A Vast Old Religion

by D. H. Lawrence

A vast old religion which once swayed the earth lingers in unbroken practice there in New Mexico, older, perhaps than anything in the world save Australian aboriginal taboo and totem, and that is not yet religion.  You can feel it, the atmosphere of it, around the pueblos . . .

But never shall I forget watching the dancers, the men with the fox-skin swaying down from their buttocks, file out at San Geronimo, and the women with seed rattles following.  But never shall I forget the utter absorption of the dance, so quiet, so steadily, timelessly rhythmic, and silent, with the ceaseless down-tread, always to the earth´s centre . . . Never shall I forget the deep singing of the men at the drum, swelling and sinking, the deepest sound I have heard in all my life, deeper than thunder, deeper than the sound of the Pacific Ocean . . . the wonderful deep sound of men calling to the unspeakable depths.

It was a vast old religion, greater than anything we know: more starkly and nakedly religious.  There is no God, no conception of a god.  All is god.  But it is not the pantheism we are accustomed to, which expresses itself as “God is everywhere, God is in everything.”  In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive.  There were only deeper and deeper streams of life, vibrations of life more and more vast.  So rocks were alive, but a mountain had a deeper, vaster life than a rock, and it was much harder for a man to bring his spirit, or his energy, into contact with the life of the mountain, and so draw strength from the mountain, as from a great standing well of life, than it was to come into contact with a rock.  And he had to put forth a great religious effort.  For the whole life-effort of man was to get his life into direct contact with the elemental life of the cosmos, mountain-life, cloud-life, thunder-life, air-life, sun-life.  To come into immediate felt contact, and so derive energy, power, and a dark sort of joy.  This effort into sheer naked contact, without an intermediary or mediator, is the root meaning of religion, and at the sacred races the runners hurled themselves in a terrible cumulative effort, through the air, to come at last into naked contact with the very life of air, which is the life of the clouds, and so of the rain . . .

It was a vast and pure religion, without idols or images, even mental ones.  It is the oldest religion, a cosmic religion the same for all peoples, not broken up into specific gods or saviours or systems.  It is the religion which precedes the god-concept, and it is, therefore, greater and deeper than any god-religion.

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.  He published many novels and poetry volumes during his lifetime, including Sons and Lovers and Women in Love, but is best known for his infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

His collected works represent, among other things, an extended reflection upon the dehumanizing effects of modernity and industrialization.  Some of the issues Lawrence explores are sexuality, emotional health, vitality, spontaneity, and instinct.

In 1922 Lawrence and his wife made for the bohemian town of Taos, New Mexico. Here they eventually acquired the 160-acre Kiowa Ranch, now called the D. H. Lawrence Ranch.

Image credits: 

Turtle Dance by Dorothy Brett, 1947  |   Pueblo Indian Dancers by D. H. Lawrence  |   DH Lawrence by Paul Fillingham (independent.ie)

Story reprinted from The Serpent’s Tongue,  edited by Nancy Wood