pointing toward something bigger

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Pigeons congregate outside the cathedral one early morning in Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva is a quaint colonial village in the mountains approximately 3 hours from Bogotá. The buildings in the town, all white with green doors and clay roofs, line cobblestone streets that extend from the central plaza.  In the center of this small town sits the largest plaza in South America. Smooth foottrails have been worn into the stones of the plaza from paths that generations have daily tread. I woke early the days that I was there to watch the town wake up. There was no rushing here.  Each morning at the plaza was a slow awakening that eventually blossomed into a hub of activity that lasted well into the night.  The central focus of this town is no different from many Latin American villages.  It is the church.  Since I was there just before Christmas, there were events daily at the cathedral in the plaza.  From my hostel I could hear chanting early in the mornings.  Children sang at novenas on the front steps in the evenings.  There is a relationship to the church in the activities of this town – and relationships among locals play out daily just beyond its doors.

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Station X. Jesus is stripped of his garments. Each station leading to the cathedral was packed with symbology. Here the shape of the cross as a hole in the cave wall symbolizes the removal of Christ’s clothing.

On our way to Villa de Leyva, we stopped in Zipaquirá, to see the Catedral de Sal.  What a magnificent sight!  Deep below the ground, 180m (590ft) below ground to be exact, in an old salt mine, a cathedral was built.  As we descended down the path, we passed the Stations of the Cross, artfully interpreted and built, all out of salt, with some marble sculptures here and there.  The path led to a huge cavern converted into a cathedral.  A luminous cross behind the altar towered over the large room.  Scars from the pick axes that mined for salt in another time mark the walls and ceilings.

Behind the altar of the sanctuary, a large cross towers above my friend, Maria.

Behind the altar of the sanctuary, a large cross towers above my friend, Maria.

How does something like this come to be?  Originally an area was carved in the mine as a place for miners to pray.  And from there it grew…and grew, eventually into a large cathedral in the early 1930s. Structural compromises lead to the closing of the older cathedral, and in the 1990s, the current cathedral was built as a replacement, below the original. It is a stunning creation, a means to glorify God. (In addition to being a tourist attraction, services are held here every Sunday.) Of course, as lots of tourist driven places go, even those that are intended for higher purposes, there is also a Disneyland aspect to this place.  But the glory has not been lost even in the midst of the light shows and concession stands.

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Jaime Rodriguez Roldan relaxes in his livingroom near Villa de Leyva.

A short distance outside Villa de Leyva we were introduced to a different seeker of sorts.  Jaime Rodriguez Roldan has built is house on a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.  These aren’t just any mountains. They serve as the backdrop of the creation story for the indigenous peoples here, the Muiscas.  At the base of this mythologically and culturally rich landscape, Jaime has created an assembly of symbolic items from many native traditions, with origins in North and South America.  Among many other things, he has built a labyrinth, which is how we came to be in his presence.  (There is a registry of labyrinths worldwide.  My friend Chris’s mother had built one in Galveston, Texas years ago, so he looks for registered labyrinths in his travels.)  There was a natural beauty in the environment that Jaime has created for himself and his family there.  While a lot lost in translation, both between his Spanish and my moderate understanding of it and between his ayahuasca-influenced inspiration and my perspective from the world I was standing in, it was undeniably a powerful place to experience, packed with symbolism and earth driven design.

Jaime prepares Chris for entering the labyrinth.

Jaime prepares Chris for entering the labyrinth.

These three places, with their own attempts of pointing toward God, brought in me nostalgic thoughts of Santa Fe.  The historic architecture, the presence of grand old churches, the connection to indigenous peoples and the respect for the magical land that surrounds them…these places hold much in common. As I was experiencing this new town in a foreign land, there was a comfortable familiarity that quietly hummed within me.  Maybe it was not the places in and of themselves that brought that on, but the God who created each of them and whose glory is seen in different manifestations in all that is here, if we’re looking.

A mandala outside Jaime’s home lies at the base of the mountains thought by the Muiscas to be the origin of life on earth.

A mandala outside Jaime’s home lies at the base of the mountains thought by the Muiscas to be the origin of life on earth.

mountaintop experience

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After climbing a great hill,
one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
~Nelson Mandela

Thoughts about mountains and my attraction to them have been percolating for some time now.  For the past eight years, I have looked daily upon the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains when I was home in Santa Fe, which rests comfortably between these two ranges. As many times as I could, I would drive up the ski basin road outside of town to lose myself in the wilderness.  In the winter, the mountains provided a playscape for cross country skiing; in the summer they were a respite from the warmer temperatures and bustling tourists down below in town; in the fall they brought forth pounds of golden treasure if you know where to look (not only the vibrantly gold aspen trees, but delicious chanterelle mushrooms that are a delight to forage); spring never failed to bring a sense of newness as snow melted, leaves budded out on the bare aspens, and the sound of water flowing in the creeks added to the chorus of birdsong.

One thing continues to draws me to the mountains regardless of season – the quest for the top.  There is the heart-pounding, heavy-breathing, sweat-producing work that it takes to get there.  Few venture out with this mission, particularly off-trail, where I usually trod along.  The sweet solitude with the wildlife, the streams, the hidden meadows….there are glorious gifts all along the way.  But it is the top that is most often the goal.  This winter, breaking trail on a stormy day, I began to wonder what makes people strive for the top.  “The view” is the most obvious answer – and a legitimate one.  There’s something magical about watching the sunset over a horizon that is below you.  It never ceases to amaze me how far you can really see once you’re on top looking over the landscape below and beyond what is available to you from lower elevations.

There’s also the sense of achievement once the summit has been reached.  I have yet to come to the top of a mountain and not think that every step was worth the work that it took to get there.  But on that stormy January day, as I slowly made headway in the bitter cold and blowing snow, I looked at another aspect of the mountaintop experience square in the face. Above the treeline, you are exposed.  Vulnerable to the winds and the cold, to lightening, rain and hail. There is no place to hide from the elements here. Yes, the view is incredible.  The achievement is very worthwhile, but it is not a place where one can stay.  Mountaintops are places to visit, to cherish, to strive for, but there is safety in the valleys.  There’s no doubt that valleys are where hard work must be done and where routine can become mundane, but they are also where relationships are built, where character is fostered, where lives are lived.

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Two weeks ago, I drove away from Santa Fe, closing the chapter of calling that beautiful city home.  Memories of the town, the people and the wild places that surround it will remain close to my heart.  But it is time for me to travel to lower elevations, to new environments.  The years spent there were hugely transformational, a mountain experience in many ways on its own. Yes, there is sadness in leaving a place so comfortable and familiar.  But there is excitement in knowing that there are more mountains to climb (and climb them I will!)…and more valleys in which to seek refuge.