“He was born in the summer of his 27th year coming home to a place he’d never been before…” When I was twenty-seven years old, in June, I was ordained to the priesthood. At that time, I arrived at a new state of existence that was, I believe, predestined. As part of the ritual, I laid prostrate on the floor of the Cathedral sanctuary—a symbolic gesture illustrating that I died to my former life and was being born to a new existence. “…He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again…”
Many of the lyrics in John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High seem to parallel my ordination transition. Priests are called to climb God’s holy mountain to become “bearers of mystery” and “doctors of souls” who encounter fire from heaven. Through the years, I have been overwhelmed with the fire of God’s love burning at the heart of human existence and, perhaps once in a while, the fire of God’s wrath. Nevertheless, “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.” Denver sings: “…He climbed cathedral mountains…and walks in quiet solitude…where you can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.” It is true in my priesthood: whether witnessing birth or death, a family’s jubilation at a wedding or baptism or their deep sorrow and pain at a funeral. But it’s more true in quiet reflection and routine prayer. As I talk to God daily and perceive that He talks back, we have gotten rather casual through the years. Though usually my prayer centers around the events of my schedule and the flock I pastor, it also includes bigger circles of life of which I am part.
This summer, as many Americans take to the streets to protest injustices in our nation while others take to the mountains and natural preservation lands, I think about Native American spirituality that accompanied them during years of European take-over, hoping that we might be infused with some of it today. While ancestor-natives viewed the land as a place to be preserved and revered as home to all creation, ancestor-settlers viewed it as a challenge to develop and an opportunity for progress. At the end of The Last of the Mohicans the aged wise sage, Tamenund, states, “The pale-faces are masters of the earth now and the time for the red-men has not yet come again.” The author based the character on Chief Tamenend, 17th Century leader of the Lenape Tribe, best known as a lover of peace and friendship who signed the treaty with William Penn (establishing the Province that bears his name). Even during his long life, Tamanend assumed mythical status and was referred to as the “Patron Saint of America” by colonists prior to the American Revolution. The former name of the Washington football team was said to have been given in tribute to his life of amity and peaceful politics.
Ours might be the only country on earth in which the Catholic Church does not inculcate native spirituality into worship. When travelers attend Mass in the Far East, Africa, Latin America, India, etc., we invariably gain a dose of native culture in the prayer-experience. My priesthood has taken on different foci during different decades as I continue to climb the holy mountain and awaken to new birth. I wonder if there might be room in the decade ahead to incorporate some of Tamenund’s prophecy into our worship and other aspects of spirituality. To me, it would be a wonderful thing if “the time for the red-men has come again.”