The clearest and truest things are the darkest and most dubious to us, and consequently we flee from what most suits us. We embrace what fills our eyes with the most light and satisfaction and run after what is the very worst thing for us, and we fall at every step. In how much danger and fear do humans live, since the very light of their natural eyes, which ought to be their guide, is the first to deceive them in their journey to God, and since they must keep their eyes shut and tread the path in darkness if they want to be sure of where they are going and be safeguarded against the enemies of their house, their senses and faculties.” -- St. John of the Cross (Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 16, para. 12)
St. John of the Cross was a Spanish Carmelite mystic whose life spans the second half of the 16th Century. His prose and poems are part of a mystic tradition that includes Teresa of Avila and follows such luminaries as St. Julian of Norwich. In the midst of what has come to be known as the "Dark Ages," these writers found much for which to be excited and profoundly thankful. It is St. John of the Cross I think most about when it comes to understanding signs and wonders that surround us.
A distinct void has emerged between what we are created to "see" and what we actually see in the world about us. In part, our modern dichotomy between the two types of reality is due to the philosophical work of Rene Descartes and the continental rationalist movement of the 17th Century. To be sure, the problem of duality of nature was already with us humans, but the rendering of that problem into a system of thought gave ultimate proof of what deeply concerned St. John of the Cross in his mystical prayer experience.
In my time with the Lakota (known in American history as the Sioux) in 2008, I found something that I had only read about in the Celtic mystical tradition. It was that tradition in Scotland, Wales and Ireland that gave classic Anglicanism its uniqueness among Western Christian traditions. I had been given a grant by the Lilly Foundation in 1999 to undertake the overseas study. It was during that period (1999-2000) that I began to conjecture about similarities in the Celtic tradition and that of First Nations people in our country.
I was sitting with my new Lakota mentor on a stone wall in the city park of Hill City...in the Black Hills...after a picnic lunch organized by my host to meet Ben. Ben is an archaeologist by trade, but spends a great deal of time providing spiritual direction using the resources of his culture and tradition. As we talked, he asked me what I heard. After naming several things that, he said, everyone else could hear, he told me to listen to the sounds in the hills. Only when he finally pointed it out could I discern the call of an elk. Rutting season was underway.
Ben asked me what I saw around me. Again, I guessed things that, he said, everyone could see. He asked me to "really see." Finally, he pointed out the red borders on the leaves of the hedge plants along a stream. That red is the first sign of leaves turning. It was mid-August 2007. The particular call of the elk and the color on the leaves of this particular plant signalled an early fall...maybe six weeks early in the Black Hills. Ben concluded his object lesson: "We look, but we do not see; we hear, but we do not listen." By the way, fall was indeed six week early that year!
The Christian mystical tradition taps into a place within us that is part of every human construct. We are born with the facility to experience the larger reality that is not bound by the rules and laws of our physical senses. They are meant to work in tandem to provide us with the capability to physically experience the world about us in its most complete presentation. Things are going on all around us that beg to be noticed. They can't be measured, quantified or rationalized. These things are, nevertheless, profoundly real and present us with a huge amount of information.
Again, as part of my sabbatical experience, I had been instructed to meet a woman at the Crazy Horse Monument museum. I would find her in the crafts area of the museum at a particular table. I did as I was bid and found her. Her name is Lula Red Cloud. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Red Cloud, who led the Oglala Lakota and was instrumental in both the Plains Wars and brokering the final peace. Lula was wonderfully gracious. In our conversation, she suddenly shifted her focus and spoke firmly, "You must stop to visit Chief Red Cloud's grave at the Red Cloud School near the village of Pine Ridge. Since I was going down to the Pine Ridge Reservation later in the week, I promised I would do as she bid me.
Four days later, I found myself walking to the back of the school campus and the hundred yard hike to the cemetery. The Jesuits had been invited by Chief Red Cloud to start a school in 1890 and still operate this rather large school to this day. It is the parish cemetery I now found myself entering. There were wooden and stone crosses and placards with Oglala names that dated back 120 years. After some searching, I found Red Cloud's sarcophagus near the back of the cemetery. His wife's grave was beside his. While it was a simple stone sarcophagus, there was something powerful and humbling about being there. I was strongly moved to speak, and what I uttered came from somewhere other than my rational thought processes. While most of that is deeply personal, I ended by praying that what I would accomplish in my work over the coming months would bring our two cultures together in new ways and benefit his people.
I sat on a stone bench at the foot of the grave site for some minutes. During that time, I heard someone say, "You must just do this thing." No one was around. I was alone and it was the middle of the day. I made my way back down the path to the school and spent some time in the museum -- ending with a conversation in the bookstore with a Jesuit teacher at the school. Since it was well past lunch time, I grabbed a bottle of water and a power bar from my car trunk, tucked myself into the front seat and settled back to eat and rest.
I looked up at the sky in front of me and, as I looked between two trees that bordered the path to the cemetery, I saw a cloud formation emerging from behind one tree. It was the perfect form of an eagle in flight...including a hole in the cloud where the eye of the eagle would be. It was unmistakable! I watched with amazement, and heard myself say, "no way!" As the cloud began to disappear behind the opposite tree, I tossed by powerbar and water bottle into the other seat, sprang from the car and sprinted down the path to see the cloud again. When I got to the place I could see, the eagle formation had come almost completely apart and no longer resembled anything like an eagle. I was stunned!
This image would not leave me. I even dreamed about it. Five days later, I was visiting with my mentor, Ben, over coffee. I told him nervously about what I had experienced at Red Cloud School. In an absolutely casual and nonchalant manner, Ben responded, "Oh, that is cloud sign. Happens all the time, if you have eyes to see it. You obviously did have those eyes open that day." He explained about how prayer is often answered and what might be experienced in their spirituality. I took this in.
The following week, I was once again on Pine Ridge Reservation, and in the village of Kyle. I was meeting another mentor for lunch. Fr. Lyle Noisy Hawk is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist. He works for the mental health division of the only hospital on the reservation and specializes in adolescent mental health. Lyle is in his mid 60s, quiet and very affable...laughing easily. We went to a small diner for lunch, and, after renewing our relationship (I have known Lyle for some time), I tell him my experience at Red Cloud School.
Here it gets spooky. With the same nonchalant manner as Ben, Lyle shrugged and simply said, "Oh, that's cloud sign. It happens all the time, if you are predisposed to be seeing instead of just looking." Okay, I'm done in at this point. Lyle is a theologian and psychologist. Ben is an archaeologist and professor. These are not "simple folks." I'm sitting with serious science and spiritual discipline in the person of Lyle.
Lyle is gracious and patient, as all Lakota are, in explaining a level of spirituality that incorporates how God gives signs to us using all forms of physical creation. "This isn't crackpot juju or whimsy," Lyle explained. "This is how Wakan-Tanka (God...the Spirit) works and has worked from the beginning." I asked specifically about the eagle. "The eagle is special to our people. It is the Messenger. What the eagle cloud formation was saying is that your prayer has been heard and honored as sincere." That's it. Nothing more or less. Lyle concluded by saying it is doubtful that anyone else would necessarily have seen that cloud formation. It was for me.
Signs and wonders. It is the theme of Epiphanytide. St. John of the Cross tells us that, in order not to be fooled by what we think we see...or what we want to see...we must close our eyes to that reality and trust what dwells in the darkness...beyond our sight. We must enter the "cloud of unknowing" (John of the Cross's metaphor). I have to admit, I look and hear very differently these days. It is truly amazing what is going on right in our midst. And, I am just getting started!