lost their lives as well as other artists who have played here. Its memorabilia includes a briefcase used by J.P. Richardson and the handwritten lyrics to Ritchie’s “La Bamba.” Most poignant of all is the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their final phone calls after finishing their concert.

When I visited the Surf I got the chance to talk with Margaret Majerczyk, a native of England who now lives in Iowa and who teaches dancing lessons at the Surf. She also helps host its international visitors, including many from her home country.

“The British Buddy Holly Society started in the early 1960s and has many members in England,” she says. “He was a huge influence there on younger musicians and on teenagers like myself, who grew up surrounded by rock ‘n roll music. We’ve had hundreds of members of the club visit over the years. One man has been here 31 years in a row.”

But while Majerczyk enjoys hosting her fellow Brits on their annual pilgrimage, her favorite event at the Surf happens much more frequently. “I like to watch older visitors come into the Surf,” she says. “As they come down the ramp into the ballroom, they often seem frail. But once they step onto the dance floor a transformation occurs and they’re gliding like they’re young again.”

I left the Surf in a contemplative mood. I thought of those coins left at the crash site and of how so much of what happens to us seems to be the result of random chance. I thought of those elderly couples dancing underneath the fake clouds and the benevolent gaze of Holly, Valens and Richardson, whose pictures overlook the ballroom. And I thought of how holy sites blossom in unexpected places, nurtured by the need we have to remember, to celebrate and to mourn, whether it’s someone we knew or someone who symbolizes part of our past that is gone forever.

On a happier note, let me end with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, followed by Don McLean singing “American Pie.” For thankfully, it turns out that the music didn’t die after all.

The Surf Ballroom and Museum are open for self-guided tours daily during the summer months and Monday through Friday during the rest of the year, with occasional closures for special events. The most popular time to visit the Surf is during its annual Winter Dance Party, which is held on the weekend closest to the date of the fateful plane crash. In addition to concerts, the event typically includes a record show, family sock hop, dance lessons, and dance and costume contests. 

The website also has directions to the memorial site where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died. While it’s located on private land, visitors are welcomed.


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In the Middle of Missouri, A Most Surprising Find


Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, in Fulton, Missouri (Bob Sessions photo)

Let me begin with a few quotes. Can you guess who said them?

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“All the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom; justice; honor; duty; mercy; hope.”

“All babies look like me. But then, I look like all babies.”

Still not sure who said these? This one will give it away:

“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The speaker, of course, is Winston Churchill. If you’re a Winston Churchill fan (and if you’re not, I’m disappointed in you), you probably think you would have to travel to England to learn more about the great British statesman. But on a recent trip to Missouri, I came across the most amazing find. The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster College in the small town of Fulton. Equally surprising is what sits on top of the museum:  a Christopher Wren-designed church, brought piece by piece from London after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War II.


The National Winston Churchill Museum is located in the Missouri town where Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. (Bob Sessions photo)

As you can probably guess, there’s a story behind this.

But first, a few words about Winston. Isn’t it interesting how some political leaders pass into obscurity once they leave office and the reputation of others continues to rise, even after their deaths? Soldier, politician, historian, writer and artist Sir Winston Churchill fits the latter category. I thought I knew a fair amount about Churchill before visiting the museum, but I came away with an even deeper appreciation for his courage, leadership and tenacity.

The story of why the museum is located in the middle of Missouri begins with an invitation from Westminster College to Churchill shortly after he had lost his position as Prime Minister following the end of World War II. President Harry Truman, a native of Missouri, put in a good word for the school, and on March 5, 1946, the revered statesman arrived on campus to deliver a speech that received news coverage around the world. In it he warned of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe as the Soviet government tightened its grip on the countries of the Eastern bloc. Churchill was one of the first to realize the seriousness of the Soviet threat and his vivid phrase came into widespread use.


Churchill’s speech at Westminster College made headlines around the world.

So began a long association between Westminster College and Winston Churchill. Today its $4 million museum showcases the life and achievements of the great wartime leader, with special attention, of course, to his famous speech at the school. Exhibits describe his childhood growing up on one of England’s grandest estates, his checkered military career prior to World War II and his valiant service to Britain and the larger world during the conflict. According to Churchill biographer Paul Reid, this is the “epicenter of Churchill in North America,” designated by the U.S. Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum.

I found myself most fascinated by Churchill’s early years. While his accomplishments in World War II are well-known, they were preceded by a roller coaster of failure, success and then failure again. His childhood was dismal. His father (a British lord) was greatly disappointed in his son, whom he thought showed a woeful lack of initiative and intelligence. His adored mother (an American-born heiress) was emotionally distant, and Churchill’s sole source of unconditional love was his nanny.


Churchill joined the military in part because his academic record was not good enough to get him into university.

After a mediocre record as a student, Churchill joined the military. To make extra money as well as enhance his reputation, he volunteered to serve in hot spots around the world and worked as a war correspondent for several London papers. By the time he entered politics he was already well-known in Britain and had experienced enough drama, tragedy, defeat and adventure to fill the lives of 10 men. All of these experiences helped forge a steely resolve, superlative communication skills and a talent for leadership that proved essential during World War II.

The church that sits atop the museum recalls Churchill’s heroic efforts during the Blitz, England’s darkest hour. For the 20th anniversary of the Iron Curtain speech, Westminster College received from the city of London one of the churches that had been reduced to rubble during the Blitz. The 17th-century Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Aldermanbury (which had laid in ruins ever since the war) was packed up piece-by-piece and shipped to Missouri, where it was laboriously reassembled in its original form.


Interior of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury (Bob Sessions photo)

Today the church is a sunlit marvel of English elegance. The famed architect Christopher Wren had designed the building to replace a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren believed that there is nothing more beautiful than light, and stepping inside the church’s sanctuary, I found myself agreeing with him. Clear glass windows let in the sun, illuminating white walls, simple wooden pews, and an altar displaying the Ten Commandments.


The “Breakthrough” sculpture was created by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, artist Edwina Sandys. (Bob Sessions photo)

Another tribute to the great leader sits outside the church. Created by Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, it is called “Breakthrough” and features eight sections from the Berlin Wall, each covered with graffiti from the days when the city was divided into Soviet-controlled East Berlin and free West Berlin. The wall symbolizes the wisdom of Churchill’s warning to the world in 1946, but it also shows the triumph of freedom over tyranny.

Winston Churchill

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” November 30, 1949, in response to a reporter who asked if he had any fear of death.

One could say that the holy site here is the Christopher Wren church, but I would argue that the entire site is sacred. Winston Churchill, flawed as he was, was a man of honor and bravery who inspired millions at a time when the world’s future hung in balance. I love the fact that we can pay homage to him here, in this rural corner of the Midwest, sitting in a London church, looking up at the sunlight streaming in the window.



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Iowa City’s Harvest Preserve and Sacred Stone Circle

Copyright property of Todd Adamson

The sacred stone circle at Harvest Preserve includes 12 pillars quarried with stone chisels at least 4,000 years ago. (photo by Harvest Preserve)

You might think that this picture was taken in Ireland or Scotland, places well-known for their prehistoric stone circles. But would you believe these stones are found in Iowa? Their story involves a remote island in Indonesia, a whimsical businessman with a deep commitment to spirituality, and (I’m not making this up) hobbits. Even by Holy Rover standards, this is an unusual sacred place, one that I’m delighted to have found.

There’s a certain sense of irony in my discovery of this place. I’ve traveled many thousands of miles across the world to see a multitude of holy sites, but here, all along, was a perfectly wonderful place just a short distance from my home in Iowa City. Over the years I’ve biked and driven by it dozens of times without realizing it was there. And in a final piece of irony, it took my friends Annechien and Hanno visiting from Amsterdam for me to discover it (many thanks to Jody and Ron, too, for taking us there on a windswept and rainy April afternoon).

The story of these sacred stones in the middle of Iowa begins on the small island of Flores in Indonesia. Little is known of their origin or purpose, except that they were quarried with stone chisels at least 4,000 years ago and were at one time arranged in a circle. In 2001 the residents of the island decided to get rid of them, prompted by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan (although the island of Flores is primarily Christian, at the time there was a let’s-get-rid-of-all-pagan-monuments mood in the air).


Doug Paul of Harvest Preserve (photo by Lori Erickson)

That’s when Doug Paul of Iowa City enters the story. An antiquities dealer from Chicago told him of the Indonesian sacred circle that needed a home. Doug arranged for the stones to be brought to Iowa by ship, train and flat-bed truck, a process that took more than a year. The basalt stones range in size from 16 to 30 feet, each weighing between 3,000 and 20,000 pounds.

“It sounds strange, but I felt like the stones were sending me a message,” says Doug. “For whatever reason, they wanted to be here in Iowa. And actually, if you send a line straight down through the center of the earth from Iowa, the nearest land mass on the other side is Indonesia, so maybe there is some connection between the two places.”

While Doug originally thought he might erect the stones in an existing public park, he and his wife, Linda, decided instead to purchase a place for them on the outskirts of Iowa City. Two farms were in danger of being turned into housing developments, and Doug and Linda felt that their mission was to save the land as well as find a home for the stones.

“From the very beginning of this effort, I felt like I was put on a need-to-know-basis,” he says. “At each step I found out what I needed to know to go forward, but I didn’t get all the answers I wanted. I still don’t have them. I’m a pretty unlikely person to make this happen, but it felt like something I was called to do.”

Today Harvest Preserve is a spiritual sanctuary of 100 acres on the northeast side of Iowa City. Its grounds include a charming boathouse overlooking a pond, several large areas of restored prairie, and thick woods laced with walking trails. The property is owned by a non-profit foundation that will ensure its existence for many generations to come—a testimony to the incredible generosity of Doug and Linda.


A bronze sculpture by Nigerian-born artist Nnamdi Okonkwo sits in Whitman’s Glade at Harvest Preserve. (Photo by Bob Sessions)

One of the pleasures of exploring Harvest Preserve are the pieces of art that appear in unexpected places. In a sun-dappled area called Whitman’s Glade, for example, is They Are Waiting, a piece by Nigerian-born artist Nnamdi Okonkwo. And across the road from Harvest Preserve sits Man on a Bench, a massive, 20-foot-tall sculpture being carved from 110 tons of Indiana limestone by Doug Paul and fellow artist J.B. Barnhouse.

“I think that figure has been there for at least 10,000 years, but he was finally brought out of the ether by our efforts,” says Doug.


“Man on a Bench” sits overlooking Harvest Preserve. (photo by Lori Erickson)

You might think that Doug Paul sounds a little eccentric, but he’s actually a highly successful entrepreneur. Most of all, he’s a spiritual seeker and a dreamer, and he created Harvest Preserve as a gift to other spiritual seekers and dreamers (as one myself, I am truly grateful for the gift Doug and Linda have given to the larger world).

While the land is now governed by the Harvest Preserve Foundation board, the Paul family remains intimately involved. Doug and Linda’s daughter, Julie Decker, serves as program director, and Doug devotes much of his time to maintaining and nurturing the property, gradually bringing back more of its native flora and fauna.

“I used to own the land, and now it owns me,” says Doug. “I’m its full-time volunteer.”

As Harvest Preserve enters its second decade, its board is trying to strike a balance between public access and protecting it as a place for quiet contemplation. While there are events open to all, entrance is generally limited to members who pay a fee that helps with maintenance costs (people can also do volunteer work to pay for a membership). Some of the most frequent visitors to the preserve are children, brought as part of after-school programs.


The stones that make up the circle are buried so that about half of their length is below ground (Lori Erickson photo).

I’ve only known the Harvest Preserve for a few weeks, but already it’s become a spiritual home for me. I love its winding paths through the woods, its quiet pond by the boathouse and its vistas of Iowa sky and prairie. But most of all, I love the Sacred Stone Circle that sits on a hill overlooking the woods, next to a meadow that is always atwitter with birdsong. Each time I come here I feel refreshed and at peace—the true mark of a holy place.

“As far as I know, this is the only stone circle transported in its entirety to the U.S.,” says Doug. “I think the stones talk to each other and talk to the land. They make it easier for people to connect with the divine energy that flows everywhere, but which seems to accumulate in some spots in particular. For whatever reason, they wanted to be here.”

Here’s another curious fact about Flores, the island where the stones originated. In 2003, archaeologists found the remains of nine short hominids estimated to have lived some 18,000 years ago. The discovery, which disrupted what scientists thought they knew about human evolution, made headline news around the world. The diminutive people (who stood about three and a half feet tall) have been dubbed, naturally, Hobbits.

We’ll likely never know if there’s any connection between these so-called Hobbits and the sacred stones. But when I took a friend to Harvest Preserve, she said something that rang true to me: “This place is magical.” And the more I think about it, the more I believe this is true. Harvest Preserve is a place where the veil between worlds is thin, where stone men appear out of the ether, and where circles of sacred stones are transported across space and time to grow in fertile Iowa soil.


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We Who Are Many Are One Body

Today’s post is a sermon I gave yesterday at my home church, Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


Is there any figure in the Bible who’s easier to relate to than Doubting Thomas? It’s no wonder the phrase has become part of the English language as a term for a skeptic.

Through the centuries, theologians have taken two general approaches to this story of Thomas demanding physical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first group—who have tended to be Roman Catholic—have emphasized the fact that while Jesus says it’s best to believe on the basis of faith alone, he nevertheless was willing to show Thomas his wounds. Some Christians have taken this as a blessing for such practices as the veneration of relics and going on pilgrimages. The second group of theologians—who have tended to be Protestant—say not so fast, for the story’s point is that we are to rely on faith alone.

And then we have the contemporary, secular interpretation, which is that belief is pretty much impossible, not matter what the circumstances. To illustrate this, let me tell you of the experience of Barbara Ehrenreich, social activist and author of books that include Nickel and Dimed. Her newest book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, tells about her quest to make sense of the mystical encounters she has had since the age of 17. Throughout her life she has had ecstatic experiences in which the whole world seems to be aflame and alive with a mysterious presence. Here’s her description of one of these experiences:

At some point in my pre-dawn walk … the world flamed into life. [There was a] blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it… It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.

Ehrenreich’s mystical encounter is similar to those reported by many saints and holy people through the centuries. But her reaction is modulated through the lens of our rational, skeptical culture. These experiences are something of an embarrassment for an educated person, especially one who has always professed to be an atheist. When asked by an interviewer if she now believes in God, Ehrenreich dismisses the possibility by saying this:

I would not explore the monotheistic religions. The religions that impress me are those which involve ecstatic communion with a deity or spirit—like voodoo. I like that much better than belief. I have respect for that. But…I’m not looking for anything, and I’m not going to church.

Or, as she put it in another interview, “Don’task me to believe anything.”

Don’t ask me to believe anything. That’s the line I keep coming back to. For in our culture, religious belief is often seen as a sign of ignorance. And I have to wonder, what does it take for someone like Ehrenreich to believe in God? If seeing the world on fire and alive doesn’t do it, what will? And what hope is there for the rest of us, who go through our days with no mystical visions or spiritual fireworks?

But the irony is, we may say we don’t believe in anything beyond the rational and scientific, but we do. For you can’t be human without operating on faith. Think of the beliefs that many of us have. If I do everything right as a parent, my child will be successful and happy. If I eat the right foods and exercise intensely, I will be in perfect health and live to an advanced age. If I could make another $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, then I would be totally happy and secure. Frankly, we have faith in a lot of things that make the virgin birth seem like not very much of a stretch.

Over the past few years, some of the most interesting adult forums at Trinity have been part of the “This I Believe” series. Inspired by the NPR series of the same name, they have featured some wonderfully thought-provoking discussions. I remember listening to parishioners who believe in the scientific method, the importance of myth, and the value of poetry in times of war. Their stories have given deep insights into their lives and beliefs.

Robin Williams: He's one of ours.

Robin Williams: He’s one of ours.

As Christians, of course, there are many religious beliefs that we are supposed to ascribe to. But on any given morning, you might be surprised by what your fellow parishioners are thinking. I wish that we were more honest with each other about our struggles to believe. I’m amused by the number of Episcopalians, for example, who have told me that they have trouble saying the Nicene Creed. They’ll say: “I just keep silent on the parts I don’t believe in” or “I quietly change some of the words.” Someday I’d like to make a T-shirt similar to Robin Williams’ Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian. The T-shirt would have on it the text of the Nicene Creed, with all sorts of crossed out words and changes scratched in the margins. And the top of the shirt would read: “You Might Be an Episcopalian if You Think the Nicene Creed Needs an Editor.”

Part of what we love about our church, of course, is the value we place on reason. But as with Thomas in the Gospel story today, sometimes our rational minds tie us into knots.

If I were asked to speak at adult forum as part of the This I Believe series, I would focus on a line in our Sunday morning service that I think is the single most audacious and revolutionary thing we say. When Lay Eucharistic Ministers are commissioned to go out with their little boxes of blessed bread and wine, we say this: We who are many are one body, because we all share in the cup of blessing and the one bread.

This is pretty strange, isn’t it? For it’s obvious that even on a symbolic level, we’re not one body. But the statement claims that we are indeed one—Democrats and Republicans, male and female, altar guild members and toddlers in the Zookeepers young families group. This claim goes far beyond the walls of this church, too, for it includes southern Pentecostals, Nigerian Baptists and Chinese Catholics. It includes cradle Episcopalians and those who are visiting a church for the first time. And this sort of radical inclusiveness was present from the very beginning of our faith, when Jesus broke the rules of his day by insisting that everyone was welcome at his table—prostitutes and rich men, tax collectors and Pharisees.

Cheerios: nearly as essential as bread & wine

Cheerios: nearly as essential as bread & wine

Perhaps belief is best thought of as action rather than as intellectual assent, which is actually far more in keeping with the Biblical witness. Your belief is expressed in showing up here on a Sunday morning even when you’d rather be at home. It’s revealed in your willingness to bring your squirming children and feed them Cheerios in the pew. Sometimes the most profound statement of faith we can make is simply showing up at the door of the church.

I like how the philosopher Stanley Hauerwas puts this: “I am not interested in what I believe,” he says. “I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.”

Let me give you an example of what this looks like in action. Several years ago I was contacted by someone who had heard about our Healing Touch ministry. Their infant daughter was in intensive care at the UI Hospital because of complications after a heart operation, and the parents asked us to see her. So a small group of us did so nearly every day for six weeks. During that time we became close to the parents, who were far away from their family and friends.

When it became clear that their baby daughter would not recover, the parents asked me to be with them in her last hours. Let me tell you what I was not thinking as I made my way to the hospital. I wasn’t thinking pious thoughts or planning how I would put this loss in a theological context. Instead I was worried that I was going to be such a teary, emotional mess that I would not be any help at all. I felt like anything I could say was a platitude and totally inadequate.

So at the baby’s bedside, I latched onto the Book of Common Prayer. While I had no words to say, within its pages I found words that had been polished and worn smooth by being prayed so many times. I remember how grateful I felt that I didn’t have to do this on my own. More importantly, the baby’s parents didn’t have to do it on their own. The words of the service for the dying became the boat that helped them cross over to that new, foreign country where they would no longer have their daughter.

As we stood there in that sterile hospital room under the fluorescent lights, I gradually came to feel something unexpected. I began to have the slightly uncanny sense that we were not alone, that all of the people who had prayed those words before us were there too, living and dead, and that our grief was being enfolded in something that is the closest thing I have ever experienced to the Body of Christ.

So that is what I think of on a Sunday morning when we say “we who are many are one body.” That is why I believe that when we say the Nicene Creed, and some of us can’t say the part about the virgin birth and others stumble over true God from true God, it somehow equals out. Because together, our words make a whole. And I am grateful that on those Sunday mornings when I’ve feeling distracted, or grumpy, or cynical, I can look out in the congregation and I always—always—see someone whose face reflects the peace that passes all understanding. And I know that on that morning, that person is making up for what I lack.

And let me assure you also that there are some mornings when I can breeze through the Nicene Creed and believe every single word, things seen and unseen, begotten not made, God from God, Light from Light. On those mornings, I’ve got it covered for you . . . You’re welcome.

So we muddle through, most of us. Because somehow, together we are more than we are separately. This is the single best argument I can make for coming to church, for why we need more than individual mystical experiences like those of Barbara Ehrenreich. For we who are many are one body, even when we struggle to believe.


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Deep in the Mountains of Iowa


Ryumonji is a Soto Zen Buddhist Temple in northeast Iowa. (Lori Erickson photo)

Today I want to tell you about Ryumonji, a Zen monastery near Decorah, Iowa. That probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable sentence to you, but to me it’s in the same category as “Today I want to tell you about an ice cream shop I discovered on Mars.” The reason for this is that I grew up on Decorah, a small town in northeast Iowa. While it was a lovely place to grow up, this was during an era when its religious diversity seemed to me to be limited to the occasional presence of a Swedish Lutheran in a Norwegian Lutheran congregation.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that a Zen monastery and temple had opened in the countryside about 20 miles from Decorah. Last summer I finally had the chance to visit in person, and I came away impressed and a little astonished. Zen is not only sprouting in rural Iowa—it’s flourishing.

This serene enclave is presided over by Rev. Shoken Winecoff, its founding teacher and abbot. You know how there are some people you immediately like within two minutes of meeting them? Shoken is like that. He strikes me as someone who has done his spiritual homework, and I felt more peaceful simply being in his presence.


Shoken Winecoff Roshi is the founding teacher and abbot of Ryumonji. (Lori Erickson photo)

A former Roman Catholic priest and native of St. Louis, Shoken left the priesthood at the age of 28, became a psychologist, married and had a son. But as with so many people, his renewed commitment to a spiritual practice came as the result of hardship, in his case a painful divorce. “My divorce was my greatest teacher,” he says. “It was a very valuable lesson in giving up control.”

Shoken’s study of Zen Buddhism in Minneapolis led to him seek ordination as a monk, a path that included spending three years at a Japanese monastery. In 2000 he came to the wooded, rolling countryside of northeast Iowa to establish a Soto Zen Buddhist temple as a satellite of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Forty acres of land near Decorah were donated for the temple, which is named Ryumonji, which in Japanese means “Dragon Gate Temple.” (Despite being named after a dragon, the temple’s first parishioners were actually cows, according to Shoken.)

Ryumonji’s first building was completed in 2004 and its fourth and final building was constructed in 2013. Its architecture follows the model of a traditional Buddhist temple and monastery, with two wings on either side of a central meditation space known as the Buddha Hall. A bell tower, another traditional part of Buddhist monasteries, contains a hand-cast bronze bell that peals across the wooded valley below.


Ryumonji is constructed in the style of a traditional Zen temple and monastery. (Lori Erickson)

While Shoken is the one permanent resident of the monastery, a far-flung community claims it as a spiritual home. At any given time several people live on site, helping with maintenance chores as well as deepening their practice, and about two dozen gather regularly for meditation and ceremonies. (And I was happy to hear that its first parishioners are still present. When I was there, their mooing in the distance sounded remarkably contemplative—they’ve evidently picked up some of the vibe here.)

As with many monasteries, you have to do some searching to find Ryumonji, and I took several wrong turns on my way there. Such isolation is deliberate, according to Shoken. “There’s a long tradition in many spiritual traditions of going to remote places to grow inwardly,” he says. “In Buddhism this is called ‘going deep in the mountain.’ I like to think of Ryumonji as being deep in the mountains of northeast Iowa.”

In talking to Shoken, I was struck by the way he seems to blend the best of the two religious traditions that have shaped him. “Zen Buddhism has neither god nor no-god, soul nor no-soul,” he says. “It does not take any stand on such matters. And so I didn’t have to renounce Christianity in order to become a Buddhist.”


Ryumonji welcomes everyone interested in learning about the teachings of the Buddha. (Lori Erickson photo)

The deep peacefulness at Ryumonji felt familiar to me. Despite its Iowa setting, its atmosphere felt similar to what I’ve experienced at Zen monasteries in Japan and South Korea. How wonderful that Zen has flowed from the Far East into this corner of rural Iowa, adapting and changing in some ways but remaining true to its serene heart. I can’t think of any better summation of Ryumonji than these lines that are quoted on the monastery’s website from the 13th century Zen Master Eihei Dogen:

Catching the moon, cultivating the clouds,

Untouched by worldly dust fluttering about

A thatched hut, snowy evening, deep mountain.

Growing up in northeast Iowa, I never realized there were mountains there—but I could see them from Ryumonji.

Ryumonji offers weekend retreats and two-month stays for those seeking an extended practice. Public sittings are held Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:00 a.m. For an orientation to zazen, arrive fifteen minutes early. For a visit outside of these times, please make advance arrangements to make certain someone is there to receive you. See Ryumonji for contact information.

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