I saw petroglyphs in New Mexico last week. “Petroglyph” means “rock writing” and refers to art carved in volcanic stones lying about the desert hills just west of Albuquerque. According to the scientists who’ve studied the petroglyphs, Native Americans from the Pueblo nation produced those markings during a few centuries before and after 800, c.e. Three of us hiked around the canyon where those ancient Pueblos left their art and we repeatedly asked what they symbols endeavored to say. “What do they MEAN,” we kept asking. We saw representations of snakes, birds, foot prints, lizards, horses, masked people, and a bunch of spirals, as well as dozens of other forms we couldn’t decipher.
As we read the signs along the trail, we learned that some of the art represented religious ideas while others purely secular themes. Some of the markings simply identified a path. Then we came across a trail sign that read, “. . . according to modern Pueblo people, it is culturally insensitive to reveal the meanings of some petroglyphs.”
“So, you had to be part of the club,” one of my colleagues said with a snort.
“I don’t think so,” said another. “I think it means that you honor your community. Unless you’re part of the community, to talk about what these things mean might actually make someone look bad, or hurt them, or lead to misunderstanding things that make sense if you’ve been living together for a while.”
We agreed with each other that the latter explanation made more sense.
All of that brought to mind an essay that I’d read just before going on the excursion. William Deresiewicz, an excellent writer and thinker, had reviewed a book written by a literary hero of mine, Annie Dillard. In reflecting on Dillard’s body of work, Deresiewicz (can anyone tell me how to pronounce that?) made the observation that “we are born with souls but die in bodies.” I think that’s why the modern Pueblos don’t tell us what some of those petroglyphs mean. Even though the symbols stir something in me when I look at them – they touch my soul – the fact that my body never breathed the same air, smelled the same smells, shared the same struggles, and celebrated the same successes as those Pueblo people makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to their art.
This doesn’t mean that I cannot imagine in some ways what the Pueblos faced and what their humanity desired and needed. Certainly, common concerns connect the whole human community now and across time. However, the real healing comes when we enter into each other’s lives, touch one another, listen to one another, and respond to one another in real time, in the places we occupy.
You see, true community grows when we’ve become mutually vulnerable, where we connect meaningfully with others who cherish and honor our vulnerability and offer theirs in trust, when we breathe the same air, smell the same smells, share the same struggles, and celebrate the same successes. That’s the only way loneliness can be assuaged and wholeness nurtured.
An academic knowledge of what this or that petroglyph means doesn’t have the power to heal me. However, when I see a spiral carved in the rock, I can imagine that some Pueblos had decided to draw a symbol for the power of coming to a center, of honing in on the most important thing, and that the most important thing is the power of blessing one another in a community of trust and love. Humans across cultures, across eons, across religions have come to this conclusion. So, this tells me that I need to spiral into a community center, too!
Yes, that’s another reason why we do support teams here at UAB Pastoral Care. When you enter intentionally into a relationship of caring and trust, you discover a depth of spiritual power you’d never experience by looking at it from the outside. You want to know if support teams “work?” I can show you statistics, or you can enter and experience the love. Which sounds more attractive?
Maybe that’s what the Pueblos are telling us about the petroglyphs. Embed yourself in your own community of caring and support and love, then draw your own symbols.