At Home in the World

Primal and Indigenous Spirituality

At Home in the World
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Much of indigenous spirituality exists on the edges of society without validation or integration from the government and popular culture (though it is often appropriated for commercial or selfish purposes). Native lands were largely invaded by Christian colonizers. Native peoples were forced to leave their homes. Their children were taken to schools where their culture was often stripped away.

From this marginalized position, Native peoples have a unique “bias from the bottom” that we would do well to pay attention to. We could learn from them, among other things, that land cannot be owned and Spirit cannot be divided. The Earth and all its inhabitants belong to the Creator who made them. We are called to live in harmony with each other and all created things. Creating harmony is a central idea in most indigenous religions.

Similarly, Huston Smith described “primal peoples” as:

. . . oriented to a single cosmos, which sustains them like a living womb. Because they assume that it exists to nurture them, they have no disposition to challenge it, defy it, refashion it, or escape from it. It is not a place of exile or pilgrimage, though pilgrimages take place within it. Its space is not homogenous; the home has a number of rooms, we might say, some of which are normally invisible. But together they constitute a single domicile. Primal peoples are concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony. But the overriding goal of salvation that dominates the historical religions is virtually absent from them. [1]

Primal and indigenous spiritualities are not primarily concerned with salvation as a way to escape from a sinful world and go to heaven or the next world. Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon write, “They make it clear that we humans are not here simply as transients waiting for a ticket to somewhere else. The Earth itself is Christos, is Buddha, is Allah, is Gaia.” [2] As Jesus taught, heaven is here and now, within us (Luke 17:21).

When Pope John Paul II met with Native Americans in Phoenix, Arizona, he told them that they knew something that is taking most Catholics a long time to learn: that the Creator has always been giving and is encountered in the natural world, just as it is written in our own Scriptures (Romans 1:20). From his address:

[Your ancestors’] ways were marked by great respect for the natural resources of land and rivers, of forest and plain and desert. . . . Here they worshipped the Creator and thanked him for his gifts. In contact with the forces of nature they learned the value of prayer, of silence and fasting, of patience and courage in the face of pain and disappointment. [3]

Unfortunately, many Christians moved the knowing of God largely into the realm of argumentative words, which narrowed the field of truly knowing and actually experiencing.

References:
[1] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (Harper Collins: 1986), 377.

[2] Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, Earth Prayers: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations from Around the World (HarperOne: 1991), xxi.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Address to Native Peoples of the Americas (September 14, 1987). Full text at http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1987/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19870914_amerindi-phoenix.html.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010)CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: National Powwow Grass Dancers (detail), 2007, Smithsonian Institute creator, photographer Cynthia Frankenburg, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:Looking for beauty all around us is a contemplative practice, an exercise in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to the divine image. In indigenous traditions, such opening practices often take the form of dance, drumming, song, and trance, embodied forms that Western, and particularly Euro-centric, Christianity has neglected. —Richard Rohr

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