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At the Volcano

March, 2022

Dear Friends,

My husband and I wanted to go some place warm in January---and as you can see from the photo, we ended up in a very warm place indeed. 

While we didn't actually go inside the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park, we had spectacular views of its bubbling and steaming lava from a spot near the edge of its crater. Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting almost continuously since 1983. The experience was truly awe-inspiring, a thrilling peek into the inner workings of the earth.

I went to Hawaii to research the idea of Sacred Fire for a new book project. Fire is a powerful symbol in many religions, from the ancient Romans who believed that as long as a flame burned in the Temple of Vesta their city would endure to Moses encountering God in a burning bush. In Christianity, tongues of fire appeared above the heads of Jesus' followers at Pentecost, and flames have been a symbol of the Holy Spirit ever since. And of course candles are lit in the rituals of many faiths, because there's something magical and otherworldly in a dancing flame.

The Hawaiian Islands are a good place to contemplate these traditions in part because of the connection between their volcanoes and the fire goddess Pele, whose full name is Pelehonuamea, "she who shapes the sacred land." Before the coming of Christianity, Pele was one of the most revered--and feared--of all the gods. Fierce and destructive, she was easily angered but was also responsible for the creation of the islands, all of which are volcanic in origin.

Even today, Pele continues to be honored. Several Hawaiians told me that I should bring a gift to Pele when I visited her (flowers and food are the most common offerings). We were told to be careful not to bring any lava rock home with us when we left the island, because Pele is a protective goddess who will send bad luck to anyone who takes anything of hers. This belief is so common that the post offices in Hawaii routinely get packages from tourists who have taken rocks from the islands and later regretted it.

Sure enough, when we visited the Kilauea crater (in which Pele is said to dwell) there were already offerings of flowers left there. I laid my own gift next to them, both amused and serious. . . because if there's any goddess you don't want to anger, it's Pele. 

So why should we care about Pele and the whole idea of Sacred Fire? Maybe because these can be powerful metaphors for our own spiritual paths, even if we don't live in Hawaii. They symbolize the powerful forces that can sweep through our lives without warning, and yet in the destruction are the seeds for new life.

Hawaii shows what can happen next. 
Driving across the Big Island, we saw mile after mile of land that had been covered with lava within the recent past. It can take centuries for plants to become well-established in these areas, and more than a thousand years for an ecosystem to truly flourish again. But once it does---well, then you get Hawaii, gorgeous, lush, tropical Hawaii, whose plants thrive in the extraordinary fertility of the volcanic soil given by Pele. 

Visiting Hawaii, in other words, was a reminder of the spiritual truth that destruction is often necessary in order for new life to occur. That's a lesson I'd already learned from the prairie fires of my native Iowa, but seeing it played out in such a dramatic fashion in Hawaii brought the truth of it home as never before.

All of this makes me reflect on what parts of my life are covered with lava right now, those bleak areas that are blackened and seemingly dead. Maybe you've got some of those areas too. Maybe when the volcano erupted it took you completely by surprise and you're still in shock. Maybe it's lava from a generation ago and you're still waiting for some new sprouts to appear on it.

And of course on the world stage we're seeing destruction played out in a horrifying fashion as well, as Ukraine battles for its survival against Russia. Volcanoes take many forms, alas.

I'm an optimist, so I don't think it will necessarily take a thousand years for new life to flourish again in any of these places. But it does take patience, and trust, and a rueful recognition that the cycle of destruction and rebirth is eternal. 

So what's been destroyed in your life? Where might new growth come from? And how can you nurture the faith that green growth will follow the fire? 

All good wishes,


(photo credits: Bob Sessions)

Recommended Reading:
Learn more about the fierce goddess of fire in Pele: Goddess of Hawaii's Volcanoes by Herb Kawainui Kane.

Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Warren Beckwith is a classic study of Hawaiian spiritual traditions and folklore.

In The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, Stephen J. Pyne explores how humans have re-made the earth with fire and how we might recover our responsibilities as keepers of the planetary flame.


News About My Newest Book:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit. See my website for a full list of reviews and media, including my NPR interview with Rick Steves (my portion of the show begins at 13:25).

Interested in doing The Soul of the Family Tree in a book group? You can find discussion questions here

If you've read and enjoyed any of my books, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work.


 My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Upcoming Event:

April 1-3: Women's Retreat at Pendle Hill Conference Center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. 

I'll be leading this retreat hosted by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. It focuses on the themes of genealogy, family stories, and faith. Women from outside the church are welcome, and both overnight and commuter options are available. For registration information see Women's Retreat at Pendle Hill.



Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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