Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Holy Envy: Seeing Spiritual Symmetry in a Navajo Rug

Val Edwards

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Over the years I’ve traveled to portions of the Navajo Nation a number of times. This piece of the American southwest is both beautiful and evocative. Long mesas, red rock pinnacles, and a unique mixture of old and new: trading posts and modern convenience stores; elders in velveteen and turquoise and their grandchildren focused on their I-phones; radio advertisements in both Navajo and English. The geography, the customs, the people all make the place sacred.

I am an Anglo Christian of Latter-day Saint persuasion and recognize the limitations of my observations. Navajo spirituality tricks me. I think I’ve grasped an insight only to see it change shape and point elsewhere. It is in the works of art that impressions hold together. Spirit and matter are joined.

I’m fortunate to own two Navajo rugs. One is of the Two Grey Hills style, named for the region in New Mexico where it originated close to a hundred years ago. These rugs are known for their natural colors — gray and brown hues, cream, white and black — their very tight weave, and their intricate patterns. At the center of this rug is a serrated diamond; seven borders in alternating colors and different edge designs radiate outward. In each corner are triangles, squares and terraced steps of different colors. A white zigzag line runs down the edge of the rug, just inside a surrounding black border. The entire rug is a perfect symmetry of numerous combinations of geometric designs and colors. When folded together, the corners or edges will match perfectly. Amazingly, weavers use no predetermined patterns or outlines. The design and detail of the rug is in each individual weaver’s mind.

The other rug (a different style) was made by a Navajo woman now in her nineties who completed the weaving in very traditional fashion. She raised and cared for the sheep from which the wool came. After shearing the sheep, she washed and carded the wool, spun it into yarn, dyed it with natural ingredients, and prepared the loom. Then the weaving began. While most rugs now are made of commercial yarns, the same levels of skill and patience are required in the weaving. The design is revealed through long hours (days, weeks, even months) spent running horizontal wefts of colored wool through precisely-spaced vertical warp cords. One expert has said that “weaving requires a unique combination and coordination of conceptual and manual skills.”[1]

The Navajo woman who made the second rug knows her sheep like her own family. When she married as a young girl in 1936, she was given twelve sheep. Decades later, she can still trace her current sheep back to those original twelve. Incredibly, some of those came from sheep her grandparents obtained when they returned to their native lands after the Navajo Long Walk from Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the late 1860’s.

I marvel at Navajo rugs — the beauty and art, the craft and history. For me, they also reflect two elements of a Navajo worldview I particularly admire: symmetry and sacred homeland.

Symmetry. To appreciate their meaning, one must look often at Navajo rugs like these two. There is a complexity and a completeness not noticed at first glance. Repeated views reveal not only new designs and combinations of colors and patterns; there is also a wholeness to be grasped, a harmony to experience. The balance, order, and symmetry — touchstones in a Navajo worldview — are extraordinary. “The Gods designed this world to be a beautiful, harmonious, happy and healthy place. To be maintained, beauty needs to be expressed and renewed in ritual, song, art, speech, dress and daily living.”[2] Such is a Navajo rug — individual creativity and cultural patterns that produce something beautiful, good, harmonious, and symmetrical.

Even older weavers, whose trembling hands or failing eyesight won’t allow for perfect lines or straight edges, still envision in their minds beautifully balanced and proportioned weavings. An aspiration and reflection of the lives they have lived. Such equilibrium in life reminds me of how Jesus would have me live.

Sacred Homeland. I think of those generations of sheep that link my rug to the joyous, distressing and necessary Navajo migration back to their homeland, a homeland surrounded by the four sacred mountains. The land was given to them by deities after they emerged from various underworlds. (Several other indigenous tribes have emergence and migration narratives, being led to sacred lands.) The wool for the rug is connected to earth, as are the plants from which the dye is made to color the wool. The connectedness and symmetry achieved in making a rug also exists in all things. The earth is “a living, breathing entity in an animate universe. The land with its water, plants, and animals is a spiritual creation.”[3]

In my own religious tradition, we do not separate matter from spirit. The Navajo worldview takes this thought further and helps me appreciate even more a statement from early church leader Brigham Young. “There is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and, in short, in every description and organization of matter.”

Much can be learned from a rug.

Val Edwards is a retired public relations professional and outdoor enthusiast living in southern Utah.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] I am indebted to Gary Witherspoon and his clear thinking and understanding, especially as found in “Self-Esteem and Self-Expression in Navajo Weaving,” Plateau, Vol. 52, No. 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. McPherson, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 1992), 11.

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Holy Envy: The Holiness of Kneeling

Daniel Mark

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In Judaism, or certainly in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to imitate, much less envy, the ways of the gentiles, a name we give to those outside our faith. So when Krister Stendhal, the late Bishop of Stockholm, urged believers to look for the admirable in other religions, I did not entirely know what to make of it. Does my own faith, the one true faith if I’m right, lack something? Did God give other peoples better ways to serve Him?

These questions do not preoccupy me unduly. But there is one thing I particularly admire. It is, perhaps, the simplest religious act of all.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” In America, a country whose religious culture is shaped by Christian ways of worship, it is the child kneeling by the bedside that often comes to mind when I think of prayer. This is so despite the fact that I recite the prescribed Jewish prayers three times a day. For Ultra-orthodox Jews, who are more insular, the dominant culture’s images play far less a role in shaping their religious imagination. But, for me, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who, in my youth, consumed the same books, movies, television shows as my fellow citizens, the image of the child knelt in prayer is strong.

What does this act of kneeling mean? To kneel is to humble oneself. It is to show reverence. Submission. Sometimes it is to beg. Other times it is to surrender to overwhelming pain. One story I will never forget is of a great rabbi who, upon hearing that his wife of many years had passed away, fell to his knees in grief, sobbing and wrapping his arms around God’s ankles, as it were. Perhaps being on one’s knees is so compelling because it is not always a voluntary act, but an involuntary expression of being physically, emotionally, or spiritually destitute.

In Judaism, we take kneeling very seriously. In ancient times, this act took place at the Temple in Jerusalem when, on the holiest of days, the high priest pronounced the ineffable name of God. Nowadays, we reserve kneeling (and bowing down from our knees) for a few moments during the High Holidays, especially in the part of the liturgy that recounts the Temple scene. But never besides then. In refraining from kneeling at all other times, in prayer and not, we demonstrate that nothing equates to the Temple experience. Indeed, depending on the flooring of the synagogue, we often put down a cloth or paper towel to avoid incidentally touching down on a marble or even wood surface.

Moreover, during the holiest prayers in our liturgy, including our daily recitals, we stand fully erect, feet together, in imitation of the angels who are said to appear to have only one leg (like our two legs together) and no knees. So, kneeling in prayer is not only rare for Jews but also not necessarily our most sanctified stance.

And yet—and yet—when I am feeling most humble (not often, to be sure) or desperate (not often, either, thank God) or praiseful (working on that one), I feel the urge to kneel. I don’t do it, but I almost wish I could. At those times, I am slightly jealous of my Catholic friends who kneel each week (or day) at Mass. We Jews are ever mindful of the fact that worship is not just a function of the mind and the lips, but of one’s entire being. We regularly enact the Psalmist’s image “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee” (Psalms 35:10) by swaying back and forth as we pray. It is a characteristically Jewish image — somewhat like the Evangelical Protestant with outstretched arms, hands high in the air — a trademark of our faith that is alien to all others.

So, it is not that my tradition is insensitive to praying with one’s whole self — with heart, soul, and might devoted in concert to God. Rather, it is being schooled in a faith that values embodied worship and at the same time in a culture that has powerful depictions of knelt prayer that may explain why I am tempted to take a knee from time to time. Spontaneously. Or perhaps the urge to kneel before God is built into our nature as humans, and the God of Israel disciplines us to genuflect only before Him in His house.

As an Orthodox Jew, I will continue to kneel only in the holiest of moments and places. As God would have me do. But whenever I behold seekers of divine comfort drop to their knees in prayer, I will still be moved to a spiritual solidarity that makes this world a humbler place.

Daniel Mark is a professor of political science at Villanova University and currently a visiting fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as the Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Looking For Lent

Looking For Lent

Hannah Marazzi

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“So what exactly is Shrove Tuesday?” my sister texted me on February 13th this year. While many people were preparing to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many people the world over were stuffing their faces with pancakes. Shrove Tuesday, also known as “the feast before the fast” signifies the gathering of Christian communities in homes and church basements across the globe to break bread before the forty days of Lenten fast that proceed Easter.

Having been raised largely in the Mennonite tradition, Shrove Tuesdays, Ash Wednesday services and the practices of a prolonged Lenten fast preceding Easter were unfamiliar to me before my university days. While I would often reflect on the story of Easter celebrated by Christians every spring, there was really very little sustained meditation on preparing one’s heart for Easter.

This year was different. I attended a Shrove Tuesday dinner in the basement of my new church. Hemmed in on each side by congregants from every stage of life, I devoured homemade pancakes prepared cheerfully by our clergy. At my table sat a young mother, an older man with a story of ongoing homelessness, young professionals and for a brief time the Pastor’s wife. The next morning I rolled out of bed for the 7:00am prayer service marking Ash Wednesday, a penitential service that signals the beginning of the season of fasting that precedes Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Before we celebrate the sacrifice of our Saviour we must first remember the agony, we must first repent; we must first understand what it is to do without in our own small way. Lining up behind congregants, I bowed my head as the curate made the sign of the cross, repeating softly “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I’ll be honest -this Lent, this doing without, that dust the curate talked about, all seem very apt in the anticipatory season that precedes Easter. In this Lenten season, the world does indeed seem dark and close to crumbling with great specificity to dust. It’s nothing and everything all at once. The dust seems visible to me through the shadow of the grave of which I am reminded as an acquaintance mourns the brutally slow loss of his mother to brain cancer and news of yet another bloody school shooting is splashed across the newspaper one morning. The dust rises in the seeming ashes of a dream as my friend cries across from me into her half eaten lunch. All she wants is a baby and new life seems impossible. Dust comes to me in the form of dust motes that slip through the air as I muffle sobs of my own as those dear to me describe a seemingly irreparable relationship. What to do with all of this space and sadness? Dust seems almost merciful in light of these losses.

Yet, I find myself thinking, perhaps herein lies the message of Lent and Easter: That redemption, hope fulfilled and comfort all begin within the presence of darkness. Isn’t this what first drew me to the faith? Isn’t it what breathes life into me on my darkest days now? The promise that in the ashes of brokenness and impossible darkness, a light dawns over the resurrected world. For what is the hope of resurrection and restoration if not seen alongside what comes before?

This Easter, it was the long shadow of the cross to which I looked to, baptizing my view of all that has gone before and all that is to come. As we in the Christian tradition broke the fast and celebrated the miracle of our Saviour restored and returned once again to live among us, I prayed for new eyes to see all that God is creating from the dust. As my eyes continue to catch on the crumble, on the dust motes and the shadow of the grave, as I know they will, I’ll remind myself to remember that dust is not the end and that resurrection has the last word.

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Sharing Deep Joy and Deep Pain in an African-American Church

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

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I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in the door of Christ the King United Church of Christ (UCC) in the fall of 2014. I just knew that I had to be in church, but I didn’t know where to go. My family and I had moved to St. Louis a year earlier, and it still felt like an unfamiliar place. When African-American teenager Mike Brown died on a street in Ferguson the previous month, just a few miles away from our house, I knew I needed a church community to help me mourn, to take this moment of fracture—both mine and that of the larger community—and nourish it into something new.

On the face of it, Christ the King was a lot like the church I had been a member of for 25 years in North Carolina. It was part of the same denomination, a liberal Protestant tradition that prided itself on advocating for progressive social causes, including women’s ordination. The minister at Christ the King, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, embodied what the UCC calls its “radical inclusiveness.” But my church back home, for all of its expansive outreach, consisted of a large, fairly traditional, white, affluent congregation in a college town. Christ the King, on the other hand, perched right next door to Ferguson, was small and strapped for money. And the congregation, at least the gathering I could see on Sunday mornings, was all African-American.

I’d like to say that this was an entirely comfortable transition. I’m a scholar of religious history and have taught and written about African-American Protestantism for over three decades. I have attended plenty of services in the black church tradition as a guest and observer. I knew about altar calls, shouting, and prayers that lasted twenty minutes. I even knew the words to some of the gospel songs.

It was harder to know what my whiteness might mean amid such raw racial fracture. But I was raw too, in my own way: I entered there in need of something I couldn’t even identify, an acknowledgment of feeling and experience, that I hadn’t found in the predominantly white UCC churches in town that I’d visited. I came not as an expert ready to interpret this experience, but as someone hurt and angry and in need, both for myself and for this new place I wanted to call home.

What did I find? I found a willingness to talk openly about the gaping wounds in our city that divided us by race. I heard a call for love enmeshed with a vivid and persistent thirst for justice. I saw a community that opened its doors to all-comers, including a homeless man who occasionally showed up and even interrupted the service a few times—and I saw his cries met with attention and acceptance. I met a congregation that didn’t find it weird to see a lone white woman showing up week after week; they just kept right on hugging me.

Most of all, I discovered at Christ the King an astounding mix of joy and pain, both of which were embraced and welcomed in. It is a church that can hold it all because it has to. One sunny Sunday morning we gathered outside the sanctuary after the service with over 100 red and black balloons. As Rev. Blackmon spoke the names of all the victims of gun violence in St. Louis over the past year, we let them sail away into the air. She then asked others to name loved ones who had been shot and killed. At least two dozen people in the gathering identified family and friends lost. So much grief to bear.

Yet it’s the joy and love that nourish people. There’s a lot of great music, and plenty of potlucks after church. And there is a great deal to celebrate: weddings, births, graduations. We take time during the service to praise the young people who are achieving remarkable things and getting good jobs. Sometimes I get antsy when the service goes past the two-hour mark or when the choir launches yet another verse. I’m never convinced I like the keyboard playing in the background during the prayers. None of this is the “white” Protestant tradition in which I was raised, where you felt self-conscious coughing out loud during the service.

Is this holy envy? Close, but not exactly. It’s more of a fellowship of the heart. Christ the King isn’t a typical “black church” any more than there is one typical “white church.” But I do think there is a lot that many white Protestants could learn about loving and living together in community from their brothers and sisters in African-American Protestant traditions. How to hold and share deep pain and profound joy, and most often both at the same time. How to sing and pray as if your life depended on it. How to welcome whoever God brings through the door.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

The Faith on My Sleeve

The Faith on My Sleeve

Samantha Schroeder

The Faith on My Sleeve
As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, faith counts every second of my day. Many people these days are prepared to (over)share nearly every aspect of their lives, from what they eat for breakfast to who they go home with after dinner. Yet for most millennials, being open to talking about the faith is not a part of this culture of oversharing.

Oversharing my faith led me to both a beautiful transatlantic friendship and a professional failure. As someone who wears my faith on my sleeve, my conversion was met with both blessings and challenges. The zeal of a convert can be an inspiring thing– from sparking new relationships to deepening current ones. On a snowy February day three years ago, I ran into a woman I vaguely recalled meeting briefly the day before. She was a Hungarian research fellow spending the semester in Washington. We spent six hours on a snowy day talking about Christianity. I opened up to this Hungarian woman about my faith journey- from my love of the church’s teachings on contraception and chastity to those on the Eucharist and confession, some which I embraced intellectually and spiritually and others which I was still struggling to accept. She wrote to me that night, about how our conversation had inspired her to consider her Christian faith. Three years later, that friend is now a Catholic woman, and I will be celebrating another sacrament with her at a wedding in Budapest this May. Somehow, the exuberance of this American Catholic did not scare away this Eastern European woman.

While the fervor of my faith led me making a friend over 4,500 miles away, there are also downsides of wearing my faith on my sleeve. In one particular case, my exuberance was met with hostility. Just after I was received into the Catholic Church, I started a new job in Washington. I was twenty-five, a newly minted Catholic, and excited about my next professional adventure. After a few months into my new position, apparently something Catholic I said at an event was reported to my boss. I was profoundly embarrassed by this anonymous feedback relayed to me at my brand new job. What did I say? Who did I say it to? What can I do? A few months and two complaints later, I felt utterly defeated. For the first time in my professional life, I was made to feel insecure about my faith. While my pre-conversion encounter earlier that year made a great impression on a total stranger, apparently this post-conversion work encounter made a terrible one. I began a period of soul-searching- do I have to change my personality? Put my passions on the backburner? Hide my faith?

Today, I no longer feel divided between my aspirations for professional success and spiritual sanctity. If you take the call to evangelization seriously– “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), we are all called to wear our faith on our sleeves. Christ calls us to carry our lantern alight with Truth wherever we go. And if we happen to be exuberant lantern-carriers, it will be difficult to hide the light we are carrying. While our profession of the faith will vary at different moments and in different stages of our lives–perhaps I don’t have the zeal of a convert that I had in the spring of 2015–we are indeed called to stand up for Truth and profess our Christian values in the public square. Through these trials that saints are made. We grow in humility, and although our lessons in humility might be painful, Christ first said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

Faith, Cookies, and Acceptance

Faith, Cookies, and Acceptance

Alain Julian


My brother Alek likes to steal cookies from our church. It can be awkward when it happens. He’s twenty, and not particularly subtle when he does it, and he screams at the top of his lungs when you try to stop him.

When we were deciding which church to go to, we considered whether they were able to accommodate Alek. It couldn’t be that they just have a room dedicated to those with special needs. They also had to have a deep understanding of what people with autism require as well as a servant’s heart for those who are disabled. Basically, we had to make sure he would really be accepted as a part of the community. Luckily, we only had to go to one church before we saw exactly where God wanted us.

This was a blessing, especially in a society that doesn’t always truly understand disabilities like autism. Ignorance has lead to people making insensitive comments about how my brother acts and how we cope with his behaviors in public. While this was and is difficult to witness, thankfully my faith has helped me and my family. And this faith led us to our church — a church that sees my brother for who he is: a child of the Most High, fearfully and wonderfully made in the Image of God. And everyone, whether or not they work with the Special Needs Ministry, loves him in the way that Christ loves him.

My God is a God who comforts the mourning, heals the sick, and lives among those who live on the margins. And my church, as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, acts the same way. It can still be a little awkward when Alek steals cookies from the hospitality booth, but now the people who work there set some aside for when he comes and visits. This loving acceptance is sweeter than any cookie.