Searching for the Sacred: Parts I & II
By Molly Murfee
Dear Readers: What follows is an excerpt from my book in progress, The Adventure of Home. As Parts I & II of the draft Prologue, it sets the stage for the foundational topics driving the ensuing adventures, saunters and ponderings. I hope it finds resonance and intrigue with you …
Mt. Kailash in Tibet is the most sacred mountain in Asia. It is said to be the physical embodiment of the mythical Mt. Meru, the center of the universe, the “navel of the world.” As an axis mundi, its power reaching both up into the heavens and down into the earth, it is a peak holy to four religions. Hindus from India trek nine days to reach it, circumventing it by lying flat on the ground, rising, then walking to the point where their hands once touched.
Closer to home I sat in front of seven Southern Ute elders and Tribal Council members on their reservation. An elder woman was speaking to the misconception she felt many anthropologists held that the Ute people traveled over the Bering Strait to eventually reside in the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau.
“It’s not true,” she said, “our people emerged from a place in the ground not far from here.” She pointed to her left. “This is the birthing grounds of my ancestors. We emerged from this place.”
Around us were buff colored canyons and pinyon juniper studded mesas. The Mancos River. Ute Mountain. And the epicenter of vast networks of ancient cliff dwellers.
She had a recommendation for the folks of European descent sitting in front of her, “Find your own mythological traditions in the places of your ancestry. Many of the ancient traditions are basically the same but you have to find your own.”
Find my own? Hmmm. What mythological culture should I seek?
The one that created ideas such as Manifest Destiny in order to perpetuate the annihilation of native habitats and cultures?
The one that degrades women and their power by recreating matriarchal Goddess myths so that the woman causes the demise of the entire human race?
The one that perpetuates greed and isolation through the rabid pursuit of the individual?
Or how about the one that believes anyone with different beliefs is doomed with a one-way ticket to eternal damnation?
Oh I know! The one that thought slavery was a totally legit practice?
The elder’s suggestion, I admit, made me mad. What the hell was I supposed to turn to in such a checkered and bloody ancestral inheritance I didn’t ask for and never would have chosen?
The predominant spiritual traditions in North America are extracted out of their native lands and cultures. Truthfully, any spiritual tradition other than that of the indigenous people of this continent, that has made its way to this soil as we like ants from a colony seek and migrate, comes from another place, no matter how great it may be.
Sacred sites and holy lands reside in countries across oceans and continents, surrounding people and cultures utterly foreign and incomprehensible to most of their followers. There are not historically relevant spiritual sites evoking feelings of reverence, connection or mysticism in this land with any of these religions.
Tracing my lineage, my genetic ancestry finds its origins in the culture of an island people, several in fact, who traveled across an ocean and the major part of a continent ranging from 200 to 400 years ago, depending on which branch of my family tree you follow.
Spiritually if I were to go back to a mythological tradition woven into these familial lands would I seek the ancient Celts? According to some archaeological reports they participated in human sacrifice. Or perhaps the search must dig deeper into time to the Neolithic period of the first large scale agriculturalists in 4,000 – 2,500 B.C. who built passage tombs honoring solstices, equinoxes and the movement of light and warmth on the earth. The depths of that dig are so profound only a faint waft of their presence even exists and it certainly lacks some consistency in the passing.
While my blue eyes and feisty disposition might follow threads back to my Scottish-Irish roots, I wonder how much of any meaningful and influential genetics have remained intact from that long-ago homeland. All of my home-places in North America have been landlocked. I did not grow up visiting these European island nations, learning their stories, histories and customs. Rituals connecting me to that land haven’t been passed down to me by my elders, their songs were absent from my lips growing up as a child.
I do come from a secular tradition, a strong one in fact. The Deep South is easy for that.
The place of my birth near the Mississippi Delta comes complete with a particular accent (which I’ve all but lost) and a dialect. “Ya’lls” and “yon’t to’s” and euphemisms such as “he was smilin’ like a jack ass eatin’ sawbriars” pepper the vernacular.
When I go home for Christmas I eat off of my great grandmother’s plates she received as a wedding gift. The butter for my biscuits is extracted from an heirloom dish I will inherit. I carry the names of a grandmother on one side of the family and a great great grandmother from another. My great grandfather, in whose home I grew up, was said to have birthed every baby in that town - back when they made house calls. I’m privy to a culinary tradition of fried chicken, fried okra, hot water cornbread and turnip greens. It is a culture you can feel - people are polite and smile and it takes twice as long to have the conversation - all on account of the drawl which makes one second four.
But the traditions in this culture march prudishly side by side with stringent behavioral rules for “nice girls” on how to act and who to date and what to look like and well, I just guess I never aspired to be a very nice girl. They included such dictations as “it’s not nice manners to not wear a slip or a bra” and its “not nice manners not to go to a party if you were invited, even if you feel like shit and don’t want to go because one day you’ll want them to come to your party and besides they invited you to their daughter Sarah’s wedding.” So I guess I never had nice manners either. And for all the likin’ I did of cool drinks had in a rocking chair on a shady back porch in the sweltering humidity, the magical illumination of lightening bugs, and the sweet, sweet smell of my great grandmother’s magnolia tree, the corseted cultural code was just too much.
Yet, the first time I stepped foot onto the Southern Rocky Mountains’ sandstone soil lapping in gigantic stone waves on the feet of larger swells cresting west, I felt at home.
My spirit hitched a ride on currents swirling off the tips of hawk’ wings, concerns lifting like cool mist from a creek after a storm, and a fibrous connection as thick as sailor’s rope rising up from the earth, tawny wooden chords of spruce and fir springing from the heartwood, twisting themselves around my sky-bound ankle, a living anchor between me and that place. I felt all the things you are supposed to feel in church - peace, serenity, a sense of a greater power, and a humbleness while within it – without the burdensome guilt, bound obligation, sordid past, and demand to wear such ridiculously scratchy items as panty hose.
Naturalist, conservationist and author John Muir wrote, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Cottonwoods warming in the sun after a long winter baked hope inside me with the warmth of bread. Oceans of airy peaks offered limitless vision and possibility, and a sense of perspective and scale on the importance of petty frettings about career or relationships. Aspen leaves clapping together like the applause of woodland creatures hiding behind each trunk – a sweetness of pure happiness. From the dank and pungent forests of evergreens – deep serenity tinged with the brightness of citrus. High alpine fields of wildflowers – ecstatic joy.
I hiked and climbed through a geologic past, erupting and eroding in sets of colossal groundswells, upheaving through the slow labor of millions of years, offering birth and death to generations of mountain ranges, orienting me to my humble stature in the universe.
I felt the urgent adrenaline and porous vulnerability running down mountain passes to escape an incoming storm frazzled with lightening. The visceral connection of my skin whether sharpened by the cold, or softened by heat. In climbing these summits, I honed my sword of passion and determination and tested my mettle to see what I was made of.
When not wrapped in their presence, I longed for these mountains more than I ever had for a single human being. …
Stay tuned as Parts III, IV & V will be released in the upcoming weeks.