Thursday, October 20

Native Honor and Faith in the Mountains

How many generations in this country before one can say he is Native American?" I asked an Obijwe elder in Lac Courte Oreilles tribal reservation several years ago.

Native America from Black Hills of South Dakota to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho
photos by JBP 2006
When one loves this land like their mother, that is when he is Native as we are Native to this land," he said. He went to explain that loving the land was a wholistic integration with one's environment, both spiritual and physical. I have learned to walk spiritually in the natural world by engaging physical senses and spiritual awareness. It is not that different from walking in the man-made world, whether religious or secular. I have had powerful spiritual experiences where the natural world meets the world of humans in the honoring of sacred places, the building of sacred space and the simple harmonious interaction with the world around us.

Medicine Mountain, Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming
photos by JBP 2006
I am not sure what makes a place more sacred than another, but everyone should take a pilgrimage to any of the sacred places in North America. And just be there for a while.

My family and I had decided to drive from Madison, Wisconsin to Spokane, Washington for a small conference. I looked at maps and websites for interesting places we could stop, knowing the sacred has been recognized and marked by those that have gone before us.

There are a few native sacred sites that are protected by law.  There are others that are protected by secrecy. In the middle of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, high above almost everything else and several miles off from the parking lot, is the Medicine Wheel National Monument. It is an ancient ceremonial or astronomical site situated on a narrow ridge atop Medicine Mountain almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

Medicine Wheel aerial photo by Airphoto 2002
By ancestry, I am an American mutt, a human of mixed blood and genetic heritage.  If I was a pie chart, I am mostly of European ancestry, but have roots into the beginnings of the United States and Canada.  My great-great grandmother was native of the Mic Maq tribe in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  I grew up largely unaware of this. I found out later that this was mostly due to a racial shame that was not discussed openly by my mother's family.  Blond and blue-eyed, my European ancestry was more obvious anyway. The Ojibwe always reminded me that I am "cha-mok-a-mon" - white man (literally "long knife" from first encounters with French trappers who carried a long knife).  Nevertheless, the Ojibwe elders helped me integrate many of the fractured pieces of who and what I am, have been and will become.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota is a place of ethnic pride. Crazy Horse Mountain honors Native America and is the vision of a Polish sculptor and his family!  Both sides of my family tree fully engaged in a mountain. I still smile when I consider the unusual ethnic combination outside of my family of origin.

We decided to stop at the Medicine Wheel high in the mountains.  The parking is several miles from the site. The walk is a continually climb, we were accompanied by yellow-winged grasshoppers that would click as they flew along the rocks. There were mountain flowers in bloom and a variety butterflies.

At the wheel, which is at at the edge of the mountain.  There is very little higher.  There was a sign and a national park ranger.  The sign was clear, only native americans were allowed into the actual wheel.  I spoke to the ranger and was allowed to enter into the center.  There, I prayed.

Five years later, there is a part of me still praying at that mountain top. 

Tuesday, September 27

Clarity and Reflection at Equinox

Fall Begins in a Reflection
Photograph by John Brian Paprock
Lake Wingra, Madison, Wisconisn 
September 2011

Upon the mirrored skin of a lazy creek at the edge of a spring-fed marsh lake, in a few fleeting moments, what is above can be seen in that which is below.

This has always been a reflecting time for me. A time for me to see things that have been in a new light, even as the day hours equal the night. 

From this time until the March equinox, we will be in natural darkness more than natural light.   

The light of the sun is precious and its lingering beauty moves to the southern horizon. 

At this time, the leaves begin their transformation. Their last breath, a punctuation of beauty that colors the trees in a broad paintbrush across the northern lands. 

The harvest begins in earnest as scholars erect pillars of academia.  All Hallow's Eve is around the corner and the Saints await our pleas for security. 

In reflection, at the changes of this season, we remember the places we died and the moments of our mortality.  And we reach for eternity in the light of fading days.

written near the autumnal equinox of 2011 by John-Brian Paprock  

Tuesday, June 21

Cathedrals are where Bishops and Angels sit in Los Angeles

Exterior of the impressive St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank
photos by John-Brian Paprock
The interior of St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank is inspiring.
photos by John-Brian Paprock
Los Angeles translates from Spanish to "The Angels."  In this megalopolis world city made of cities within cities, county lines that blur in the surrounding mountains, angels dwell. Certainly, they dwell in churches.  Cathedrals are churches that are elevated to a status of being the dwelling of bishops.  Usually at the population center of a bishop's diocese, they are usually known as large ornate edifices.  Every Orthodox and Catholic church usually has a bishop's seat, a large chair for the bishop when he visits and presides over liturgical functions. A cathedral is his permanent "seat." The faithful were encouraged to make a pilgrimage to their diocesan cathedral. Now, most cathedrals are welcoming of visiting faithful and open to others to visit.  During a September 2010 visit to Los Angeles, my wife and I were able to visit three cathedrals: St. Leon's Armenian Orthodox Cathedral, Our Lady of Angels Catholic Cathedral, and St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Cathedral.

These three were convenient "along the way" diversions; the kind of diversion from other items on a tourist itinerary that I have grown to appreciate.  My wife has learned to trust my intuitive and curious planning of such "along the way" diversions. There are always discoveries and insights when we allow our journey to include such sacred places.

We drove up on the Armenian cathedral  (pictured above) in the morning. I had heard that there were native Armenian stone craftsmen working on the building and on kachkars

Kachkars are large ornately carved stone crosses. It was relatively quiet there as workmen were putting finishing touches.  The Cathedral Stone Crosses were blessed and dedicated in a ceremony presided by the Armenian Bishop.

It was nourishing to wander around the Cathedral with so few people around; to be filled with the fragrance of incense from morning prayer and surrounded by ancient symbols of Christianity in such a modern building. The stone cutter did not speak English very well and I do not speak Armenian, but he was able to communicate that he was 4th generation craftsman. I was able to communicate how blessed I felt to touch the cross shapened by the loving and spiritual craft that is uniquely part of Armenian Orthodoxy.

Some may not fully understand the need for such monuments of the ancient church in the face of other needs. But when done correctly, a cathedral is not a museum of artifacts and history. It is a living spiritual and sacred space that can enrich and empower the seeker and the knower to climb to greater heights. At least, that is what they should do.  In the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, the creation of sacred space with sacred art and liturgy is so integrated with the spiritual life that they are inseparable.  As large as they can be, there is no "big box" church mentality.  Without the spiritual atmosphere integral to building space for the sacred to exist in this secular and material existence, all buildings made by man are empty and hollow structures that emphasize the profane or the secular or worse.  Nevertheless, inspired architecture can transcend purpose and bring us closer to the sacred regardless of human use.

So, the church building or the cathedral is intended to be a place that outwardly interacts with the world that surrounds it and hopefully can be a beacon of spiritual light and goodness in the neighborhood. Inwardly, from the Orthodox and Catholic perspective, it must be a place akin to heaven, like a ladder that leads the mind and heart upward even as the eye wanders to the pinnacle of the cross.
Of course, the City of Angels would have a Catholic Cathedral dedicated to the Lady of Angels in downtown LA
photos by John-Brian Paprock
Where the Armenian Cathedral is brand new, yet brings a deep sense of personal nourishment by tapping into the deep reservoir of the ancient faith of the Armenian people, Our Lady of Angels Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles carried its tradition in a modern context. The beautiful abstract architecture almost pulls one from the purpose of the building, were it not for the nuances of more intimate spaces where pieces of the extensive Catholic heritage of Los Angeles can be seen and felt. The angel theme is played over and over again, along with other Catholic themes.  We happened to visit during a ceremony for the Knights of Jerusalem, and the solemn public ritual was filled with reverence, even from the distance we watched. 

I found great comfort in the old statue of Our Lady of Angels, with cherubs dancing around and under Mary's cloak as she holds the baby Jesus. I remembered spending a long time looking at each of the cherubim and their faces when I was a child. Those child faces of the cherubs seemed safe and protected in the folds of Mary's cloak. Until I saw it at this visit, I remembered it as a dream or an image from a movie. Seeing it again, brought back a feeling of protection and safety I felt those times my family would visit the cathedral during the early 1960s. Regardless of my childhood tragedies, traumas and difficulties, I always felt there was an angelic presence that preserved me. That familiar feeling came back to me at this cathedral in that intimate side altar where this historic statue was kept behind plexiglass.  It was difficult to photograph at all - even harder when my eyes teared up over and over again.  

Angels are the theme, but the well-used grounds were filled with other art and beauty.
photos by John-Brian Paprock (except worship photo by Teresa  Paprock)
 Perhaps St. Ephrem Cathedral is more modest in physical comparison with the other cathedrals we visited, but the spirit was strong in more intimate places. We missed morning services and arrived to find the building empty, yet a door was open.  It was a welcoming experience even without the attendance of clergy.  We even looked for clergy and knocked on several doors, but the nursery school and day care providers were the only people there and had their hands full with the children. It was clear that this community service was integral to the Cathedral's work in the neighborhood, as the children were as diverse as the surrounding urban society.  

The Syriac Orthodox Cathedral of St Ephrem in Burbank
photos by John-Brian Paprock
The interior of St Ephrem Cathedral  in Burbank  is full of intimate spaces
photos by John-Brian Paprock
It was the intimacy that gave us comfort in our prayers at the Cathedral. We lit candles and added our prayers to the space already filled with prayer and incense earlier. It was as though we were able to participate in the spiritual extensions of those prayers.  I have had this experience before in sacred places - time collapses and the beneficent quality of all the prayers, hopes and dreams in that place are almost tangible. Every place dedicated to bring us closer to sublime divinity should evoke such feeling. The truth is that they are not all so blessed.  After visiting thousands of historic churches and sacred places of diverse traditions and even religions, there is something of a mystery in the reason that some places are spiritually enriched while others are spiritally bankrupt. Sometimes, the presence of holy ones can be felt like angel wings glancing the cheek can felt if one can be quieted and centered and willing to be spiritually nourished.  I am glad in my heart that most of these places are still available and open to the seeker and the knower. I am glad in my heart that we had the chance to visit many of these special places, including the three Cathedrals of Los Angeles. If every place and time could be so nourishing, so nuturing, so compelling, so transcendent, then perhaps humanity would not need these places of angels and bishops to remind them of the deeply spiritual reality always available to us if we seek to know it.

Friday, June 17

The Missions of Southern California

[All photographs in these collages are by John-Brian Paprock, except those by Teresa Paprock. - September 2010 - all rights reserved]

Mision de San Juan Capistrano - Teresa got a great picture of John-Brian taking pictures.
 At the beginning of September 2010, I was given the opportunity to visit Southern California.  It was both exhilarating and difficult, being a place of my early childhood that I had not returned since the middle of 1966. We moved to the Windy City, Chicago - close to the childhood home of my mother who spent her entire childhood in Oak Park.  My father was raised in the Detroit area.  So, as I planned the trip, I had the business of the trip that needed time and attention. There was family, paternally on my side and maternally on my wife's side, and there was the places and spaces, the nooks and cranies, that teased my memory of my earliest days.
A few of the places I recalled were the Missions that established the pathways and towns of a coastal land that eventually became known as Cailfornia.  Especially fond memories of San Juan Capistrano, even though we went at the wrong time of year to see the swallows when I was a child.  So, even though my wife and I arrived at the proper time of year, the swallows had long since moved to other more stable nesting sites.  Nevertheless, the Mision de San Juan Capistrano continued to have the familiar forms that I recalled, even as there were developments and changes.  The Mission is a national treasure, full of spiritual light and perfumed with the prayers of millions who have made the pilgrimage.

The Mission church maintains its historic ambience while being a fully functioning Catholic chapel where people of all faiths have been sending their prayers to heaven - so many prayers that it seemed, in some places, to have worn down the veil that separates this world from that divine abode. With our own prayers on our lips, we also lit candles at San Juan Capitrano.

The dedicated chapels at San Juan Capistrano include the Shrine of St. Peregrine, healer of cancer, whose staute is worn where the faithful have reached out to the marble to touch the saint. Teresa captured a wonderful photograph of faith lighting candles with John-Brian looking from behind the candle box. 
 It was a beautiful, very hot day. The exterior with the mission bells and arches seemed to glow in the sunlight.

Mision de San Juan Capistrano - September 2010

 On the drive from Orange County to a family visit in San Diego area, we were able to visit two more Missions.  Mision San Luis Rey, which I remembered from my childhood.  And Mision San Diego de Alcala, which I have a vague memory of stopping at when my Grandfather lived in San Diego. It was a special way to be reunited with the first part of the world I ever knew.

Mision San Luis Rey features Native American baths with open mouths for water.  I immediately remember my father's fascination and remember trying to see what he was seeing.

We arrived in San Diego a bit later than we hoped but we were still able to see the architecture and charm of one of the principal missions that formed California.

Even with a very warm day in September, some of the locals greeted us.  Koi from the fountain pond at San Jaun Capistrano. The others from the walk to the ancient baths at San Luis Rey 

Sunday, March 6

Foggy New Year

The foggy night was an early January thaw this winter.  On December 31, 2010, I stepped out into a magical chill with lights coloring the night and brought my camera to capture some of the beauty. It reminded me of my youth when the quiet of night was a time of reflection and solace from a chaotic home.  The beauty of night is in the lights, not the darkness.

Saturday, February 19

Ancient Places - Sacred Places

I don't know when the convergence of the ancient and the contemporary began to inspire me.  Perhaps it was those spiritual breezes in a place that seemed to bring me to another time. The kind of breezes, that when I close my eyes, I can see, feel, smell, and hear the murmurs of history reverberating through the very atmosphere of a place.  Perhaps, what is most enduring to me is also most endearing.

In every place, especially every place where human feet have trod, there is a story: there is history; there is legacy.  Sometimes all that is left is the name of a place; perhaps, a few symbolic markers or trinkets.  Sometimes the natural beauty of a place is breathtaking.  Sometimes the human craft, architecture and artistry combined, to create a sense of awe. Sometimes, it is the story or the purpose that can propel a person through time, transcending the normal barriers of linear extistence. The age of structures is not important as the transendence of time, the reaching beyond this current life, is not about age, but about spirit. So, when I travel, I usually research the area, the city, the region for those places of history - but always looking for that place of transcendence.

I believe everyone should be conscious of their own history, their family history, their ancestry.  Also, I  believe it is important to be conscious of the history of the land where one lives, knowing all the sacred places and places of spiritual healing and refreshment.

This led me and my wife on a journey to write a book on sacred places of all the people where we live. Well, we thought of the Midwest primarily - starting in our own back yard: Wisconsin.  Over ten years ago, I began indepth research of historic and ancient places of religious and spiritual significance in Wisconsin. This resulted in the book by my wife Teres and I called "Sacred Sites of Wisconsin," published at the end of 2001 by Wisconsin Trails Books - ten years ago.  Later, we did the same for Minnesota.  I began researching other states (Iowa, Illinois and Michigan primarily), but the publisher changed hands and the plans were postponed. 

My wife thought of all those photographs I took of all the places we had visited in 2000.  She suggested a photography book in honor fo the tenth anniversary of "Sacred Sites of Wisconsin."  So, I have been working on that in between other projects, uploading a few thousands 35mm negatives with mixed results.  Hopefully, we will have something soon.

Since that experience, almost every trip we have taken has included some sacred places - and I bring my camera.

Trail Books was eventually  bought by Big Earth publishing in Colorado.

Both books are available at all the major book outlets on the web, including  or contact us: