“Indeed, it is the most difficult thing in the entire human experience—to claim your Self, your Life, your Light, your Truth and your God.”Emmanuel
A hospice nurse was in the room with my sister when our dad drew his last breath. The nurse, working efficiently, got on the phone and started making arrangements for dad’s body to be removed from home. My sister called me immediately and explained what was happening. I told her under no circumstances was dad to be moved until I got there. I was 8 hours away by car. I was determined that the mortuary would not come and whisk dad’s body away before we had time to prepare for his transition and final exit. We would handle this last sacred rite in our own way and in our own time.
Our dad was on dialysis for 20 years. A mild heart attack put him in the hospital. His doctor said he couldn’t leave. We decided to get dad off dialysis, out of the hospital and home. I remember dad’s homecoming. As he was being wheeled down the sidewalk toward the front of the house, he was sitting up in the gurney and with a big wave said, “Como esta amigo!”
The room where dad spent the last 8 days of his life was transformed into a place of honor and beauty with photos and mementos of his life. After dad passed, my sisters washed and wrapped him in white linen, draped serapes over his body, and covered him in marigolds. When I arrived, I gently laid down feathers, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco and performed a blessing. We kept dad’s body for three days, packed in dry ice. Much to the consternation of the mortuary, medical examiner and local police, we released dad only after we had finished our ceremony. Then we called the mortuary and they took dad away.
The rules of our society are often fixed and rigid. We are conditioned to live in accord with precepts that regulate our thoughts and behavior, from how we are birthed to how we die. Reclaiming our sovereignty can be a daunting challenge, especially when it appears that other people and agencies have more knowledge, authority or power.
Not long ago, I sat in a circle of boys and men, teenage sons and dads together, around the fire. Each of us checked in with what we were feeling in the moment and a little of what was going on in our lives. The men weren’t there to fix anything or give advice to the boys. We simply listened and gave witness to one another, an act profound in its simplicity. Things the boys spoke of were surprising and sobering. At the fire, what’s real and true finds its way out into the open. It doesn’t matter how old you are.
Sitting in a circle of committed listeners draws out our truth and what lies at the heart of our experience in the world. The element of fire lends itself to the creation of a sacred space where the deepest truth we can find in the moment is laid bare.
I have often imagined our ancestors 5000 years ago sitting around the fire, gathering for warmth, sustenance, and community. They told stories, shared wisdom, and together experienced a connection to the elements that was a natural part of life. When someone spoke of loss or sorrow, gratitude or joy, they listened and affirmed each other’s essential value and place in the tribe.
At a recent graduation ceremony, I heard the timeless advice of Dr. Suess and a popular excerpt from Robert Fulgrum’s book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was all very good and fitting, but left me thinking, “What original pearls of wisdom do I have to offer my own children?” I was thinking not of advice, but of spiritual wisdom, the kind wrought from my own experience of life, plumbed from the depths: deep truths that came at a dear cost and were realized at the outermost reaches of my understanding.
When my children were much younger, I was concerned about how to convey to them a sense of their own spirituality. I felt that it was my sacred duty as their father. I didn’t want their religious education to occur by default, in other words, through the prevailing culture. Or be filled with notions of God distorted with fear, judgment and shame. I didn’t want them to grow up with a narrow attitude of righteousness, condemning others because of their politics, religion, sexuality, or differing beliefs. Especially, I didn’t want anyone telling my children what to believe when it came to matters of the spirit. Above all, I wanted them to have respect and reverence for all life, and to cultivate their own relationship with God. I wanted them to honor the sacred within themselves.
I have given thought to the prophets and disciples down through the ages and often wondered, “Did God stop talking to us after He stopped talking to them?” In my heart I did not believe that was true.
I understood intuitively that before I could offer anything of spiritual value to my children, I had to reclaim the sacred for myself. Reclaiming the sacred for me meant that I had to turn my back in silence on an upside-down world of chaos and confusion and forge my own relationship with God. I wanted answers to questions I’d had since I was a child, not canned biblical responses or someone else’s interpretation of the truth. This was very personal to me and became the deepest work I would ever do—and still do today.