What is sacred
Starry Song, the shaman with the gift of spreading the wisdom of his people through the word, in chant or otherwise, puffed his unmistakable red-rock bowl pipe while we, from the porch of his house, silently watched the colors with which the setting sun painted Arizona’s mountains and sky. In the living room, Starry Song kept a small altar. Differently from my Christian tradition, in which I keep images of Jesus, Our Lady of Fatima and Francis of Assisi, or from Taoist master Li Tzu’s home, where we see small statues of Buddha, Shiva and Ganesh at the garden of bonsais, at the shaman’s altar there lay an eagle feather and a bear claw, his power animals, a two-side drum used in ceremonies, some rocks that he revered as “the ‘oldest’ people, that carried the entire memory and energy of the events the planet has experienced since immemorial time”, and many plants. I had a good understanding of the shamanic language and rituals, with its strong and beautiful earthly connections. However, something baffled me. An old clown shoe, a typical one, huge, colored, with the point purposely open.
I mustered my courage and asked why that object was on his altar. The shaman took the pipe in his hand, closed his eyes as if memory was taking him on a journey far away, and said: “When I was a teenager, I worked as a clown for a short period, in a circus that travelled around this area. It was a time of much laughter.” He made a brief pause and added: “The shoe is sacred to me.” I argued that it was not a sacred object, but a pleasant memory. Starry Song turned his head to look me in the eyes and said: “All that makes a man better is sacred. The images of master Jesus or master Buddha will be sacred only if they are capable of making you recall the beautiful lessons they left. This is their power.” I asked how a clown shoe could help in his process of evolution. The shaman was patient to explain: “Joy is typical of enlightened spirits. It is a sturdy bridge that connects us to the invisible world. Every day, when I pass by the living room, the shoe has the power of making me remember the importance of joy in life.” He made a brief pause and concluded: “The most effective prayer of gratitude to the Great Mystery for all the blessings of existence is the sowing of joy wherever we go.”
After this conversation, I had to go to a city nearby a few days, to resolve some professional business. I thought at length about the idea Starry Song had about the sacred, and even considered adding a few more objects to the altar I had at home. When I returned, I could not help looking for the clown shoe in Starry Song’s living room. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t there. Later, while we were having coffee and talking on the porch, I asked about the disappearance of the shoe. The shaman simply said: “I gave it to my sister’s son.” I asked why he gave away an object he held dear. Starry Song explained: “My nephew is training to become an actor, and did not know that I, his uncle, had already worked on the stage. He was delighted and asked me to take the shoe as source of inspiration. I was happy to give it to him.” However, I still had not fully understood, and asked him if it was appropriate to get rid of a sacred object. The shaman smiled and said: “It was more important for him than for me. If we are not careful, we might turn our home into a museum, and that is quite different from having an altar with all that helps us connect with the Infinite and transforms us. An altar may be material or immaterial, just like everything else that makes it up.”
I fully disagreed. I said it was a sacrilege not to respect what is sacred. Starry Song arched his lips in a discreet smile and explained: “The object is mundane; sacred is the connection.” I argued that if the shoe reminded him of the importance of joy in life, he shouldn’t have given it away.” The shaman looked closely at me. I noticed in his eyes a mix of patience and sympathy. He just asked: “There is an elderly lady who lives in San Francisco. She is coming to the village for a meeting of the Council in a few days. I ask you to wait for her, and then we will continue this conversation.”
After a week, she arrived. Nayelli was her name. Darker skin, thin, agile, in the same age group as Starry Song, her features had strong ethnic traits. She had her long hair, going grey, tied in a ponytail style. She had a gaze and an attitude that exuded a strange, immeasurable force. Her speech, albeit firm, showed tremendous, sincere kindness. I noticed she was well-liked by everyone. As soon as she changed her clothes, she came to meet us. We were introduced, and she appeared to be quite nice. The three of us went for a walk, to a huge lake not too far away. While we walked, the two of them chatted. Nayelli was successful publisher. She published books about the history, philosophy and mythology of her ancestors, both biographies and novels. The books sold by the thousands, monthly, in different countries of the world. She was a person of simple habits and did not show off the good financial status she had achieved. When we reached the lake, it was almost dusk. Starry Song asked me to light a fire and told me we would spend the night there. He had taken blankets for all of us. Soon the sky became sprinkled with stars; we got close to the fire and set the cold at bay, and a huge full moon came to visit us from behind the mountains close by, at the north of the lake. The shaman tapped on the two-face drum, softly and rhythmically, and Nayelli started to sing a beautiful, heartfelt song. Then, with her face soaked in tears, she stood up and started to dance to the music at the bank of the lake. Starry Song and Nayelli had a composed smile on their faces, they seemed ecstatic; I watched it all in wonder.
After a length of time I cannot gauge, the woman sat next to us, by the fire. Little by little, the rhythm from the two-face drum subsided until it become silent. Starry Song lit his unmistakable red-stone bowl pipe and asked Nayelli to tell me about her life, so that I could understand what I had just witnessed. The publisher told me she had married at a young age with another member of the tribe, a worthy, loving man. Soon came an offspring, a healthy, beautiful baby boy. They were a happy family. A while later, they were in a car accident that put an end to the existence of the husband and son in this life. In the first months, she felt disoriented, lost. In fact, she said she felt destroyed. There were so many chips she questioned if one day she would feel whole again. She did not know what to do of her life, or even how she would make a living, as she had always been a homemaker, doing house chores and looking after the son while the husband worked. They were not rich and had little savings. Until one day she decided to hike up to the mountains and something odd happened. It was as if the wind whispered to her to find strength in the wisdom of her people.
Nayelli straightened the blanket over her shoulder to protect herself from the cold, that was getting worse as time passed. Then, she continued: “I spent some days without fully grasping the message, but I kept hearing that voice. I recalled that one of the most important philosophical teachings of my people is that all power comes from the self. We are home to the Great Spirit that lies dormant. Each one of us should awaken it within themselves. In Christian tradition, this important virtue is known as Faith.”
“I started to feel stronger and stronger at each passing day, but I still had no direction to follow. This is when I had a conversation with a shaman, quite young at that time.” At this point, she looked at Starry Song, cracked a thankful smile, and continued: “He advised me to use my gift. I said I did not know what my gift was, and he said that gifts are hidden in dreams. He advised me to go after my dream, because in it I would find my gift. Once again I felt lost, because I thought that too vague. However, that was all I had. I had never thought about what my dreams or gifts were. I even thought one was mixed with the other, as I became a good wife and a devoted mother. Even though that had made me happy, and that these were the dream and gift of many women, they were not mine. These were not the skills that would help me cross the road of this existence.”
“All that I knew I had learned from native storytellers, to whom I had listened since I was a child: dreams and gifts are the pillars of the bridge that connects the heart to life. This was my starting point.”
“At that time, to keep sadness at bay, I started to nourish hope through reading. The most beautiful stories are of outdoing oneself. I started to understand I had to experience mine. Only that could give me the necessary strength and wisdom, as moved forward on the pages of my history. To escape from one’s history is to escape from oneself, is denying reality, is abandoning the dream, is relinquishing the gift, and turning one’s back to the Path. It is not knowing the honey of life; it is refusing the salt of earth.”
“I started to realize the joy and hope the books provided. Books are valuable tools, and I loved them. I realized there were many wonderful native stories, of tremendous wisdom, unknown to the world, confined only to my people. However, I was but a woman alone, inexperienced and without money. Apparently, the odds were against me; what made me move was love, alone. From home, I started to compile the stories, collect the short tales and make a selection of them, and to look for other stories. Pretty soon, I had some excellent material in my hands. Then, I left for St. Francisco, in a quest for publishers for the stories. It was difficult at first, I received many noes until I got the first book published, with quite a satisfactory response from the readers, who were delighted with the universe I presented them. Little by little things grew and, some time later, I established my own publishing house. It is well respected today because of the quality of the texts we publish”. She shrugged and said: “In short, this is my story.” She made a pause, her gaze transported her to the vastness of the sky, and she added: “And it began here, by this lake, under this moon.”
I asked Nayelli to further explain what she meant. She was kind to oblige: “After my husband and son passed away, I felt destroyed, abandoned, and even questioned if I would ever have the joy and will to live. I looked at the boxes with their ashes and drowned myself in sorrow. One day, reading a book, I made an interesting analogy: sadness and cowardice were just the opposite of the spirits of those people I loved so much. They had to be my strength, not my weakness.”
“I also understood something quite powerful and sacred: the more the destruction, the more the possibilities for transformation.”
“It was a night of full moon. I came up to this lake and threw the ashes to the wind. I prayed to grandma-moon to quietly take their spirits to the arms of the Great Creator.” Bound to my beliefs, I asked if it was not a sacrilege to throw away the ashes of beloved ones who had departed. Nayelli smiled with sympathy and smiled: “I did not throw it away; just the opposite, I liberated the three of us. I wished that they continue their learning journey towards the Infinite and allow me to start a new journey here, with the lessons and chores that were suitable to me.” I argued that the ashes were sacred, but they no longer were in the box. She replied: “I delivered them to the care of the moon. Now, anywhere on the planet that I may be, I just have to look up to the sky to feel them. For me, they are everywhere, not just in the box. The connection is there, whether on the moon, whether in my heart. Sacred is love. All the rest is just bridges.”
She paused once again and then added: “Bridges can be of mortar, rocks, china or even ashes. The sturdiest ones, have no doubt, are those built with the purest love.” I asked her if she missed them. Nayelli cracked a kind smile and said: “Of course! I like this feeling of yearning. This is a sacred feeling, because yearning only exists where there is love. However, in order to be sacred, the feeling of yearning must be a joyful one, as joyous are love and freedom. When I miss them, whether I am in London or Hong Kong, I look up to the sky, I dance, I sing the beautiful songs that I know, and my heart is appeased. The moon is my altar, it is sacred for me.”
Starry Song once again made a soft and rhythmical music on the two-face drum. I closed my eyes and let the music surround me. It seemed the beats were paced with the pulse of the planet. I sensed a gratifying feeling that I was connected with the Whole. A sacred feeling. At the end, the shaman said: “The sacred is everywhere, it is hidden in the mundane, in the simple everyday chores. The sacred is in the virtues, because it is the way one reacts to the adversities of life that their other face is revealed. The divine face.”
He made a pause, looked Nayelli in the eyes and completed: “I give thanks to all that destroys me, because it is when I need myself that I find out who I am. Then, I am transformed, and the universe manifests itself as light. This is sacred.”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.