The bone-filled catacombs of St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Vestibule at Windsor Abbey. National basilica in Washington, D.C. Rowdy jam sessions at American and Missionary Baptist Churches.
I love these churches. I don’t always love what they stand for, but I love the reverence they are filled with, and I especially love the stories that they tell.
But none of these churches compare to a certain little shrine carved into a rocky cliff-side in Northern New Mexico. You might miss it if you didn’t know where to look. The ground is rough, the sun hot, and when you visit, you will surely return with ankles covered in dust from a red dirt road.
I like to imagine the first moment it occurred to someone to make this shrine. Who was it? What was their name? A natural hollow in the face of the rock, perhaps by starlight, or firelight, or by the changing light of the seasons, was enough. Take some small tools in hand, a modest hammer and chisel perhaps; for the volcanic tuff across the valley, a simpler implement would do just fine, like a spoon. But go to work, scrape a little off here, a little there, and then smooth it until the hollow is deep and well-rounded, like the curvature of a big belly. Soon you will have the protected, safe space needed to make a home for a loving image of power and grace.
Every time I visit the shrine it is different. People leave their marks, their little touches. Someone has left money. Someone else has left flowers or removed old ones. Photographs are left. Names and dates are etched into the sedimentary rock. Traces of countless untold stories are braided together into this space.
Carved into cliff and mountain, there is no pew here, no enforced silence. A great part of the charm, I think, is its informality, its improvised, unplanned character. More likely there is the basso beat of a low rider or pickup truck spraying gravel along the dirt road. Folk shrines like this one so often feel closer to the heart, to what a human being actually feels about the sacred and profane – not what we are led officially and symbolically to feel. Beyond the official channels, there is a living poetry of human thought and feeling, a great simplicity and ineffable complexity to what we actually feel about the sacred and profane that resists easy formulation.
You can find some the best handmade, homespun, precious prayers in places like this, and their holiness is full-bodied and low, down to the ground, so that they might hear the words of even the smallest ones.
Folk shrines are not an exception to this part of the country, and they certainly were not invented by Christian folks. Perhaps no more evidence is needed than to go across the valley to see the cliff dwellings in Bandalier Canyon. But wherever we look, folk shrines in natural places are the norm for fragments of pre-modern life-ways that still remain today across the globe.
Look anywhere and you will find them. All lands have been graced by these handmade churches of stone and tree, river, and wind if you know where to look. Even the ancient Greek peoples of the Pericles’ Athens made informal folk shrines to the gods, goddesses and other semi-divine beings, places of power woven into the interstices of the natural landscape. Everywhere you turn, there would be a sacred center touched and memorialized in the plane trees and the rocks.
What do folk shrines remind us? Old ones have become such a part of the hills and forests, that they seem to have grown out of them. They make the hills hillier even, and the trees just a little greener. The marks and inscriptions left by countless unknown people are little messages to the next who come along: take heart! We were here. And yet there is a gleaming something that reminds us, that while we are in the world, having grown out of it, we are nevertheless not entirely of it. There is a little swerve, a little swing to the left, a powerful something that is free.
To be in the world, not of it, is like going out into the ocean, deep enough that you really feel the pressure of the water on your body, you feel the pull and push of the tide and yet, you stand your ground, you stay put, firm in this place that is your own. It requires strength of body and mind – an understanding of the ocean currents – not be pushed or pulled in this or that direction.
Then the tide’s strength and roar can so much that it overpowers you and you find yourself swept along once more – going in a direction you had not planned on, carried by a borrowed momentum and not one that comes from your own desire and choice. You get swept along and then the momentum slows, and you drift until something snags you, or you snag it, and you grind to a halt with wet hair and muddy feet, take a breath and get your bearings once more.
In life, we lose our footing and get carried away by the current. What really happens in those moments? As I understand it, what happens is that we forget, we forget our own true innate holiness – that we are infinitely more than ourselves, and deeply rooted in a great, unfathomable mystery. We forget that inner swerve and swing which is somehow free from all circumstances – but which is something shared by all creatures. We forget too that we are born not to one world only, but two – a practical here and now, and an enchanted dream realm of then, now, and forever.
I was asked the other day what I mean when I say that I teach sacred arts to soulful seekers. Fair question. I’ll put it this way. If I could have one wish granted, it would be to see more cliff-side churches, more votive candles in limestone nichos, impromptu shrines in the trees and the rocks. Because these are shrines not just to the holy; they are sanctuaries to human vulnerability and strength, to memory, to our stories, and to the radical reverence found within and not away from the life we live and the land we live it upon.
The tides can be strong and the current overpowering. But the shrine in the mountainside continues to stand so that all might come, all might pray and bless, all might heal and weep, and on their ways back home with their dust covered ankles they remember, as do we, – we are in this world, not of it, not only.