Last week, as Martin and I flew into Denver on our way to the Aspen Summer Words literary festival, we could see giant billows of smoke from the High Park fire outside Fort Collins, about sixty-five miles to the north. The fire has burnt more than 100 square miles over the last several weeks and, as of this writing, is still not completely contained. We met a cabbie who said philosophically that Mother Nature would have her way and that people who lived in fire hot spots should expect to get burned out. We talked about people who build houses in hurricane zones or on fault lines and concluded that human beings could be a little slow on the uptake.
At the festival, we had the great pleasure of meeting Luis Urrea, one of the keynote speakers, and his wonderful wife Cindy. In a session with H. Emerson Blake, editor of Orion Magazine, Luis recounted meeting a group of curanderas in Mexico several years ago. They immediately sensed that he was accompanied by the spirit of a Sioux warrior, although they were puzzled by the word “Sioux,” which they hadn’t encountered before. Luis was puzzled as well: he had been in the company of Sioux shaman not long before who told him that he was sending a warrior spirit with him for protection, but Luis had understood this in a metaphorical way. The curanderas assured him there was nothing metaphorical about it.
When they found out he was a writer, they were disappointed. They had seen that he was a communicator of some sort, but they told him that he was really a healer. Sorry, he said; if I could cure people, I would, but I can’t. You’ve just been lazy, they told him, but if you won’t do that hard work, we guess your writing can work to heal the spirits of those who did not die in peace. Don’t be lazy now, they said. There is work to be done. Sick souls rely on art, on works of beauty, to lead them into health and peace. Art, they told him, cures by lighting bonfires in the soul, in souls that were filled with deadwood before they died, deadwood that holds them back even after death. This is not metaphorical: get to work. And he did, writing books that depict the ways of thoughtless devastation and grace. His own soul having been kindled, his work is like a taper that readers can use (or not) to light their own souls on fire for the work of justice, beauty, and harmony.
But how does lighting that flame cure a soul? As a culture, Americans tend to focus more on curing disease in bodies, and for most of us, putting ourselves into the care of the medical profession is an act of faith whether we call it that or not. I go to a doctor, and if I trust her, I do what she tells me to do and take the drugs she tells me to take, even if I have no idea how those drugs work. I also look for a doctor who sees beyond the complex systems of the body to the unique conformation of my very particular life, sometimes called the soul; who helps patients as they walk through the fire that comes with confronting pain and mortality.
In Christianity, curing souls—traditionally the work of priests—involved discerning the movement of the Spirit within a life. This process is now more commonly called spiritual direction. As is the case with other religious traditions, the Christian discernment process calls followers to maturity through the Three Ways of purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation is often associated with dust and ashes, with desert and fire, with wandering lost in the wilderness, with penitence. T. S. Eliot ends his great aria of the Three Ways—confusingly called Four Quartets—with the conviction that, even in union, the fires of purgation are present, though transformed:
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
According to Urrea’s curanderas, the care of the body, the cure of the soul, and art are intimately interrelated. Many physicians will not wish to have their work compared to curanderismo, the work of folk healers who use herbs, water, mud, and esoteric knowledge to effect their cures—and I understand why. If I had a child with a serious medical condition, we’d go straight to a medical doctor, not to a shaman. And yet Western science seems to be realizing the need to see the human body as more than the sum of its physically constituent parts, to tend to the fractured realities of psyche, mind, genetic inheritance, environment, and time and place in history, the unique friction that some of us call the soul (though naming it feels reductive). We are beginning to acknowledge support groups, meditation, Eastern medical practices, massage, hospice care, and more as legitimate tools in the medical kit, even though Western metrics cannot easily measure their efficacy. We are starting to see that curing bodies is sometimes inextricable from caring for souls. Curanderismo has worked with this humbling understanding for centuries, even millennia. The controlled burning of deadwood in the soul—the tinder-dry fuel of fear, pain, and isolation—is not new work to the best of medical doctors. They still try to help if those flames begin to burn out of control.
Given the actual fires roaring through Colorado right now, it seems silly to claim for anyone besides firefighters the distinction of pulling people through fires. But there are people who pull us through fires that are metaphorical and utterly real and destructive. But artists, like firefighters and physicians, walk people through fires, whatever their source, and fire is, after all, a vital component in the maintenance of any healthy ecosystem. I love the idea of bonfires in the soul. It’s just the kind of image toward which I’m likely to gravitate. It’s beautiful. Poetic. Religious under- and overtones. Words that can drift in and out of my head like smoke, eventually leaving nothing behind. If taken seriously—more than literally—they’re a call to get moving. There’s work to be done.
What we’re reading
Heather: Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Martin: Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President