When I was in Chaco Canyon early last month I picked up and read my first Tony Hillerman novel. Later today I will finish reading my fifteenth Hillerman novel. I quickly fell in love with his writings and have not been able to stop reading the Chee/Leaphorn series. I typically don’t read these kinds of books but I have thoroughly enjoyed this series and learning about Navajo culture and religion.
In his books Hillerman goes out of his way to note that the Navajo’s consider their land sacred. They have holy mountains and many rituals that show respect for the earth and nature. In a way that is foreign to many of us they live close to the earth. In his essay, “The Navajo Nation,” George Hardeen says the Navajo “made the land their religion.” You cannot understand Navajo religion apart from the land.
Years ago when I was in seminary I learned that the Jews, likewise, considered their land sacred. It was viewed as a gift from God. They, too, had their holy mountain and strong convictions that the ground upon which they stood was holy ground. Walter Brueggemann, in his classic work The Land, says “The Bible is the story of God’s people with God’s land.” He even makes the bold statement, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.” Like the Navajos, it would be hard to understand the Jewish religion apart from the land. After the Jews were led into exile in distant Babylon this proved to be a great test of their faith. When the Babylonians asked them to sing “the songs of Zion” they responded, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) They had trouble separating their faith from the land they held sacred.
Reading Hillerman’s novels and reflecting on the Bible’s strong emphasis on the land has made me wonder why more of us don’t consider the land we live on sacred. Psalm 24:1 declares that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Does that not, in itself, make it sacred? Just recognizing the fact that a holy God created the world should move us to realize that it, too, is holy.
I strongly believe that many of the problems the world faces today are, at least in part, due to our failure to affirm the earth is sacred. If we truly believed that the earth belonged to God and is holy wouldn’t that cause us to take better care of it? Wouldn’t that cause us to do a better job of sharing its resources? Wouldn’t it make a difference in the way we observe and relate to nature? Will it take a burning bush to make us realize we stand on holy ground? I hope not. I fully concur with Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven; and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” May God give us all eyes to see that the land we live on truly is holy ground.
(I chose to illustrate this entry with three images I took last month in Tony Hillerman’s beloved New Mexico.)