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Groaning in the West: A Road Trip, Pilgrimage, Healing, and the Community of Creation

July 6, 2013

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly . . . .”

Rom. 8:22-23, NRSV

“Nature is out of balance.”

Tonto, The Lone Ranger

A week ago yesterday we arrived home from a 4500-mile, 18-day road trip to and from California (to visit relatives and friends). There was lots of driving, of course. Indeed, most days consisted of driving. However, the groaning our bodies made when we got out of our vehicle at the end of such days is not what I mean with the title “groaning in the West.” Nor is it a reference to California traffic. So what, then, do I mean?

The American West is a region of geographic and social extremes. Extreme height and depth; desert and rain forest; megalopolis and isolated ranch; mono cultures and rainbow diversity of cultures; communal and libertarian societies. It is no secret that many people moved to the Sunbelt West in the 20th century, especially since 1940, for jobs and for the climate. Many still do. Many from around the world vacation in the West. It is also no secret that large swaths of the West have very few people at all–and few jobs and less-than-desirable climate. Yet the entire region is bound together at least by its relative newness in incorporation into the U.S., the unusual presence of the federal government there compared to other regions (e.g., military bases, Indian reservations, national parks and forests, dams and irrigation systems), and its persistent association in American culture with particular threads in the American Dream of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (For the latest, more cynical version of the mythic West, see the new Disney film, The Lone Ranger.) To quote Wallace Stegner, the West is not so much unique as it is “America only more so.”

The West is a place where peoples and nature have been conquered in the name of progress–or have they? It is a place where the stresses on the land (and sometimes the people) are perhaps more starkly visible than in other regions.  (See High Country News for all sorts of stories about the West’s natural and social landscapes.)

We were reminded of environmental stress at various times and places on our road trip. We crossed the Great Plains, for example. They are high and dry for the most part.

The Great Plains west of Dodge City Kansas (Old Santa Fe Trail)

The Great Plains west of Dodge City, Kansas (Old Santa Fe Trail)

While rivers such as the Arkansas and the Ogallala Aquifer provide water for irrigation, the water for the region is dissipating (the Ogallala Aquifer is, in fact, being drained faster than it is being replenished). Crossing the Colorado River on I40, we noted briefly the boaters and the deep blue waters of the Lake Havasu reservoir before cruising through the miles upon miles of the Mojave Desert in California.

Driving the Mojave Desert

Driving the Mojave Desert

The Colorado River, of course, is not being replenished fast enough to satisfy all the demands made on it by the governments and peoples who have come to depend on it. Even high in “wet” western places such as the Snowy Range of Wyoming, there were signs of pressure on the environment.

Snowy Range, Medicine Bow National Forest, WY

Snowy Range, Medicine Bow National Forest, WY

Too many of the trees in the forest were dead or dying, since the winters aren’t cold enough to kill the insects that are killing the trees. Also, there haven’t been fires enough to clear the land in the ways that used to help keep the forest ecosystem balanced.

Southern California was dry, of course.

On Mt. Baldy, north of Claremont, CA

On Mt. Baldy, north of Claremont, CA

Even the Bay Area seemed dry–although perhaps that was just due to my “moist” Iowa sensibilities.

The Berkeley hills

The Berkeley hills

Looking north from the south side of Taos

Looking north from the south side of Taos

While we were watching the local news one evening in a New Mexico motel, there was a story on how the state would run out of water in the not too distant future. Oddly, it wasn’t the lead story … (The myth about the frogs who don’t jump out of the pot before the heat gets to the boiling point comes to mind.)

Every time we’ve headed West in recent years–this year, in 2011, in 2009–I’ve come back sensing how stressed the landscape is. Long-term drought. Forest fires that kill people and destroy some of the ever-encroaching homes of those who want to live in the forests and mountains. And then there are the tornadoes that hit the West as well as other regions. Global climate change is at work on the West. Meanwhile, the West Coast residents are subliminally aware that earthquakes are certain to come.

Groaning in the West. Creation there is groaning under various pressures, and I find myself groaning with it, too.

My sensibilities about all of this have been heightened by two things which I have just read. First is Randy S. Woodley‘s Shalom and the Community of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012). I read most of the book while we were on the road. A Keetoowah Cherokee and a faculty member at George Fox Seminary in Portland, OR, Woodley makes a strong case for the equivalence of the concept of shalom with what he calls the Harmony Way of indigenous peoples. I won’t detail his case. At one point, though, he pointedly draws together some of his argument about creation:

To the indigenous peoples of North America, our land and all it contains is the Holy Land. The land is sacred (holy) because it was given to us from the Creator, to be held in a trust relationship. The land is holy because God is holy. It is sacred because the land, and all creation, is considered to be a gift from God. Christians ought to be the first ones to realize this–after all, Christ is the Creator (57).

More, argues Woodley, we are to live out shalom through Christ–who is Shalom–towards what Woodley calls a community of creation (which he prefers to kingdom language):

All people must begin to view the earth as our mother, God as our Father, and all the creatures on the earth as our relatives. After all, we have the same Creator. Both shalom and the Native American Harmony Way make room for the kind of living that creates an atmosphere of respect in which these relationships can exist. God, through Christ, created the entire earth and everything in it. Everything in creation plays a part in the others’ existence and well-being (66).

In other words, for Woodley, all things truly hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17), so we should be living in light of this.

Second, shortly after we arrived back, I read “Caring for the Creation That Cares for Us” by Thomas A. Boogart in the May/June 2013 Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. Boogart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary. He reexamines Genesis and the Old Testament in order to reconsider the nature of our relationship as humans to creation. “Some [Christians] say we are dominators of creation; others say we are stewards of creation; still others say we are companions of creation” (14). Boogart argues that the first two images do not allow “creation any intrinsic worth, a spiritual significance of its own, a power given to it by God that influences human beings [sic]” (16). Seeing ourselves as companions (the third descriptor) allows for our caring for creation and also creation caring for us. He recalls the comment of an Apache lay elder in the Reformed Church: “White people have a piece missing” in our understanding of creation (13, 18).

What particularly strikes me is how both Woodley and Boogart call on us non-Native Christians to listen carefully to what creation–our companion in the community of creation–is saying. Woodley underlines what he sees as a “philosophical disconnect”:

Euro-American Christians have a firm idea that there exists a connection between what they believe and how they live. Unfortunately, European and American history is replete with ungodly people doing god-awful things, including land theft, rape, murder, enslavement, torture, pollution, depleting the earth’s resources, and even attempted genocide, by those who held “correct” theological beliefs. There exists a philosophical disconnect in the Euro-western mind between what one believes and what one does (106).

So where have Woodley and Boogart taken me? They have helped focus and deepen for me my sense that in the West creation is groaning.

Is there hope? Ultimately, yes, as Romans 8:18, 21, 24 makes clear:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. . . . [C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of  God. . . . For in hope we were saved.

In the meantime, though, there is shalom-work to do to seek to point the West and all other places back toward creational balance.

Part of this shalom-work is pilgrimage. There is a place in the West we visited on our trip which can and does serve to bind together the threads of the way of the cross in the present with the fullness of hope for the community of creation in the future: Chimayo.

The Santuario de Chimayo lies in between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.

Santuario de Chimayo

Santuario de Chimayo

Founded in the early 19th century by a member of the local Penitentes–a lay group whose Franciscan piety particularly expressed itself in reenacting the passion of Christ during Holy Week–the chapel has become a popular pilgrimage site since some New Mexican survivors of the Bataan Death March fulfilled their vows to make pilgrimage there in 1946.

We have visited Chimayo before. This time, though, we were more attuned than before to the layers of folk religion and Christian faith that permeate the place.

Outside, the landscape is that of the semi-desert of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Blood of Christ Mountains). Not a “fierce” landscape compared to other parts of New Mexico and the West–but not lush, either. A subdued wilderness of sorts, perhaps. Wilderness, desert, and mountains are key sorts of places in the Bible–places where bushes burn, still small voices are heard, and theophanies happen. (See Belden C. Lane’s books on religion and landscapes: Landscapes of the Sacred; The Solace of Fierce Landscapes; Ravished by Beauty.)

Inside, the folk art of santos and bultos in the chapel takes visitors out of the mass culture of our times. El Santuario blends Native American, Nuevo Mexicano, and Anglo cultures in a way that is at once disconcerting and hopeful.

Oral tradition says that  El Santuario is a place of healing, from a time before the Spanish colonized New Mexico. If one approaches the altar and then turns left, one comes to two side rooms. In the smallest one is El Pocito: the hole that is said to be the place where a spring sacred to the local Tewa people used to be, and also where Don Bernardo Abeyta found the Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas which now holds central place in the chapel’s altar. Each morning the hole is filled with dirt, and all people who come are welcome to take some of the “holy dirt” with them. The dirt has been, according to oral tradition, an agent of healing. Visitors who take some of the holy dirt are encouraged to approach Christ in prayer along with their use of the dirt. The testimonies of healing from pilgrimage to the site are uncounted, and they are of long standing.

Dirt is a humble thing. We seldom notice it. Yet we humans were made from it. Jesus used it to give sight to a blind man. Certainly, we need to see. Certainly, we need healing. Suffering brings many to El Santurario; no doubt there is much inward and at times outward groaning amidst the various individual pilgrimages that have ended here. Surely, all suffering does not end at Chimayo, either. Yet there Christ is lifted up on the Cross, and in that Cross is healing and hope for the community of creation, in the West and in all places. Even Job, after all, was comforted by God with a reminder that he was not alone in his groaning–God and all creation were groaning with him.


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