Love and Hozho- by Erick Begay
As we approach Christmas this piece from 2010 came to mind. It is a silver crown, adorned with emeralds, diamonds, turquoise and sapphires, that I made for an Italian painting of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. It was commissioned by the Our Lady of Wisdom Italo-Greek Byzantine Church of Las Vegas, and hangs there today along with other elaborate artworks of Italo-Byzantine style.
It was about 13 years ago that Father Vivona came into my studio and showed me gemstones that a parishioner had donated for the crown. He showed me a photo of the painting and asked if I could do it. Although we built a good rapport over the years, I still wonder why he chose me. I did not attend his church (nor any other), and I didn't consider myself a spiritual/religious kind of person. Nonetheless, he commissioned me to make it.
I had met Father Vivona about 6 years before when he commissioned a simpler project for him. He had spent 30 years out west and knew a lot about Native American cultures. He was a bold man from Brooklyn, New York and spoke with slight New York accent. He was a very intelligent man, very keen on any topic. He would stop in the gallery once or twice a year, and I enjoyed our conversations that often wandered from subject to subject.
He respected Native spiritual traditions. Once, I shared with him my background of growing up with a mom, who read from a Bible that was written in Navajo on one page and English on the other, and how she would take us as children to St. Francis Cathedral for 6:00am mass, which was all in Latin, and how these experiences mixed with memories of my grandfather, a Medicine man who prayed with eagle feathers and corn pollen, chanting Navajo prayers to the shaking of a rattle, and how these two world existed in me: Christianity mixed with Navajo spirituality (concept of Hozho). Both speaking two languages I didn't understand, yet speaking one language with an unforced rhythm that I could.
Another time, I showed Father Vivona a Hopi Priest Killer katsina, which is a katsina that was designated to execute priest during the Pueblo revolt of 1680. He knew the history. He was appalled at how Franciscan priests established totalitarian theocracies, which suppressed any religious practices, desecrated sacred objects and destroyed kivas. He then explained how it is important to be respectful and inclusive of the culture/traditions around. He eventually tied it back the work of Paul the Apostle and how Paul traveled the ancient world and set up the early churches, tolerant of cultural traditions, each one a different sect, like a facet to a diamond. The Church being the diamond.
The day I attached the finished crown to the Virgin Mary, Bishop Dino was there with Father Vivona. It was a Saturday on a summer’s day, 2pm and the church was empty. I arrived with my then-girlfriend, Dee. Our relationship was new, we had only been together for a few months; but from the first day I met her, I knew that she was "The One." After I attached the crown to the painting, I had my moment. I was scared, but it was my moment. I was anxious. I asked the bishop if he would say a blessing over us and our new relationship. He obliged.
From my childhood, I was familiar with regular mass at St. Francis. I figured it would take a few minutes, say a few words, a touch on our foreheads and the sign of the cross. Amen. Then we will be on our way. What happened was more beautiful than I had expected. The Italo-Greek Byzantines have some flare.
Father Vivona went to his office and brought out a book, white with golden edges. His hand covered the front of the book, but I could make out the word “marriage” in the title. Bishop Dino directed us to the altar of the beautiful church, decorated with iconic painting in gilded-gold, colorful stained glass, heavily-carved columns of wood and marble floors.
We stood at the altar of this beautiful, empty church. The bishop directed us to join hands, then draped a cloth over them. They began the blessing from the book. The whole blessing was in Latin and beautifully sung, as their tradition. For about ten minutes they chanted an unforced rhythm of Latin words with varying pitches. One singular voice, then in unison, back to one voice, then both together again. Bold, baritone voices bounced off the marble floors, resonating into the deep-carved wooden pillars, and bellowed into every seat of that empty church to the back row. The moment was understood, holy and sacred.
Intuitively, I knew what the Latin blessing was about: devotion, grace, honor, sacrifice, respect, faith, Love, Hozho, the greatest of these: Love and Hozho.
The blessing ceremony was just for us and everything felt right. Our relationship was blessed in Hozho, everything restored to harmony and balance.
We thanked them and drove away, both in peaceful silence. The following April, we were married, in the unforced rhythms of Love and Hozho.
-Erick Begay, December 24, 2022