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Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine asked parishioners to donate to the Maine “marriage restoration” campaign. Officials said the donations were to help pay for television ads aimed at overturning a state law legislators passed last spring recognizing same-sex unions as “marriage.”

                                                          ~Catholic News Agency, 9/14/09



The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine accounted for 81% of in-state fund-raising to fight Equal Marriage.

                                                  ~EqualityAmerica on Twitter, 11/4/09



…thank the people of Maine for protecting and reaffirming their support for marriage as it has been understood for millenia by civilizations and religions around the world…

While the Catholic Church will continue its commitment to work for the basic human rights to which all people are entitled, it remains devoted to preserving and strengthening the precious gift of marriage.

          ~Bishop Richard Malone, Diocese of Maine, Catholic News Agency




Dear Bishop Malone,

When I was a girl sitting in Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Albuquerque, my dad always let me drop the tithing envelope he prepared every Sunday into the basket. I watched my knock-knees bob as I swung my legs, waiting for the usher to get to our pew. Ours was always the same usher, lanky and worn and with a thin mustache. He would stretch with the basket-on-a-stick to reach me. In the envelope went, with pennies, quarters, and bills from other parishioners.

Dad also gave to the Maryknoll nuns, and each month I leafed through the small magazine that came, showing what Catholics did in the world to help the poor. I saw pictures of round-bellied toddlers in Africa and sad-looking orphans in Guatemala. We had bake sales outside our church, and the little Spanish-speaking mothers and grandmothers who’d lived in the neighborhood for generations came together to work for those in need.

I couldn’t imagine being a girl in a church today and having my father give me money to put into the basket. What does a parent say to the child in one of your churches?

“Oh, that twenty dollar bill? It’s going to pay for a television ad that will tell the world what a sin it will be if gays and lesbians get married like us.”

“But, Mama, why can’t they get married?”

“Because, marriage is our precious gift. God only gave it to heterosexual men and women.”

Almost a third of individuals in the US who were raised within the Catholic faith leave the Church, and those who leave outnumber those who join. This means that Catholicism in the U.S. is a religion in decline. Moreoever, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among religions that experience a loss of members due to changes in affliations, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net loss.

And it’s not just the parishioners that you have failed to inspire. It is those who are supposed to do the inspiring. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate statistics show that in 1965, there were 8,325 graduate-level seminarians in the U.S., almost a thousand ordinations, and more than 58,000 Catholic priests. By 2009, the number of seminarians is down to just over 3,300, only 472 ordinations, and just above 40,000 priests.

All over the nation, Catholic churches are closing or merging. There is a lack of Catholic chaplains in the military. The Vatican even announced last month its desire to bring on Anglican priests disgruntled over their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops.

Is this what the Catholic Church has become—a haven for those who cannot tolerate equality? Don’t want to see women stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men? Join the Catholic Church! Don’t think that homosexuals are fit to be spiritual leaders? Join the Catholic Church! Want to keep loving and committed gays and lesbians away from the ritual of marriage? The Catholic Church wants YOU!

In my family, a priest was the best thing a boy could grow up to become. My father was altar boy in two masses each Sunday, and his cousin went into the seminary. But Father Tony, as we called Dad’s cousin, was gay. He left his parish not long after becoming a priest. Much later, stricken with AIDS, he was reinstated and allowed to give mass one last time before he died. That was two decades ago—during a kinder, gentler Catholicism.

You and your fellow leaders are the opposite of what I understood Jesus Christ to be, one who walked among those rejected by the rest of society, who advocated on their behalf, who protected the marginalized. Without havng children yourselves, you instruct us on family planning. You are celibate and unmarried, yet you claim to understand love, intimacy, and the precious gift of marriage? What conceit.

Instead of trying to protect this gift, why not work at bettering men who abuse women and make marriage untenable, or heterosexuals who step in and out of the ritual as if it were a coat? Maybe those denied the right to marry for so long will treat it as the precious gift you say it is.

My father still goes to church and still tithes. He is frail now, and sometimes he watches mass on TV. Most Sundays, my sister or brother take him. They walk him slowly to the spot he likes, in the middle of the church. Not so close as to appear overly eager, but not so far away as to seem laggardly. He left Our Lady of Guadalupe after 35 years in 2004, when the priest told him who to vote for. This latest parish has thus far not meddled in places it has no business being.

I used to be sad about the direction of the Catholic Church. But now I am ashamed and angry.

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Da Nang Cathedral, built for French residents in 1923 and today
serves approximately 4,000 Catholics in the city, Da Nang, Vietnam,
December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




I went yesterday to get an adjustment after the holidays, and I heard Dr. L tell someone that patients help heal one another. That in the treatment room, which contained up to four of us lying on massage tables a couple of feet apart from one another, there was a sort of collective healing energy flowing from one person to the next.

Dr. L, the chiropractor, was saying this—or words to the effect—to a woman who had just left the treatment room. His words penetrated the altered state I tend to slip into the moment I settle face down on the table. I thought of the patient to my left, wondered if, like me, she was channelling all her energy into healing herself. I thought about how energy moved, uncontained, from this thing to that thing. How we were all connected whether we liked it or not.

It’s a fascinating concept, the notion of collective consciousness. I remember during both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections receiving viral emails suggesting we all pray for our candidate to win. The idea was that our collective power could and would make a difference in the outcome.

That then reminded me of the Catholic ritual of praying the rosary whenever someone dies. How the prayers of the survivors, chanted in unison at a rosary mass, help send the deceased person’s soul to Heaven.

And so this morning when I read a New York Times article about a group of a hundred or so parishioners outside of Boston, Massachusetts, who had held vigil inside an empty Catholic Church 24/7 for over four years, I was struck by the theme of collective spirit. Collective intent. Which really translates into Faith.

In fact, that was the title of the article: “In Quiet Rebellion, Parishioners Keep Faith.” In October 2004, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston decided to close and sell dozens of churches in the area as a result of a shortage of priests, parishioners, and money. (The latter was exacerbated by a multimillion dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse.) Parishioners at five of the churches slated for closure rebelled, setting up constant vigil in their empty churches.

The fact that parishioners from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church were able to set up vigil is itself a testament to faith. The archdiocese changed the locks in 2004 but unintentionally left a fire door open. Since then parishioners not only keep vigil in shifts around the clock; they also conduct mass, hold rosary sessions, raise money, donate to charities, and open the church to people in need.

In the course of four years of maintaining a vigil church, this collection of parishioners has undergone a transformation. They talk of new opportunity, of the potential for lay people to be more involved in the Catholic Church, to play an active role and help offset the shortage of priests.


I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach. I’ll always be Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.

~Mary Dean, 61, St. Frances parishioner


The big question is, Can the hierarchy of the Catholic Church undergo its own transformation? Can the archbishop find a thread of faith inside the vigil churches that might provide answers to the problems that beleaguer the Church?

If spiritual health is one of the main pillars of a healthy human being, is there not goodness in collective healing, in people healing themselves and one another?



Da Nang from afar, view from my room (Da Nang Cathedral in the distance), December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




Postscript: I started this post wanting to talk about the power of churches from a purely structural standpoint. How is it that a physical building could have such pull on individuals?

I spend hours out of any trip I take to somewhere new seeking out cathedrals, temples, and other sacred places. But what I’ve come to believe is, these places are only as sacred as the faith that sustains them. People make the place. They embue the walls and ceilings with spirituality. The NYT article I came across today hit home that point.

Above is the view from my hotel window in Da Nang, which I visited last month on a trip to Vietnam. I could see a pink steeple in the distance my first morning, and late that afternoon I went in search of the church. It was a Saturday, and there was a mass in progress—a huge funeral, it appeared, with parishioners spilling out into the entryway. I kept a respectful distance.

I think of the many faithful who have lost their places of worship. These are the places we go to be born, to live, to die, and to be born again. To lose one’s church is a profound thing.

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Mother Mudra, pen and ink on graph paper, doodle
© 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




“Would you like to see a special temple?” our guide asks as she holds out her hand to help us off the canoe. “Tourists never go there, but I know where it is.”

“Yes, yes,” we nod.

Two brothers from the boat crew and one of their girlfriends have the day off, so they join the Japanese couple and me, plus our guide, on a sight-seeing tour.

It’s still early. We walk single-file on a narrow path past houses where children loll in front of TV sets and women shell nuts. The brriing-brriing of an old-fashioned bell causes us to step off the path in unison to let a bicyclist pass.

Soon we turn on to a dirt road. The ground is moist from last night’s rain. We come upon a bevy of small roosters strutting herky-jerky in individual cages. “Fighting cocks,” our guide says, and we stare somberly as we continue on. Nervous prisoners awaiting execution.

Suddenly there it is before us, a shimmering white pagoda with blue-tipped wings, ready for take-off. We slip through the gate and everything changes, like walking through a mirror into paradise. Our feet float on spongy grass-moss and our hands graze two golden dragons.

A teeny tiny frog catches my eye. I stoop to catch it. The rest of the group peers in to my cupped hands to see what I have, but as soon as I flatten my palm the baby frog leaps toward the sea of green.



            




Thirty-nine days have come and gone since that morning in Cai Be, Vietnam. I’ve tried to find out what temple it was—a name or lineage—to put into context what I experienced there. But every town in Vietnam, it seems, is filled with temples. Finally and with some relief, I give up my search and fall back on the only context I can lend, which is the moment itself.






Our group moves together like a small cloud, individual ions held in a single energy field. We seven are the only people on the temple grounds this Sunday morning. Our guide ceases being a guide—this isn’t a formal stop on the tour—and together we step gingerly from one area to another. We are like children who aren’t sure we’re supposed to be there.

We take turns rubbing the Smiling Buddha’s belly for luck, slip off our shoes and climb the steps to the interior courtyard. Once inside the great temple’s main chamber, we splinter off to explore. I’m drawn to a table with framed photos of men, women, and children. Next to each photo is a hand-written card, and next to the table is a large cabinet, its shelves filled with goods and more cards.

“Those are gifts.” Our guide has come up behind me as I peer at the blue-and-white china and tarnished silver in the cabinet. “The card says these valuables were passed down through the family since the 14th Century, and now the family gives the items to the temple in return for their daughter’s health.”

I turn back to the porcelain, suddenly troubled by the notion that as more tourists come to Vietnam, vandals might some day steal these gifts and sell them for profit. I am sad, and I shuffle, burdened by the thought, to another table, this one covered with hundreds of glass tumblers holding candle wicks in shiny yellow oil. The candles are lit—prayers reflecting like sunlight on a river.






Now it is October in the Rio Grande Valley, a beautiful fall day. My country is in turmoil—our economy imploding and our society exploding, with rage, over the national elections. I am literally and figuratively oceans away from that soft temple, its Smiling Buddha and croaking frogs, the river of light and strength of detachment to material things. I feel far, far away from a belief in miracles and peace.



       




There is a goddess in the Buddhist temple of Cai Be. I don’t know her name, but she wears a wry smile and dons earlobes to her shoulders, reminding us that the Buddha was once a prince whose ears became stretched from the heavy jewels he wore. Even when he gave up a life of luxury, his ears remained long.

Like an apparition, this goddess appears during my final stroll through the temple’s courtyard then again in the flower garden. She holds her right hand next to her heart, palm out, fourth finger touching thumb. She offers the Vitarka Mudra, a Buddhist hand gesture that symbolizes Teaching or Instruction.

At the core of Buddhist Teaching are the Four Noble Truths: 1) life means suffering, 2) the origin of suffering is attachment, 3) the cessation of suffering is attainable, 4) there is a path to the cessation of suffering, which is middle-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

I think of the parents who carried their precious family treasures to the temple. I can understand that kind of act. People who love others, truly love, will give up anything if it means their loved ones will survive. There are people all across this world and in my country and my life who know that kind of love. They are greater than all the bad, and though I lose this truth when I most need it, it lives even when I forget or stop believing.

The goddess of Cai Be resides in my heart now. She stands before a vast, desolate land whose river runs red and mountains are bare. She wears the colors of new life, green and yellow, but also the color of death, because they are of the same cycle. Above her the sky fills with the promise of renewal. She welcomes all who come to listen and learn. She is a teacher, and she is peace.

Today I can see her.



Buddha Mother, statue in a Buddhist temple in Cai Be,
Vietnam, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.







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Mekong Monk, portrait of Cao Dai monk at the Ngoc Son
Quang temple in the Mekong Delta, August 30, 2008,
photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




It is only fitting that I find peace inside a temple on a canal in the Mekong Delta. We’ve gone there on a small canoe while our boat travels further up the river to pick us up later.

An old man dressed in white cotton shift and pants comes out to greet us. He talks to me as if I understand everything he says. He points to a bright blue spiral staircase opposite the temple. I nod and bow slightly, but before I head up the stairs I point to my camera and then to him to ask if I can take his picture.

Yes, yes, he nods enthusiastically. He stands very still and very erect. I snap a shot then turn the viewfinder so he can see himself. He breaks into laughter—he has exactly three teeth—and he points to the camera, looking around to find someone to show.





I noticed as we floated along the Mekong Delta, the children ran to edge of the bank and yelled, “Halo, halo!” They waved, and when I waved back they laughed and did it again. Some of the men and women would nod to acknowledge my nod to them. A sort of “Hello.” We passed so close that I could see their faces, the checked shirts and blue pants that hung from lines on the decks of their boats, their bare feet. I saw them washing or working or lying in hammocks.

But a few of the men we passed didn’t nod back. They kept their mouths shut in a tight line. One man took a stick and banged it on a steel barrel. Another man threw broken bits of brick onto the corrugated tin roof of his boathouse.

I wonder if these men assumed I was American or whether they dislike all foreigners. I don’t blame them in either case. This is the place where American soldiers came and fought, and before that there were others who laid claim to the country.

Tourism is a conquest of a different kind. I feel guilty floating by on a small yet clearly luxurious cruise boat.




The old monk at the Ngoc Son Quang temple points to the frogs jumping on the concrete floor three levels down. He talks excitedly, motioning with his arms. The guide says that when it rains the small channels will fill with water and the frogs will make baby fish. I smile and nod. “Frogs bring good luck,” I say, although no one translates my words.

We climb down the stairs and there on the ground level are a whole host of monks and nuns. The old man grabs me by the arm and leads me to a younger monk who has sad blue eyes and a beautiful face. Again much talking and pointing, and the guide tells me the old monk wants me to take a picture of him and the younger man together. “Yes,” I tell them.

The sun will soon set somewhere behind the clouds and the light is quickly draining from the day. I motion for the old man to move in closer to the younger one. He moves in a couple of inches. “More,” I say. Two more tiny steps. I snap the shot, turn the camera so they both can see themselves. “A-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The old monk laughs and laughs.

They take us inside and soon I am being asked to take a picture of this thing and that thing. They ask me if I like the color. They explain that the women pray on one side and the men on the other. They are generous and eager to share. A neighbor, who has specifically asked to have his picture taken with the Divine Eye tells the guide that he wishes to buy me a drink. We politely decline. We must return to our canoe; the cruise boat is waiting for us.

As the monks walk us to the gate they tell us that in November of every year there is a special ceremony to pray for peace throughout the world. Thousands of people come to the temple.

“Maybe I’ll come back then,” I say. I bow slightly to thank them. They nod to me, “Yes, yes.”





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Jésucristo, retablo of Jesus Christ by Tesuque artist Juanito
Jimenez
, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Where to begin? There are so many authoritative sources on the origins of the retablo that I dread trying to give a historical overview. Truth is, I don’t want to. I’ll make a deal, though. At the end of this post, I’ll provide a list of the books that will do exactly that — give anyone who’s interested everything there is to know about retablos.


I’d rather talk about the power of the retablo for Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico. Oh, and here I should clarify — retablos are not unique to my state. They came with the Spaniards during the conquest of the “New World,” then flourished during the colonization of indigenous peoples throughout what was then known as “New Spain.” But the making of devotional art in general — and the retablo, in particular — has thrived for centuries in New Mexico, passed on from generation to generation.

Well, there I go. I guess I can’t get away from at least giving a layperson’s understanding of the retablo. Devout Catholics (and devout believers in saints) in this part of the world use them both as art and for altars in our homes. We pray to them for anything and everything. The retablos depict Jesus, Mary, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and many saints.

Through the centuries certain attributes persist in each depiction of a particular saint. For example, Santa Verónica. According to legend, she was so moved by the sight of Jesus on his way to Calvary that she pushed her way through the crowds to wipe the sweat and blood from his face. The towel she used was imprinted with his image, and so any time Saint Veronica is painted, she is shown with a cloth bearing Christ’s face.

Certain saints are intermediaries for certain needs. San Yisidro is the saint of the crops; he figures prominently in the Rio Grande Valley. Santo Niño de Atocha is the patron for freeing prisoners. He is believed to have power to perform miraculous rescues for any person in danger, especially from violent acts and for travelers. Mater Dolorosa is invoked for pain and sorrow.

There are patrons for most ailments — Santa Lucía for blindness and clarity; Santa Librata for help with burdensome husbands or unwanted suitors; Santa Ana for the old and mothers, both (it just dawned on me, she’d be ideal for old mothers like myself); San Antonio de Padua to find lost objects, including husbands for unmarried women. The list is endless.



   



For Valentine’s Day in 1998, when I was seven months pregnant with my youngest daughter, Jim came home from running errands. He had for me a retablo he’d bought from a folk artist who’d set up shop on a vacant lot in our then-neighborhood of Albuquerque’s barrio Griegos. The retablo was new but made to look old.

“That’s why I bought it,” Jim said. He told me the artist had lots of pieces to choose from but that this was the only one that looked ancient. The saint was male, holding a staff in one hand and a three-crowned object in the other and wearing a red robe and golden cape.

The name of the saint wasn’t written on the back of the wooden board, as on most of our retablos, but we found in barely discernable lettering near the figure’s robe this notation: San Ramón Nonatus.

Neither of us had heard of San Ramón Nonatus, so I went to my bookshelves and pulled down a book on saints. (Jim had gotten into the habit of giving me for most birthdays or holidays a new book on saints.) On page 131 of Mexican Folk Retablos by Gloria Fraser Giffords, I found the entry (this saint is also known as San Ramón Nonato). Here is what I read out loud to Jim:

His last name Nonatus — “not born” — commemorates his caesarean birth at the time of his mother’s death. For this reason, he is the patron of midwives and women giving birth.

I looked up from the book. Jim’s mouth was open. Being the types to faint at the sight of blood and the smell of hospitals, we had already decided to birth our baby at home, attended by a midwife. This wasn’t our first home birth, but because I’d been thinking about the challenges of labor with my first child (especially the pain) I had become anxious about this upcoming birth.

As it turns out, when the due date arrived, the umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around my babe’s neck. Our midwife guided me through pushing such that she could gently lift the cord around Em’s head between contractions. Em came out more purple than most newborns, but she was big and healthy and so very alive. She was perfect.



                     



I have over the years given up my faith in the institution of the Catholic Church, much like one finds that a particularly strong yearning has over time finally and quietly faded to nothing. I don’t mean to offend practicing Catholics; my father, some of my siblings, several nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends all attend mass each Sunday. Being who I am — pragmatic and at times challenging of authority — I simply reject the notion that celibate men can understand my particular troubles.

But I have faith in the personajes — Mary, Jesus, and the saints — of my Catholic upbringing. Perhaps that is why I surround myself with these images. So that every day when I wake up, I am reminded of the miracles and protections they provide in this world. And that I know, always, that everything will be OK.



Garden of Eden, retablo by Juanito Jimenez, photo © 2008
by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 




Books I’d Recommend if You Want to Learn More:

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Mother Mary as in a Dream, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by
ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Last Wednesday afternoon I found myself in one of the best spots I could imagine, with my parents and oldest sister, and in the company of my beloved grandparents and best-ever uncle. We were in the cemetery in Raton, New Mexico, where Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Pat are buried.

I get my love of cemeteries from Mom. I didn’t know how much she loved them until this visit. I usually go to cemeteries with my dad; each Memorial Day we make the trek to Costilla, the place where his parents are buried. But on this particular trip Mom asked if we could stop in Raton to see her parents and brother. “I love cemeteries,” she told me as we left our relatives’ headstones and began exploring the grounds.

We walked all over the cemetery. The dry grass crackled under our feet. Most of the headstones were small and unassuming.

“Oh, there’s Joe Gourley,” Mom said. Joe was the son of a rich man in Raton, who Mom still calls “Mr. Gourley.” Joe Gourley, the son, went to war. When he came back he shot himself. Mom did the math in her head to make sure this was the right Joe Gourley, the one she knew who killed himself. “Yep, that would be about right.”

The June day my grandmother was buried here, we attended a funeral mass. According to my imperfect memory, it was a High Mass with incense and big drops of Holy water splashed in our faces. The priest, dressed in white robes and a white cap, bellowed a sermon of doom. I don’t know why this particular service seemed so gloomy to me — it was held in 1985, when I was 24 and gloomy myself — but I remember it plucked the chords of the guilt side of our Catholic faith. I felt resentful and confused. Was he talking about my grandmother or were his messages intended for us?

My relationship with Catholicism is complex, influenced, I think, by Mom’s own complex relationship with the Church. She rebelled against Dad’s absolute piety, and she strained against the rigidity — the intolerance — with which some Catholic priests ruled their parishes in those days.

If pressed, she might be apt to say something like, “I don’t believe in God.” Yet she was a believer. She was just unwilling to concede the fact.

At the rosary held for Grandma the night before her burial, Mom sat in the front right-hand side of the church. A benevolent Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white robes stood silently in the nicho of a wall facing Mom and her youngest sister, Connie. My grandmother’s death was a blow for my mother. Mom called my grandmother “Mama” up until the day she died — she still does. They were close, talking for hours each week. Mom cried and cried through the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. At one point, she peered through her veil of tears and saw that the Virgin Mary was crying, too.

“Tears came down her cheeks, we saw them!” Mom pleaded afterwards. Both she and Connie saw the tears. Later on, before the funeral mass the next day, we went to see if the Virgin Mary statue had raised porcelain tears on her cheeks. There were none. Still, I believed.


      



Beverly Donofrio in her book Looking for Mary says that when the spirit of the Virgin Mary is nearby, so too is the smell of roses. I remember Mom used to like everything — lotion, perfume, candles — that smelled of roses. Old lady smell, I always thought, even though for years of birthdays and Mother’s Days, I gave her rose-fragranced-anything-I-could-find.

I can’t recall now the last time I thought to give Mom anything having to do with roses. It’s only today that I remember how much she loved that unmistakable fragrance.


One of the photos I took on Wednesday caught my eye as I pored through the shots from that day in the cemetery. It is a small statue of Mary. She sits on the ground, a short distance from the marble headstone of the person she graces. All around the Mary statue are needles and small branches from a nearby pine. I have picked her only because of who she is, not because I know the person buried there. I have to almost lie on the grave myself to get down low enough to photograph the statue.

In the photo of her I notice a shaft of light, thin and almost imperceptible, coming down over her right eye. She is completely white, but there on that right eye is a speck of dirt exactly where her iris would be.

It is not earth-shattering. It is not the stuff that draws throngs of believers. It’s dirt and a small ray of light. It could be nothing. It’s easy to miss.

I call Mom and tell her about the photo. “Oh, really?” she says. She sounds intrigued. A lot has happened in the 23 years since her mother died. Over the years and through various family crises, my mother has turned to her imperfect faith and made it something all of us can hold on to. She prays a rosary every day. Her rebellious self has changed. You can still see remnants of it but she no longer rebels just for the sake of rebelling.

“What do you think,” she asks, “is it a little miracle?” I tell her I’m not sure but that I’ll bring by my computer so that she can see for herself. “I believe in miracles, you know,” she tells me.

I do know. I’ve never doubted that about my mom. That’s one of the gifts she gave to me and all my siblings.



Shaft of Light, Raton, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy.
All rights reserved.

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Afternoon Meditation, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Afternoon Meditation, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


In writing practice this morning, ybonesy and I both wrote about sitting in solidarity with our writing friends at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Most Decembers, Natalie holds a writing retreat during the period Mabel's Gate - Taos Mountain, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.around December 1st through December 8th. In Zen, this time is called Rohatsu Sesshin and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.

Rohatsu means in classical Japanese twelve-eight, because December eighth is celebrated in the Far East as the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Zoketsu Norman Fisher from Green Gulch Farm (in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi) explains Rohatsu Sesshin something like this:

Sesshin is about pulling our whole life together — right here into this one body and mind and right here on this little square of black cushion. All of our life, past, present and future, is right here and right now. Our whole life. All our many lives. All of everyone’s life. The life of the planet. The life of the stars. All that we are and all that everyone is and was and wanted to be but couldn’t be. All our successes and failures. All we wanted and didn’t want. All we overlooked and grieved over and lusted over and abandoned. None of that is elsewhere. It’s all right here right now on this cushion.

Of all the sesshins of the year this one is the most intense of all because it’s the one…that imitates the Buddha’s time of sitting under the enlightenment tree. So in a way our whole sesshin is a kind of ceremony of enactment of this event and we are all playing the Buddha under the Buddha’s tree, enacting an event that happened almost two thousand five hundred years ago. Two thousand five hundred is just one of the many ways of saying right now. Right now, actually, Right Now, as you are listening to words that I am speaking, Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree making strong effort for awakening. In each and every one of your bodies, in each and every pore of each and every one of your bodies, there are infinite Buddhas — each one, right now as I’m speaking, literally and actually making this kind of effort.

        

        Slow Walking, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.            Winter Fire, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Slow Walking (left), Winter Fire (right), Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


It’s a time of deep practice, a time where we enter the cave-like darkness of winter and look inwardly to the truth of the existence of our own Buddha Nature, and the awakened nature of all beings.


Mabel's Lights, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM, Feb 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

Mabel’s Lights II, second in series, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


But sitting in Taos is not about Zen. People of all faiths and religions come to study with Natalie. It is about practice. Beginner’s Mind. About repetition and opening. It is about getting out of your own way, vowing to make greater effort, to go the extra mile, and through that effort, trying to requite a debt of gratitude to those, in life and in Spirit, who have helped us along the way.


Becoming The Mountain, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

In Taos, we practice sitting, walking, and writing. We sit like the mountain. We anchor our breath to the bottom of our feet. We chant and sing. We are silent. We write.


The practice of our writing is backed by a 2500 year old tradition of watching the mind. It is powerful. At times, life changing. We are grateful to Natalie for creating writing practice, for the gift of her teachings, for passing them down to us.


Many of our writing friends are sitting in Taos:  sitting, walking, practicing, deepening, learning the true secret of writing. ybonesy and I wanted to hold a place for them. We sit with them in quiet reflection and community. And in doing so, we sit with the world.


Not to be attached to external forms, not to be unsettled within, not to think this and that, not to be cluttered with extraneous things, not to think about gain and loss and whether we are happy or sad. This can be called Zen.
   -Shodo Harada Roshi

If you lose the spirit of repetition, your practice will become quite difficult.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Key To Mabel’s (in repetition), Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Mountain is mountain and earth is earth
That’s all.
You shouldn’t say anything extra.
You should not put any fancy decoration.
Mountain is mountain, that’s all.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

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