"The One and the Many"
- View from 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" in the United States. I vividly recall the colorful stories we were told in school and at church about the great hero, Christopher Columbus, a 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 stories we were told were not only one-sided but historically inaccurate. Apart from whether or not Columbus actually landed in what we now call America, the truth is that native peoples living in the Americas were already quite civilized, and long before any missionaries showed up at their doorsteps, they already enjoyed a deep and profound sense of enlightened spirituality.
Over many generations the "Indians" had believed that a Great Spirit 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.
In a very real sense, 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. In a very real sense those missionaries could have learned much from the wisdom of the native peoples if their minds were open enough to do so.
As I reflect on it, the practice of imperialistically imposing one’s religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) still continues on to this very day. In our own times there are many people who firmly believe that their "way" of understanding truth is the right and only way and everyone else is wrong.
Many Christians are sure they have found the right and only way and there are also many Jewish folk who are equally convinced that they are the chosen ones - on the one and only path given to them alone. Likewise, there are many followers of Islam who are so sure of their religious truths that they set their sights upon rejecting and converting infidels who fall outside the light as they see it. And even though Buddhism is not a “religion” per-se, I am acquainted with many loyal Buddhists who scorn the teachings of other “faiths.” On top of all this, in our own day even atheism has become a sort of "one-way religion” - anyone who does not profess who and what “God is not” according to their view of it, is obviously wrong.
I am reminded of something priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said:
The supreme challenge is to see God’s image in one that’s not in our image,
for only then can we see past our own reflection in the mirror
to the God we did not make up.
On this "Columbus Day" I want to learn the lessons of history by celebrating the fact that we can all learn from one another. I want to celebrate “Columbus Day” by looking at the bigger picture I was unable to see in my years growing up. 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 such a perfect prayer for "Columbus Day," and reciting it is my way of repenting for the “religious bullying” of my spiritual ancestors in my own Christian tradition:
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.