So here we are in Lent. Consider the following quotes:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream….the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Black Elk was a Lakota shaman and holy man, and here he sounds very much like an Old Testament prophet. Sounds like Jeremiah or the voice of the Book of Lamentations. Black Elk uttered this “prophecy” concerning the infamous Wounded Knee massacre in the 1890s. So in a sense there is a great difference between the Old Testament prophets and Black Elk–he laments what WE have done to his people–in effect destroying them. Today’s Indian casinos are not a contradiction of what Black Elk prophesied but the very confirmation of its truth–but more about that in a later blog. In any case, the Old Testament prophets cry out about the destruction of their own people due to their own evil choices, infidelities to God, treachery, mistreatment of their own poor, etc. It is a destruction they have brought down on themselves.
Nevertheless Black Elk’s vision also does apply to us. Because what we(our ancestors, our government) have done to them, we have actually done to ourselves. And our superficial, fragile prosperity conceals the “sin” at the core of our collective identity. The Sacred Hoop is indeed broken for us too. And Lent is a time of remembering that also. We carry a burden of what our ancestors have done, and its ramifications and manifestations are with us every day.
It is very difficult for us modern Westerners to deal with our so-called “group identity”—we see only our individual identity and even that in a very superficial way. In all of modern literature, I think only Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov gives even a hint of what that is all about. It is certainly much, much more than simply “belonging” to a group–it has to do with our essential oneness and interrelatedness.
We may have a strong (or I should say an “exaggerated”) sense of our national or church identity–these do give us a sense of security and belongingness, but rarely do you find also with that a recognition of that group’s sinfulness and a recognition of a deep need of what the monks call “conversion.” Those of us who are Catholics and citizens of the U.S. are especially prone to this. For a long time being a member of the Catholic Church automatically established you in this all-holy club that could do no wrong. Things don’t look quite that way anymore. Just consider this whole problem of sexual abuse going on in the church. For many, many Catholics this “problem” is seen as “unfortunate,” as something the Church has a handle on, as “being behind us,” as just a matter of a few “rotten apples” in the bunch, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem has not been dealt with in any effective way, and in fact it seems that the Church is also guilty of concealing the full extent of the problem. Note the recent exposures by the Grand Jury in Philadelphia a few weeks ago. The Church is deeply sinful as an institution, and it is a bit too much for most Catholics to admit this to themselves. The Church is in deep need of its own Lent, its own “conversion.” If you still have doubts about this, consider this link from Richard Sipe, who is a former Benedictine monk and a sociologist who has studied sexual problems among Catholic religious and priests:
And let it be remembered that this particular problem is only one of a number of problems with the institutional church;e.g., the alliance with so many right-wing dictators in Latin America, the squashing of Liberation Theology, the systemic relegating of women to secondary roles, the total silence on what corporate America is doing to the middle class here, etc., etc., etc.
And what about us as a society, as a nation, as a people? There is a deep crisis concerning our very identity and the very nature of our prosperity. Lent is a time of coming to terms with who we are, what we have become, and a “conversion” to our true identity. And believe me our national problem is not trivial, nor “fixable” by some adjustment in economics or politics. Please consider this quote from a recent issue of Adbusters:
“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our government are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead–that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness.”
Charles Bowden in Blood Orchid
This also sounds like the voice of the Old Testament prophets, and it has a connection to Black Elk. From this perspective we can see how badly we are in need of Lent, and how Lent is a lot more than just “giving something up.” Another Native American shaman points us in the right direction:
“Crying for a vision, that’s the beginning of all religion. The thirst for a dream from above, without this you are nothing. This I believe. It is like the prophets in your bible, like Jesus fasting in the desert, getting his visions. It’s like our Sioux vision quest, the hanblecheya. White men have forgotten this. God no longer speaks to them from a burning bush. If he did, they wouldn’t believe it, and call it science fiction.
Your old prophets went into the desert crying for a dream and the desert gave it to them. But the whte men of today have made a desert of ther religion and a desert within themselves. The White Man’s desert is a place without dreams or life. There nothing grows. But the spirit water is always way down there to make the desert green again.”
Lame Deer, 1970