Advent with Black Elk: Your Grandfathers are Calling You


Chapter 3: The Great Vision

During a life-threatening illness as a child, Black Elk had a series of visions in which his ancestors appeared to him, saying “Hurry! Come! Your Grandfathers are calling you!”

In these visions, Black Elk witnessed spotted eagles fluttering on peace pipes, ancestors transforming into free-wheeling white geese, bright red sticks sprouting branches upon which singing birds perched, horses with eyes like stars snorting like thunder, and skies full of friendly wings and baby-faced clouds. And that’s just a small taste of what he saw.

When it comes to visionary literature like this, I am always fascinated by the similarities among vastly different cultures. For instance, the content and context of Black Elk’s visions remind me of Julian of Norwich’s Showings, the Book of Revelations as well as Celtic myth and lore.

Like Black Elk, 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich also received a series of visions while suffering from a life-threatening illness, surrounded by concerned family members. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea brought a staff to Glastonbury which sprouted branches when he stuck it in the ground, eventually becoming the Holy Glastonbury Thorn Tree. Founder of the Iona Community, George MacLeod explained that the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit was the wild goose. And in terms of literary features, Black Elk’s telling of his visions reads very much like the Book of Revelation, replete with phrases like “And then I saw…” and “And ‘Behold!…” And if that’s not enough, Black Elk also saw four sets of horses: blacks, whites, sorrels, and buckskins; reminiscent of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6.

What makes Black Elk’s visions stand out among the others is the emphasis on his ancestors calling him. He also says that he saw a much older and wiser version of himself sitting among his ancestors.

Last night, I attended a class on the Buddha and the Baal Shem Tov at the Kehilla Community synagogue in Piedmont. The class began with a music-led meditation in which we listened to what is called niggun (Jewish vocal music with repetitive sounds like “dai dai dai…”). As I let the niggun wash over me, I thought of my Jewish grandfather and his father, and his father. In the music, I honestly felt my Grandfathers calling me. Although I did not have any especially vivid visions, I did feel connected to the suffering of the Jewish people, my people, my tribe.


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