Mystery writer Tony Hillerman died Oct. 26 at age 83. He will be missed by his many fans, me included, to whom he introduced a landscape of bold spiritual dimensions and a people whose strong sacramental vision is similar to our Catholic one.
He was one of the top mystery writers in America. His success comes from a series of novels featuring the Native American tribal police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn working on the huge Navajo reservation that covers parts of Arizona and New Mexico.
Fans delight in the contrasts between the overtly spiritual Navajo worldview and our own, where spirituality is so segregated from our living.
Sgt. Jim Chee, who is also a trained medicine man, a hataalii, solves crimes using modern forensic techniques combined with the ancient intuitions of his culture grounded in a deep sense of interconnection and place. Chee yearns to keep this outlook healthy in a world of consumerism, fragmentation and speed.
“The Navajo are originals,” said Hillerman. “As a people, they have always impressed me.”
Navajos’ highly developed spiritual sensibility is centered on the concept of hozho -- walking in beauty. Their worldview sees everything in life as connected and influencing and being affected by everything else. A stone thrown into a pond has an effect on the life of an owl in the forest. A spoken word can alter events on the other side of the globe. All things possess spirit and power, so Navajos strive to live in harmony and balance with everyone and everything else. Their belief system sees sickness as a result of things falling out of balance. Sin is losing one’s way on the path of beauty. In this belief system, religion and medicine are one and the same.
People are healed by singing poetry, by sand paintings and ceremonies held by firelight in the winter. Spirituality is not a side aspect, something for a weekend retreat once a year; it is tightly woven together with everyday life.
I once interviewed Gloria Davis, the first Native American woman to enter the order of Blessed Sacrament sisters. Her notions about spirituality were formed growing up in her traditional Navajo community in northern Arizona.
“I noticed,” she told me, “that the holy people in our community, the ones we turned to for spiritual guidance and who conducted the blessing and healing ceremonies, were always the people who had the keenest sense of humor. You could spot them by the laugh wrinkles near their eyes!”
The hallmark of holiness was not a gaunt, hollow-cheeked, aesthetic look or one of otherworldly serenity, but just a common lively sense of humor, honed from birth on the lathe of life’s ups and downs, its absurdities and sorrows, its joys and unpredictable encounters. Humor is a side effect of living deeply.
Are applicants to Catholic seminaries ever checked for a funny bone?
After a Navajo baby is born, the first celebration takes place just after the child’s first laugh. Yes, laugh! “We believe the soul (also called ‘the wind’) enters the body soon after birth,” says Lori Alviso Alvord, a Navajo physician. “A baby’s laugh is an indication that the soul has become attached to the body.”
Alvord continues: “The person who made the baby laugh is expected to host a party, at which small pieces of rock salt are placed in a woven basket. The baby ‘gives’ the pieces of salt to each guest. The Navajo believe that by doing this the baby will grow up to be generous and giving.”
It’s a mistake to romanticize this approach. The Navajo have their problems, too.
Yet this strong sacramental sensibility and belief that there is more to life than meets the eye is something their worldview shares with ancient traditions in Catholic spirituality. The Navajo, though, have completely resisted that division of the world into sacred and secular that so plagues us.
Tony Hillerman’s delightful mysteries are a testament to a culture that deeply respects and celebrates the mystery of the world we live in.
Rich Heffern is an NCR writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.