Religion is everywhere. It’s in our hearts and in our hands. We see it in coffee shops and on college campuses, on street corners and in the local mall.
With that in mind, whenever and wherever I travel I keep my iPhone on the ready, prepared to snap pictures of religious sightings as I come across them. This is what I call "spiritual sightseeing" and it can not only enrich your trips, but also your knowledge of religion and the place you are visiting.
Spiritual sightseeing involves touring experiences that open a traveler to the spiritual significance of a particular site, area or culture. Richard Ross, a travel blogger, said, "spiritual sightseeing involves experiencing a sense of internal emotion by touring a place with spiritual significance."
It is not only for serious pilgrims or participants in packaged tours in far-off locales. It can be incorporated into any itinerary in any location. And it's not just about big cathedrals or packaged spiritual "experiences." Some of my favorite spiritual sightseeing moments have been impromptu and intimate.
Recently, I was traveling in Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon. Here are a few highlights from my spiritual sightseeing shots:
1. The Café that doubles as Bahá'í meeting place
On our way to the Grand Canyon the group I was with stopped in Flagstaff for a little nectar of the gods -- coffee. Enjoying a delicious Café Viennese at Macy's European Coffee House my spiritual spidey-sense started to perk up. Suddenly, I saw spirituality everywhere. A Buddhist mandala -- a sacred geometric figure used for meditation -- behind the espresso machine; a Trinity symbol chalked onto a writing board in the men's room (yes, you read that right); and these words scribbled on the menu: "the Earth is one country and mankind its citizens."
This is a quote from the Bahá'u'lláh (aka "the Báb") the founder and final messenger of the Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind and views religious history as an unfolding revelation of God through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established their religion contextualized for the people and their capacity to understand God at that time. This list of messengers includes the Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others.
As I chatted with my barista, I discovered that Macy's Coffeehouse doubles as the local Bahá'í meeting room in Flagstaff. Soon, the spiritual sights were everywhere -- a portrait of the Báb, a poster of Bahá'í teachings, pictures of Bahá'í temples around the world. Who knew that in ordering a latté I would soon get a lesson in the flexibility and fluidity of Bahá'í faith in a snowy college-town in Northern Arizona? The lesson I learned? Bahá'ís are often persecuted, and have been from the beginning of their movement. There are relatively few temples throughout the world (the most famous being the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India), and Bahá'ís are used to be fluid. Nowhere is this more the case than in Flagstaff where a long with a shot of espresso you can get a shot of religious literacy.
2. Navajo sandpaintings
Everywhere you go in Northern Arizona you will find "American Indian" or "Native American" kitsch. This isn't to denigrate the valuable art of Native American tribes in the Southwest, or elsewhere, but it is to call into question the commodification and co-opting of sacred symbols of indigenous religion for our economic and spiritual consumption. In the buffet-style spiritual marketplace of 21st-century America we often get overly excited by "authentic" indigenous religious artifacts and primitivize the living people who make them by purchasing them for our enjoyment. While they are beautiful, symbolic, and may be meaningful we must be reticent to consume another's culture and force them to conform their practice and material culture to our desires.
With that said, these "spiritual souvenirs" can be helpful entrées into understanding aspects of indigenous religion. Take "Navajo sandpaintings" for example. On the back of each sand painting, also called "dry paintings," is written: "according to the Navajo religion the universe is a very delicately balanced thing. If this balance is upset, some disaster -- usually an illness -- will follow. To restore the balance and harmony means performing one of many Navajo chants or ways. These complex ceremonies involve the use of herbs, prayers, songs, and sandpaintings. The sandpainting is done in a careful and sacred manner, according to the ancient knowledge of the art."
Indeed, sandpainting is a highly stylized and symbolic ritual among Navajo that involves trickling small amounts of crushed rock, pollen, or other dry materials into a design. That sandpaintings act as a sacred pathways, or "places where the gods come and go" in the Navajo language. They are used in curing ceremonies in which the gods' help is requested for harvests and healing.
The figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations of a story in Navajo mythology. They depict objects like the sacred mountains where the gods live, or legendary visions, or they illustrate dances or chants performed in rituals. For the Navajo, the sandpainting is not a work of art or a souvenir to be saved. Instead, it is a living, affective, and sacred entity that empowers the patient to transform his or her self (mind, body, and soul) via dynamic mythic symbols that re-create the chantway odyssey of the myth's main protagonist, causing those events to be re-lived in the present.
Sandpaintings are not unique to the Navajo. Tibetan Buddhists, Pueblo, Australian Aboringals, and others use sandpaintings, albeit in different ways, during religious ceremonies or as means of meditation (some mandalas, mentioned above, are done with sand implying the impermanence of even beautiful art and mindful meditation). Some Latin Americans use sandpaintings in certain Christian rituals, including the levantada de la cruz (lifting of the cross) a sandpainting ceremony completed by godparents of the recently deceased or as part of El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) rituals in cemeteries or at home altars in Mexico.
3. Psalms at the Canyon
What would be a religious sightseeing tour without a bit of controversy? With headlines like the Los Angeles Times' "Religion and Geology Collide at the Grand Canyon" one tiny little plaque has raised quite a stink in the past. Donated in the 1960s by a Protestant religious order called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, the Grand Canyon plaques were removed in 2003 only to be returned in 2004. They still adorn National Park Service locations along the canyon to this day. At issue for Christians is an acknowledgement of God as creator in the majesty of one of the deepest and widest canyons in the world. At issue for others is the separation of church and state.
Of course, the NPS does not only deal with plaques at the Grand Canyon. There is a chapel at Yosemite NP, a cross in the Mojave, a Buddhist stupa in Albuquerque, and a Russian Orthodox Chapel at Sitka. Indeed, several National Historic Sites are religious sites as well, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church. In fact, at the same location where one plaque is displayed -- the Watchtower at the Grand Canyon -- the verse was overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by strong Hopi religious symbology.
4. Hopi legends & symbols at the Watchtower
The Watchtower at Desert View is an architectural wonder built near the eastern gateway of the South Rim by Mary Colter -- 20th-century American architect and designer. The Watchtower design integrates Hopi building themes and religious symbols including a depiction of the Snake Legend -- the story of the Hopi's first navigation of the Grand Canyon.
There are religious symbols everywhere inside the Watchtower, illustrating harvest images, divine icons, and spiritual tokens. One notable example is that of Muyingwa, god of germination. The design elements are purposeful and powerful. Since the Watchtower is based on the design of a Hopi ceremonial kiva -- a room used for religious rituals often associated with kachina (spirit beings of the Pueblo peoples) belief systems -- and Hopi religion and art are intimately and intricately intertwined, the multitude of manifest religious representations is no surprise.
Fred Kabotie, who painted the murals inside the Watchtower, said that his paintings were faithful to Hopi renderings over the centuries and that they are still imbued with sacred power. A beautiful photographic representation and explanation of most of the paintings is available HERE.
5. A fox, a mission, & an upside down cross
One particular image of Kabotie's has struck, intrigued, and stumped me. Near the entrance/exit of the stylized kiva I noticed a circular painting that featured four primary symbols: a stylized fox hovering at the top, a hung feather (real), what looks like a mission façade, and an upside down cross. I am still in the midst of researching the meaning of this symbol, tracking down an expert in Hopi symbology or anyone who knows more about Kabotie's art, but what follows are my inclinations and musings on the meaning of the symbol. They can only be taken as speculative, nothing more. I will let you know if I'm anywhere near being correct in the future...
First, what do the symbols mean on their own? The fox could symbolize a clan of the Hopi, a particular kachina, or particularly a trickster spirit being. Feathers mean many things to various Native American nations. They can represent strength, honor, fidelity, trust, or the power of the Creator depending on their source, context, and usage. Not much can be said about the specific meaning of this particular feather as of yet. The mission is an interesting inclusion in the piece. Mission façade's have no specific meaning in Hopi art, but what is known is that the Hopi were highly resistant to Franciscan and general Catholic mission efforts in the American Southwest. Indeed, the Hopi combatted Catholic religion both openly and subtly. The upside down cross is the symbol that initially piqued my interest. The cross in Hopi symbology is representative of the earth's forces, but here could be related directly to the mission and the attempted evangelization of the Hopi people during, and after, Spanish settlement. Interestingly, any figure depicted upside down typically implied that figure's death.
Taking all of this into consideration it is my estimation that this painting is a subversive critique of Christian evangelism among the Hopi. Perhaps Kabotie merged these various symbols to simultaneously affirm the strength of Hopi religion in the face of hegemonic Christianizing forces and undermine the missionization of his people at the hands of foreign powers. Depicting a trickster deity and showing the "death" of the missions and their message (the upside down cross), Kabotie may have been portraying his, and his people's, well-known resistance against the Christian message. Again, I must restate my original caveat -- these conclusions are conjectural, at best.
Did you learn anything new with this spiritual sightseeing guide to the Grand Canyon and parts of Northern Arizona? I hope you did.
I also hope you won't miss an opportunity to do some religious sightseeing the next time you are traveling. Next week I will be posting spiritual sightings, and sites, from my walking tour of Nashville, TN and I encourage you to check out my reflections on potholes and castles in St. Augustine, FL. If you're interested in building your own spiritual sightseeing adventure, check out this intro HERE.