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June 16, 2010

Sacred spaces

One of my husband's favorite movies was The Brother from Another Planet. My family and I were completely underwhelmed by it. I love the book A Severed Wasp, by Madeline L'Engle; friends have yawned, "It's okaaay," after reading it.  We've all had that happen; we've all recommended something near and dear to our hearts, only to be disappointed by the response of friends and family. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I took my friend Tee to Montezuma Well, after having told her that I consider it one of my most holy places on earth.

The well is a large sinkhole formed when an underground cavern collapsed. The cavern had been carved by an underground spring, whose waters still fill the sinkhole.  The Sinagua people, ancestors of Arizona's current Native American populations, lived at the well a thousand years ago. They built cliff-dwellings around the inside of the sinkhole. They built pueblo dwellings around the top of it. They dug pit houses in the softer soil around the base of the hill that hides the sinkhole. 

What a miracle that water must have been to those ancient people! In the harsh desert of Arizona, that water is still a miracle. It is a cool 76 degrees all year round. The Sinaguans built a complex irrigation system to water the fields around the well, where they grew peppers, tomatoes, and beans. Their irrigation trenches remain today, used by the newcomers to the region who water their animals and fields with it.  Anyway ... enough history.

The first time I went to Montezuma's well, 20 years ago or so, I had no idea what to expect. I was on vacation with my mom and sister, and I dragged them off the beaten path to find this place I'd read about that sounded interesting.  We arrived just after sunrise, when the park opened. The stillness, the serenity, the rising sun ... all spoke to us of the ancient prayers and powers. It took my breath away.

I returned to the well a few years ago, with my sons and mother. It was just as I had remembered it, even though my boys made sure there was no silence. The mystery of the unexpected water, the towering sycamores offering cool shade, the remains of ancient lives. A beautiful place of profound tranquility.  But still, not everyone gets turned on by cliff dwellings, so I wasn't sure what my friend Tee would think of our little excursion.

I needn't have worried.  She oohed and ahhed appropriately when we reached the top of the hill and looked around us. She stopped halfway down the steep path into the well and drew her breath in at the sight of the green archway of brambly bushes and trees. "How pretty..."  She sighed in deep appreciation of the remains of a small cliff dwelling.  She stood at the swallet, where the spring water flows out of the sinkhole through an unseen crack in the wall, and wept.

"You weren't kidding," she said. "This place ... this place really is holy."

An hour later, after a picnic under the sycamores, while our children waded in the Sinaguan irrigation channel, she turned to me. "Thank you. Thank you so much for bringing me here." As an introvert, I'm generally inclined to keep quiet about important things, about places and experiences that have significance in my life. The morning spent with Tee at Montezuma Well reminded me of something crucial to the human psyche: Sacred space is meant to be shared.

An original post for 50-Something Moms by Alicia, who writes about the sacred and the profane parts of her life at Forever Changed.