October 7, 2005

First Person:

Reflections from a men’s retiro

By Heriberto Escamilla

“I didn’t think that I would be this close to a mountain. It’s really beautiful and I am happy to be here.” These are perhaps the most memorable words that I took from the men’s retiro that I attended last week. They were spoken by a round-faced, chubby little boy, approximately 10 years old as he pointed to the closest of the many mountains that grow out of the dry, cactus-covered land of East San Diego County. And indeed we were in the shadow of the mountain, under two massive oak trees. The venerable old giants were strategically positioned, one to the east and the other at the western end of our circle. Like gracious and loving parents with arms outstretched toward each other, they created a canopy of green that sheltered us.At first, the words really didn’t register, but the more that I reflect on them the more I appreciate the spirit they carried.

In all, about 60 to 70 men attended Izcalli’s seventh annual men’s retreat. The youngest spent most of the time fidgeting and re-adjusting his skinny little arms as he clung to his father’s sturdy neck. He was no more than four. The oldest, needed the strong arms of youth to support his body, but his spirit soared as he spoke proudly of his son’s turn away from s life of sorrow and addiction. In the twilight of his years, he shone, a fulfilled man.

The circle where the little boy spoke was a central part of the retiro, a retreat that incorporated indigeneous practices and beliefs. Over the weekend, we convened three. The first, the circulo de conocimiento opened the journey. We talked about our personal history and the shared some of the experiences that shaped us. On Saturday morning, before the sweat lodge we revealed our “cargas,” the burdens that buckle our legs. The final circulo convened on Sunday morning and provided an opportunity for us to leave our regalos, gifts with those people that touched our hearts. Some shared tangible objects such as prayer sticks, eagle feathers or handmade drumsticks. Others closed with painfully gained wisdom, inspiration or words that encouraged.

Now, I have never been a “joiner” and I still enter these religious, spiritual type practices with a certain degree of skepticism. But at the same time, I have also always been a searcher, so I’ve taken that attitude into mainstream churches as well as these that we here in the United States consider unconventional. So even in the middle of the lodge and the circle, my restless mind still entertains doubt; “What am I doing here?” This is silly. I am not an Indian. My thoughts are similar in church. “Christ was a Jew, not a Mexican, I didn’t know him and how can I possibly believe that he died for my sins today, 2000 years ago”? But there is hope for me. I have come to recognize my attitude for what it is, half-hearted commitment. Isn’t that what it really is? You either believe things with a full and open heart, or you don’t.

It has been a year almost, since my reading of indigeneous religion and dabbling began turning into serious practice such as these retiros, circulos and openhearted sharing. As I approached 52, I proposed to “re-create” myself in much the same way that the ancient Mexicans celebrated the “New Fire”. The Toltecas celebrated the cycle by toppling their temples, crumbling their statues and figurines, extinguishing and re-dedicating the temple fire. With my typical and uninformed bravado, I proposed to challenge the values that had directed my life.

I suppose it would have made just as much sense to throw myself into Christianity, or Catholicism, or some other “real” religion, something more familiar. But that’s precisely what I’m facing. I’ve always respected the rational, always tried hard to project an image of practicality. What I considered “common sense” has been an unquestionable value. So now maybe, it’s rebelliousness that takes me in directions that make no rational sense to me. Or worse yet, perhaps it’s the dark one that Christians warn about, the serpent, the liar; the deceiver that’s leading me astray? The mind is a wonderful instrument isn’t it? Mine is creative, with a lot of entertainment value, but certainly not always trustworthy.

As I learn more about the old ways, I see in indigenous practice, the roots of Mexican Catholicism. Did you know that in the old days, Catholics confessed their sins to the West and received communion facing the East? Native Americans see the West as the direction of the setting sun, of darkness and introspection. The East on the other hand, represents new beginnings, light and illumination, the rising Sun. Makes sense doesn’t it, to respect both the dark and the light. And if you dig back far enough, you will find an indigenous ancestor, we all will.

So it’s not rebellion that drives my search, it’s the need for simplicity, for the direct and immediate experience my ancestors knew; for real and not symbolic connection to that mystery that surrounds us. My ancestors lived it along time ago and so did yours.

Our challenge, yours and mine is to remember what we have forgotten, where we have gotten distracted and lost our way. It seems that I have spent half of my life backing out of dead ends, retracing my steps. Our ancestors were absolutely part of nature. They did not need to believe in God, they experienced it. We need to listen more closely to the Wewe-tlatolli, the “words of the elders”. As their worlds grew more complex, our ancestors developed practices designed to re-connect them with that state of being. Then priests came along and told us they were the only way; and along the way, I’ve simply gone along, half-heartedly accepting beliefs that made no sense, superstition. What do you really believe in?

If you are over 45, when was the last time, a young person (outside of a restaurant) asked you if you wanted coffee or water? When was the last time you heard a little boy appreciate the beauty of the natural world?

So what have I learned in this past year? That what we can call Nature, the Sun, Wind, Water, Fire and earth REALLY are manifestations, the faces of that Great Spirit that gives us life. They are not symbols. There is absolutely no way that I could survive without them.

One day, when on your deathbed you lie,

Will you tell your Creator

That you are solely responsible for the course of your days;

Or blame another for having led you astray

And even then, will you cling to tomorrow?

And the hope of salvation

Or finally and fully embrace the mystery

That has surrounded you always

Listen today to the wisdom in the words of your child

The Mountain is pure beauty

As is the song in your Heart

And today, is a great day to be part of the circle.

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