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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

886: It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives - Black Elk

Day 886: Friday, August 19, 2022

“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”


When many feel that we are only a tweet away from nuclear war, why do I write about old guys and broken circles? Because there is something hopeful about it.

Let's start with one of the amazing descendants from the first peoples of this country — Black Elk (1863-1950), a holy man of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.

Black Elk became very ill when he was nine years old. During his illness, he was visited by spiritual Grandfathers who gave him a great vision. He did not share this vision until he was 17. The Grandfathers took him to the center of the earth. There is a central mountain around which everything revolves. Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the much-revered American writer on comparative mythology and religion, says that Black Elk was “at the point where stillness and movement are together.” This is part of Black Elk’s vision,

“I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and in starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children …”

Also, as I lay there thinking of my vision, I could see it all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.

Later, when Black Elk was near the end of his life, he was taken on a cloudless day to the mountain that was the center of his vision. And with tears in his eyes, he related to the Grandfathers that the hoop was broken and the sacred tree had never bloomed. But he also said,

“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”

A small cloud appeared right over him and it began to rain. Black Elk’s tears mixed with the rain. Soon his tears stopped, the rain stopped, and the sky was clear again.

An interesting side note is that recently, the Catholic diocese of Black Elk’s homeland started the process of having him declared a saint.

Moral? There is always a little root left of the sacred tree.

Jump ahead to another old man, Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999) a retired Brazilian Archbishop who was an advocate of Liberation Theology and frequent spokesman for the rights and needs of the poor — he was much despised by the military regime that governed Brazil at that time.

I'm not sure when this happened, but I think it was about 1990. Dom Helder came to Nevada to join a protest at a nuclear test site. He was very frail at that time. After leading a prayer, Dom Helder joined the protesters and, according to a beautiful poem written by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), they all crossed the cattle guard and entered the forbidden ground where federal marshals were waiting with handcuffs. As she wrote,

“After hours of waiting, penned into two wire-fenced enclosures, sun climbing to cloudless zenith, till everyone has been processed, booked, released to trudge one by one up the slope to the boundary line…”

They were all pretty discouraged, and somehow knew it wasn't going to do much good. We had entered an age where it was possible to kill millions of people by pressing a single button. But Dom Helder wanted to demonstrate that “the sacred hoop” could be reconstructed.

Everyone gathered into an outer circle and an inner circle. One circle moved clockwise, the other moves counterclockwise. Everybody saw everybody's face. After a short time, they began to dance. As the poet wrote,

“Dom Helder, too, faithful pilgrim, dances, dances, at the turning core.”

And the unity, and the hope, was restored! It was true then — and it is true now!

- Brother Toby

Today's reflection is an adapted version of a reflection written August 17, 2017.

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