This is a rare Ute Prayer tree found on the top of the mountain at Cathedral Ridge, a Camp and Conference Center which is a project of Saint John’s Cathedral and of the Diocese of Colorado. The Ute Indians are indigenous to Colorado and surrounding states. Utah gets its name from this people whose deep spirituality has left its mare on the land. This Prayer Tree was bent by a yukka rope. Ute tradition refers to the tree in the feminine as “The Holy Woman Tree” believing that she will hold the prayers said around her for 800 years and that the rustling wind which whips around her will reinvigorate the prayers when it moves her branches and needles much the way we Christians use the smoke of incense to attribute movement of our prayers “up” to God.
The tree was tied down and bent so that it grows along the ground for a few feet and then is released to grow upwards again. The long section of the trunk parallel to the ground is said to be pointing towards a holy place on another mountain range in the far distance as a way to connect with and point to places of Ute pilgrimage. When my friend Fred took me on a generous tour of the writing huts and natural holy places around Cathedral Ridge he showed me this tree and tears formed in my eyes for some reason. Something resonated until Kai peed on it and I lost my train of thought. This week I will be meditating on this tree and asking a themed question series about bent-ness, prayer, longings and natural iconography.
In my experience of people, not unlike the Ute experience of land, animals and plants; some people seem to have a deeper holiness in them. They too tend to be bent and formed by having been tied down and secured reminding me of the scripture which warns us that God will lead us where we do not want to go while keeping our burden light. We too, in our bent-ness and our tied-down-ness tend to to point to holy places and holy things when our scarring is at its best. Holiness seems to have humility embedded in it and holy trees like this one are bent low to the ground, which is how we get the word “humble” – a word which emerges from humus or “earth.” They are de-formed in the best possible way. The dis-ease of the violence enacted on them in this bending is harsh and one wonders at the seeming cruelty of it and yet movies like “Bent” remind us that it is the very acts of cruelty, of being forced down low -acts enacted upon us – which will either sweeten us and point us forward to holy places like a young, androgynous, beautiful angel; or sour us and point us towards darkness like the grey, boney, withered hand of a Witch from a Disney film or a Hollywood Vampire.
We seem to have a choice which needs to be made moment by moment. Will the cruelty enacted on me by life and the evils around me bend me to point to a holy place or will they bend me to point to darkness and more evils. I do not believe in Evil but I do believe in evils. As Augustine rightly notes, Jesus has crushed the serpent’s head with the heel of the resurrection but the tail still thrashes in death and does terrible damage. Day by day and moment by moment, what do I do with mean people in grocery lines, cruel words in arguments, cunning leaders in wartime and manipulative, charming Bishops and clergy in some conventions (happily, quite far away from here!)? I guess I first acknowledge that like me, they too are bent. And like me, they too can choose what to point to. And like me, they were once unbent. And like me, each moment is a choice between kindness and cruelty. May I be kind today. May I point to light. May I see my bent-ness as a Holy Thing.