The Stone Man

5 February 21 | Posted in Spirituality, Supernatural

 

We built a stone man on our land in Pennsylvania.  We built him from rocks from a nearby stone fence, and from a stone cairn nearby. I felt a breath of air when we displaced the cairn rocks. Whatever had been there was freed.  I felt its sigh when I lifted a large stone in the center.

The Stone Man came together easily and balanced perfectly.  He had a discernable head, stumpy arms, long legs and looked like he was riding on a surfboard.  He had a hole in his center. Once I spotted a hunter’s lost cap looking through him.  The Stone Man was more than a marker. He was a familiar and friendly presence. We felt a great affection for him and the feeling was returned. I was always glad to see him, and I never felt alone when he was within sight.

He stood near the border of our property in the woods. Once we passed by the Stone Man, a trail began along an ancient lake to Mud Pond. The trail went up a hill through dense clumps of mountain laurel, black ash, birch, granite boulders and some white pine. Mud Pond was surrounded by a boggy area, so you needed to be careful where you walked.  We also needed to be careful of the bears which used the trail.

I got the idea of building an inuksuk from photos of inuksuit created by the Inuit in Alaska.  The word “inuksuk” means to “act in the capacity of a human being.”  These stone figures acted as hunting and navigational aids and message centers.  A familiar inuksuk on the landscape is a welcome sight when a hunter or traveler is a long way from home.  Many Inuit retain strong attachments to Inuksuit built by their ancestors. Some of the old inuksuit are mentioned in Aya-yait, the traveling songs passed from one generation to another to help travelers remember a series of directions.

Traveling northward in 1834 toward the Arctic Ocean on the river that now bears his name, George Back, captain in the British Royal Navy, was amazed to see “a man” looking down at him from a high hill. Closer inspection revealed it to be a stone man “placed there by the Esquimaux.”  Stone men guided Inuit seafarers along the coasts. In the 1940s, while working in northernmost Labrador, Canadian archaeologist Douglas Leechman saw inuksuit “on many headlands…gazing steadfastly out to sea. Their principal purpose is to serve as landmarks, and an Eskimo knows the shape and color of every one in his district. Should he be overtaken by fog or bad weather he will often be able to save himself from going astray by the timely sight of a familiar cairn.” “A long time ago near Cape Dorset, (on Baffin Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavet), there was a special inuksuk,” elder Peter Pitseolak told historian Dorothy Eber. “In the old days people from our side who were going to cross (Hudson Strait) used to go to the inuksuk and give presents. They would say, “I give you this. I wish to return again.”

There is a spiritual presence, and dignity, in each inuksuk.  I felt it immediately when we placed the last rock to build our stone man. He wasn’t alive in our human sense of the word, but an energy and connection was present.  We always felt his kinship and care as we passed by, and he felt our respect and affection in return.

 

 

Swift Runner the Wendigo

31 December 20 | Posted in Events, History, Spirituality, Supernatural

Swift Runner was a Cree hunter and trapper from the country north of Fort Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  His Cree name was Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin. He was a big man, tall and muscular. He traded with Hudson’s Bay Company and in 1875, served as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. 

He was well-liked, until he developed a taste for whiskey. When he was drunk, Swift Runner became nasty and violent.  The police sent Swift Runner back to his tribe, where he caused so much trouble that he was eventually turned out of his community.  In the winter of 1878-79, Swift Runner took his family, including his wife, six children, mother-in-law, and brother, out into the wilderness to a hunting camp.  Only Swift Runner returned in the spring. He said his wife had committed suicide and the others had died of starvation. Swift Runner appeared well fed and in good shape.  His anxious in-laws asked the police to investigate. The police travelled with Swift Runner to his family’s camp in the wilderness north of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.

Swift Runner brought a detachment of mounted police to the camp. He showed them the grave of his eldest son. The police opened the grace and found the bones undisturbed. There were human bones scattered around the encampment, some broken in half and hollowed out. That could only mean one thing – someone had snapped them open and sucked out the marrow. They found a pot full of human fat. Swift Runner identified one of the skulls as belonging to his wife. A small moccasin had been stuffed inside the skull of Swift Runner’s mother-in-law, a beading needle still sticking out of the unfinished work.

Without much prodding, Swift Runner revealed what happened to his family.  At first, Swift Runner became haunted by dreams. A Wendigo spirit called on him to consume the people around him. The spirit crept through his mind, gradually taking control. Finally, he became a Wendigo. The Wendigo killed and ate Swift Runner’s wife, and eventually cooked and ate the rest of his family.

The police didn’t believe Swift Runner resorted to cannibalism out of hunger.  Emergency food supplies were close by at a Hudson’s Bay post was 25 miles away.  Swift Runner believed that he had become a Wendigo; the police thought he was a killer cannibal.  He may have been suffering from Wendigo psychosis, a psychiatric disorder associated with the Algonquian-speaking peoples—Cree, Wabanaki, Anishinaabe in the northern boral forests along the U.S.-Canadian border.  It manifests itself through compulsive attacks and a craving for human flesh. 

On May 27, 1879, the Mounted Police arrested Swift Runner and hauled him and the remains of his victims back to Fort Saskatchewan.  His trial began on August 8, 1879. Swift Runner was tried for murder and cannibalism by a jury that included three “English speaking Cree half-breeds,” four men “well up in the Cree language,” and a Cree man who translated the proceedings. Swift Runner sat calmly throughout the testimony of witnesses, who described the family being in perfect health when they headed out to the woods, then Swift Runner coming out of the forest alone.  Swift Runner confessed to the killings and said he had seen spirits telling him to become a Wendigo. After returning to his camp from a moose hunt, all that he could hear were “young moose, nothing but moose.” Local gossip said Swift Runner had developed a taste for human flesh from years earlier when he was forced to eat the remains of a hunting partner to save his life. Other people believed he had been possessed by the Wendigo.

Swift Runner was sentenced to be hung at Fort Saskatchewan on December 20, 1879 at 7:30 am.  He declined to speak to a priest before he was executed. “The white man has ruined me,” he said. “I don’t think their God would amount to much.” The morning was dark and bitterly cold when the police led the condemned man to the scaffold. It was discovered that the trap from the gallows had been burned as kindling, and the old pensioner that was hired as the hangman had forgotten to bring straps to bind the prisoner’s arms.  As the sheriff and hangman rushed around to get the scaffold ready again, Swift Runner sat near one of the fires that had been lighted nearby, joking and talking, and snacking on pemmican.  “I could kill myself with a tomahawk and save the hangman the trouble,” he joked. Two hours later, the gallows was ready.  Swift Runner was given the opportunity to address the crowd that had some to watch him die. He openly acknowledged his guilt, thanked his jailers for their kindness and berated his executioners for making him wait in the frigid cold. Just before the trap door opened, Swift Runner said, “I am no longer a man” the Daily Evening Mercury newspaper reported. “He died without a struggle. The body was cut down in an hour and buried in the snow outside the fort.”

Does the Wendigo exist or is it a myth? Is it an explanation for human behavior or part of the supernatural?  A cultural warning about cannibalism or spiritual possession?  Do they all blur together in the snowy mist we see just before a Wendigo appears?

The Wendigo (also known as Windigo, Weendigo) is part of the traditional beliefs of a number of Algonquin-speaking tribes in the northern United States and Canada, most notably the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Saulteaux, Cree and Abenaki. Though descriptions can vary, common to all these tribes is the conception of the Wendigos as malevolent, cannibalistic, savage, supernatural beings (Manitous) of great spiritual and physical power. They were strongly associated with winter, snow, cold, famine and starvation. The lived in the forest, and stalked villages and camps, waiting for humans to venture alone into the woods.  People who did so and never returned were said to have been taken by a Wendigo; eaten alive or turned into a Wendigo themselves.

Basil H. Johnson, a Canadian Anishinaabe author, teacher and linguist, described the Wendigo in his book, The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (1995):

“The Weendigo was a giant manitou in the form of a man or woman, who towered five to eight times above the height of a tall man. The Weendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash grey of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Weendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody from its constant chewing with jagged teeth. Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Weendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.” 

“When the Weendigo set to attack a human being, a dark snow cloud would shroud its upper body from the waist up. The air would turn cold, so the trees crackled. Then a wind would rise, no more than a breath at first, but in moments whining and driving, transformed into a blizzard. Behind the odor and chill of death and the killing blizzard came the Weendigo.”

“The Weendigo seized its victim and tore him or her from limb to limb with its hands and teeth, eating the flesh and bones and drinking the blood while its victim screamed and struggled. The pain of others meant nothing to the Weendigo; all that mattered was its survival. The Weendigo gorged itself and glutted its belly as if it would never eat again. But a remarkable thing always occurred.  As the Weendigo ate, it grew, and as it grew so did its hunger, so that no matter how much it ate, its hunger always remained in proportion to its size. The Weendigo could never requite either its unnatural lust for human flesh or its unnatural appetite. It could never stop as animals do when bloated, unable to ingest another morsel, or sense as humans sense that enough is enough for the present. For the unfortunate Weendigo, the more it ate, the bigger it grew; and the bigger it grew, the more it wanted and needed.”

Wendigo sightings continue along our northern border with Canada. Walking alone in the woods in winter may not be a wise idea. Ancient gods and goddesses are rarely worshiped, but it doesn’t mean they have ceased to exist—we are just less aware of their supernatural presence. Some native people believe that the spirit and the ideas that the Wendigo embody live on in the modern world as executives in state run corporations, multinationals and conglomerates; people who have an insatiable appetite to devour natural resources, no matter what the consequence is to communities and human victims.  Cree songwriter-signer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, “The Priests of the Golden Bull” asserts that “money junkies” of the world are wendigos. Greed, indifference, and ravenous consumption continue to kill a lot of people every year. 

Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in 2020 Elections

7 March 20 | Posted in Events, Social Justice, Spirituality, U.S. Catholic

In a February 6, 2020 speech at the University of San Diego, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said “the drive to label a single issue preeminent” in the 2020 election “distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it.” Bishop McElroy called both abortion and the environment “core life issues in Catholic teaching.”

“Against the backdrop of these two monumental threats to human life, how can one evaluate the competing claims that either abortion or climate change should be uniquely preeminent in Catholic social teaching regarding the formation of Americans as citizens and believers? Four points should be considered. —There is no mandate in universal Catholic social teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely determinative of the common good. —The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity. —Both abortion and the environment are core life issues in Catholic teaching. —The designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the United States will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position.”

Sins Against Nature and Creation

In February 2019 Pope Francis told moral theologians that it was rare, in the sacrament of reconciliation, to hear someone confess to an act of violence against nature and creation. “We do not yet have an awareness of this sin.  It is your task to do this.”

Conservation and the Catholic Imagination

“Conservation and the Catholic Imagination” was published by the Center for Humans and Nature in 2010.  It was written by Marybeth Lorbiecki, director of Interfaith Oceans, an effort dedicated to awakening religious people to the need to restore and protect the world’s oceans.  She is also the author of numerous books, including Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action. 

Lorbiecki articulates an ethic that can not only help the environment, but also inspire and renew a new generation of Catholics.

“…. when the service-oriented imagination of Catholics has become engaged in a good cause, an enormous amount of work has gotten done—consider the creation of Catholic hospitals, hospices, schools for the poor, orphanages, and medical clinics that populate communities around the globe. So imagine the tipping point if even a small portion of this populace as a group could get publicly, physically, and passionately engaged in conservation works and activism.” 

“Now more than ever, this Catholic imagination is needed, not only to renew the world through activism, but for its own survival—for the inspiration to renew the Church itself. It needs a groundswell of new directions, new energies, and new ways to show meaningful, inspiring servant leadership in the world. Catholics are an untapped alternative energy source, and they need to be invited to the conservation table to participate not just as humans and fellow planetary citizens—as many are already involved for these reasons—but also specifically as Catholics. Presently, ecological teachings have been perceived as sideline issues rather than as core to whom Catholics are and dream themselves to be.”

Read the entire article here.  I thought it was the best article I have ever read on Catholics and the environment.