The Embodiment of Prayer: Joe Cajero

Sculptor Joe Cajero was raised on the Jemez pueblo in New Mexico and his work is informed by his Pueblo religion.  Here is how he describes his work, which he calls “The Embodiment of Prayer”:

My creative energy is often spiritual in nature.  Each of my sculptures invariably represents some aspect of praise and appreciation for life’s beauty, ebb and flow.  “The Embodiment of Prayer” is a created image that specifically captures what is a reflection of my spirituality.  Since my Pueblo religion restricts the realistic unveiling of ceremonial life, I am constantly challenged by the use of abstract art to represent the sacred.

This masculine form is the expression of my intercessions with God on behalf of mankind and our tumultuous world.  His mouth is both elongated and vibrant with energy as he sings for all creation a song that is eternal.  His headpiece represents the blue sky of day as well as the majesty of heaven.  The figure is made up of three distinct sides that bring meaning to the whole.

The front left side is divided into four panels, each embodying a sacred element of life.  The wavelike pattern in the top panel represents not only the life giving properties of water, but also the never stagnant flow of meaning and purpose within the individual, moving from generation to generation.  Stars of various sizes make up the second panel representing the night sky and the harmonious order of the universe.  The third panel celebrates the organic element s of life, earth and all that have been nourished by her.  Large and small altar (kiva) steps framing this panel symbolize the prayers of adults and children while the swirling texture within the framework of the kivas is reminiscent of the ancient, hand-finish found on the kiva walls.  The fourth, bottom panel has raised circular designs, each of varied size and texture.  The circle represents the maturing of the soul while its texture speaks of the soul’s desire for God.

The front right side of Embodiment is a place of shadows reflecting the trials and tragedies that are common to all people.  Examining my own period of depression caused by personal loss.  I experienced four periods of growth within the emotional darkness.  An altar shrouded in blue represents each of these four phases and dragonflies sail beyond the altars free from the darkness.  Like nymphs emerging form dark waters to fly on wings in the air, so might man emerge from his own dark moments.  We experience this place of beauty by choosing to embrace the freedom of forgiveness, letting go of the past and embracing the present with soaring hope for the future.

The backbone of Embodiment is a stately stalk of corn.  This life-sustaining food is central to Pueblo spirituality, being regularly used in prayer and Pueblo ceremony.  A magnificent symbol of renewal and regeneration, corn is ever faithful to grow toward the sun and sway joyfully with the wind.

May your life be so blessed that you too might dance in rhythm with the Creator.

Whenever we draw comparisons between religious traditions we run several risks (often in the name of noble goals):

  • We run the risk of erasing the unique voice of the tradition that is not our own, by assuming that someone else’s religious values are ours.
  • We run the risk of reducing the voice of our own religious tradition and everyone else’s to mere platitudes that we all supposedly share — ignoring the history, experiences and perspectives that shaped those traditions.
  • Although our purpose is often to foster understanding and dialogue across our religious traditions, we build a conversation that inadvertently erases those differences before the conversation — and the listening — ever begins.
  • We also run the risk of assuming that one individual’s interpretation of a tradition is representative of everyone who identifies themselves with that religion.  That’s never the case.

I can’t speak with authority about Pueblo religion and practice, so if you are interested, I would encourage you to talk to those who are authorities on the subject and / or read about their work.  Joe is one of the most creative, gracious and thoughtful representatives of Pueblo spirituality.  Just studying his work would be one way of probing the depths of that tradition.

On another level, of course, art invites us to do our own reflecting and work.  Joe’s work has provoked me to think about my own understandings of prayer and the spiritual life.  I can speak with a bit more authority in that regard and here are some of the observations that I draw from his sculpture,  “Embodiment of Prayer”…

One: Our lives are lived out in constant contact with both heaven and earth — the presence of God and the mundane realities of daily life.  Many of the struggles that we experience in our spiritual lives arise out of a failure to honor our connection with one or the other — or both.

Two: We cannot be spiritual alone.  Prayers are lifted in community.  There are moments when the only prayers to say are the prayers we say on behalf of others.

Three: Prayers are not something we offer when we are in the best of places, nor are they just for moments of crisis.  Nor is our spiritual growth confined to best of moments.  They are thread through the whole of life, in moments of light and in moments of darkness.

Four: Prayer reminds us that we are not meant to live in careless disregard for the world around us.  By the same token, we are not to be trapped by it.  We are mortal, but we are made in the image of God.  Prayer reminds us of our dependence upon God, but it also reminds us of our relationship with God.  We almost always misunderstand and misuse that gift when we forget one or the other dimensions of the lives we have been given.

Five: Prayer is not an activity.  It is a state of being.  We were not meant to pray, but to become a prayer.  We are not just meant to say prayers, we are meant to embody a life of prayer.

Joe, thank you!


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.