Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Geezer Considers Columbus Day

A few years ago, Beni and I visited New Mexico, our first extended stay there.  Our first stop (driving south on I-25 from Denver) was Taos.  In Taos, we visited the Taos Pueblo where there is a Pueblo structure built sometime around 1100 CE.  Until the day we visited the Pueblo, I had no idea there were structures in the USA that were so old.

We went on a tour with a member of the Pueblo community, an educated, beautiful, and eloquent woman, 25 years old at most.  Part of the tour had to do with the churches that have existed in the Pueblo.  The Franciscan Friars built a church there which the Pueblo citizens burned down sometime in the 18th century (if memory serves. . .  I didn’t research this before writing).  Years later, a smaller church was built to replace the one that was burnt.  It seems to me that the young woman told us that, after the church was burnt, the Friars were kept out of the Pueblo for years.

What I remember very clearly is the explanation that this young woman gave of the Pueblo community’s understanding of their “conversion” by the Spanish Franciscans.  What an education her lecture was for me!

I used to be a Franciscan Friar.  Back in the 1960's Fra Junipero Serra was in line for canonization for bringing Catholic Christianity to large parts of the West.  As a friar, I was taught the standard church line back then that the Friars had saved all these pagan souls by “converting them to Christ.”

The young guide explained to us precisely how the Pueblo community felt about being saved for Christ.  They hated it.  They saw it as a tool to force them into political and social enslavement to the Spanish conquerors.  More intensely than that, however, they felt that the Franciscans forced them to give up their own spirituality and accept only Catholic religious teaching and practice as valid.  Their anger towards, and understandable hatred of, the Friars led them to torch the church.

The Pueblo spirituality is still practiced alongside Catholicism.  The community has a prayer hut where members go to pray, meditate, rest, and worship.  Their spirituality is one of respect of all creation and of union with it.  Their Pueblo belief doesn’t include a command to subdue the earth and be masters over it, as Genesis tells the Judeo-Christian traditions to do.  Their sense is that people are part of nature, equal to, but not superior to, all other parts of creation, and that all creation has a proper role to play in the life of the earth.  Respecting and loving what is all around us, seeking union and peace with one another, and trying to do one’s best to fulfill one’s own proper role...  all these are tenants of the beautiful spirituality that the Friars sought to destroy.

As a former Friar, and as a cradle Catholic, I was overwhelmed by what I heard, by its obvious truth and the horror the young woman’s story contained.

So, on Columbus Day, and a few days after the Feast of our Holy Father Francis, I hope that Columbus Day is abolished, that the Friars somehow formally do penance for all that they did in New Spain, and that we celebrate in October a day honoring the rich and beautiful culture that Columbus, the Franciscans, and all the rest of us down through the years almost destroyed.