- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Growing up as a boy I always looked forward to the second Monday in October - the national celebration of "Columbus Day." I vividly recall the colorful stories we were told in school and at church about Christopher Columbus, the brave, adventurous explorer who sailed across the ocean in 1492 and "discovered" America, bringing civilization to the savages and the light of the Christian gospel to the pagan Indians who were living in spiritual darkness.
Many years later, this second Monday in October has taken on an entirely different meaning for me. Contrary to what I was taught as a child, I now realize that the native peoples living in the Americas were already quite civilized, and that they already enjoyed a deep and profound sense of enlightened spirituality, long before any missionaries showed up at their doorsteps. Columbus didn't "discover" anything - those Christian missionaries were little more than "imperialistic bullies" who imposed their limited view of the truth on an already-spiritual people.
A story is told about those Christians missionaries who were disturbed at the sight of the Native Peoples who gazed upon the earth when they prayed. Over many generations the "Indians" had believed that a Great Spirt flowed in and through the world of nature - the energy of "God" flowing in everything and everyone. They believed that we all "belong" to the earth - the Great Spirit flowing in soil and trees, rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and that same spirit flowing in and through all people. So when they prayed, they focused their gaze upon Mother Earth - the place in which "God" so intimately abided.
The missionaries were infuriated by this gesture of praying to the earth - it was sacrilegious to do so. They taught the Indian peoples that they had gotten it all wrong. God was a person who dwelt high up in the sky, distant, looking down and controlling what happens on the earth. The missionaries demanded that the people pray by looking up into the heavens, to the distant place where God dwells.
When I think about those missionaries imposing their will on those "deeply spiritual" Native Peoples, bullying them into conversion, changing the way in which they were to think about "God," I wonder who it was that actually needed to be converted.
To this very day many people believe that their "way" of understanding truth is the right and only way- this is perhaps especially true among religious people. Many Christians are sure they have found the right and only way. There are also many Jews who also all onto that camp as well. Many followers of Islam are sure they have found the right and only way and they set their sights upon "converting" others who are not on the same path. And in our own day even atheism has become a sort of "only-way" religion - anyone who sees things differently are obviously wrong.
On this "Columbus Day" I want to learn the lessons of history by celebrating the fact that we can all learn from one another. No one has "possession" of the only way to truth and certainly no one ever has the right to impose their path on others.
I came upon this "Prayer to the Earth" from the tradition of the Ute Tribe of North American Indians. It seems like a perfect prayer for "Columbus Day:"
Earth teach me stillness, as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation, as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration, as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself, as the melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep in the rain.