Axis mundi

Medicine Man Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was “a Lakota of the Ogalala Band” who also practiced Christianity in the Roman Catholic tradition. When suddenly taken ill at nine years old, Black Elk had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan), and taken to the Grandfathers — spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above and below — who were “represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers”, and on to the centre of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world, a recurring religious symbol that mythologist Joseph Campbell calls axis mundi, the pole around which all revolves.

As Black Elk related to John Neihardt:

… while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

Raymond J DeMallie
The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s teachings
given to John G Neihardt

Again and again I feel drawn to meditate upon circles, and the planets in their courses, and the axis mundi they revolve around; and cantus firmus, the enduring melody, ever present at the heart of all things; and the wisdom of all the philosophy and the religious traditions I’ve loved and learned from; and the poetry and other expressions of art that have found a home in my soul; and the people and animals, mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and seas, trees and flowers, and the timely round of the seasons upon the tilled, warmed and watered earth.

And I delight in the encircling thought that there’s no need for me to wonder which animal, or commodity, or community, or flower, or food, or gender, or hate, or idea, or literature, or love, or melody, or moon, or nation, or ocean, or person, or philosophy, or plant, or poetry, or prose, or psalm, or prayer, or religion, or science, or sense, or species, or star, or sun, or territory, or time, or tree – or anything at all, in all creation, dead or alive – is “first”. No need – because in the great ecology of life all things are embraced by the one Great Circle.

And I see that it is holy.


People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life.
I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that
what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that
our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have
resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so
that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Joseph Campbell
The Power of Myth

I’m certain that Joseph Campbell was right in this, so it is vital every day of my life that I make time to be in touch with my “innermost being and reality” – first having recognised that physical, external demands are always the loudest of the claims being made upon my time and attention, and therefore usually and regrettably the most successful.

But if proper attention to “the still, small voice” of inner life’s vibrations and resonances can actually lead to experiencing “the rapture of being alive” then it absolutely and obviously makes sense to prioritise.

The Ubiquity of a Presence

Writing, like faith, springs and falls in seasons: sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly …

And months have flown by since my last post here and “Fall” is now upon us – in glorious technicolour in my part of the world. As leaves fall reflections rise – ever-renewing the want to meditate, to pray, to reflect and to remember, and to set aside a little time to write.

Today, I think, it was reflecting upon the ever-changing technicolour around me that brought to mind one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations at the end of September. Writing, beautifully and generously as always, in a piece called “Your Imaginarium“, Rohr cites Joseph Campbell quoting Thomas Merton:

One cannot apprehend a symbol unless one is able to awaken, in one’s own being, the spiritual resonances which respond to the symbol not only as sign but as ‘sacrament’ and ‘presence.’ The symbol is an object pointing to a subject. We are summoned to a deeper spiritual awareness, far beyond the level of subject and object.

Thomas Merton
Symbolism: Communication or Communion?
New Directions 20
(New York: New Directions, 1968), pp 11-12

. . . Mythologies and religions are great poems and, when recognised as such, point infallibly through things and events to the ubiquity of a “presence” or “eternity” that is whole and entire in each. In this function all mythologies, all great poetries, and all mystic traditions are in accord; and where any such inspiriting vision remains effective in a civilisation, everything and every creature within its range is alive. The first condition, therefore, that any mythology must fulfil if it is to render life to modern lives is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes of the mind.

Joseph Campbell
Myths to Live By, p 255
The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell

Here’s a vision that sets the spirit’s wind whistling in my wheels: ‘great poems … the ubiquity of a “Presence”‘.

Ah yes: always and everywhere, no matter the circumstance or season. Vivifying challenge to both the xenophobic and the theologically smug.

Would that all of us might find our locus in poetry’s truths. I’m reminded of some words in Michael D Higgins’ wonderful poem, Take Care

… Belief
that you hold steady.
Bend, if you will,
with the wind.
The tree is your teacher,
roots at once
more firm
from experience
in the soil
made fragile.

Your gentle dew will come
and a stirring of power
to go on
towards the space
of sharing.

Michael D Higgins
from Take Care
New and Selected Poems
Liberties Press, Dublin, 2011