Tony Hillerman's recently published memoir takes its title from his mother's homespun beatitude: "Blessed are those who expect little, for they are seldom disappointed."
"Seldom Disappointed" speaks volumes about Hillerman's roots in dirt-poor rural Oklahoma, his world view strongly shaped by his family's--especially his mother's--values, the Catholic influence in his life, and his down-home demeanor. As he once said, "There is not a damned thing sophisticated about me."
Hillerman, 76, has been a reporter, journalism professor, and college administrator, but he's internationally known for his best-selling and award-winning series of Southwest mysteries with their Navajo tribal police protagonists, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee.
Hillerman's mysteries have garnered a number of awards, but he insists that the one most meaningful to him is the "Special Friend to the Dineh Award" given to him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation for "authentically portraying the strength and dignity of traditional Navajo culture."In his interview with Beliefnet producer Anne Simpkinson, he talks about his Catholic faith, the rock-solid principles he learned growing up, his near-death experience during World War II, and his respect for the Dineh (Navajo) way of life.
In reading your book, your mother and Catholicism seemed to be two very important influences in your life.
Yes, they certainly were. It's hard to understand how people can get through life, which is tough, without having any religious faith.
Yeah. I never grew up afraid of anything. I grew up knowing the hard fact of our existence as humans: that we're born, we have a period on earth where we have a chance to prove ourselves, and then we die. And dying is certainly nothing to be afraid of.
If all of a sudden I'm beset with an incurable disease, I'd be distraught at first, disappointed. Then it would dawn on me, "I'm getting a chance to get my act together before I'm called before the great Judge." I'd rather be run over by a train or something like that where it's quick and painless. But nothing happens without a reason.
You were raised Catholic. Are you a practicing Catholic now?
I am, yes. I go to Mass. I'm not as devout as I ought to be. I really think of myself more as a Christian, as a follower of what the good Lord tried to teach us.
There were times when I was younger--I think most young people, no matter how they're raised, go through a period when you think: "What am I doing here? What's all this about? Is there a God?" You're driven by your intellect to try and understand things. So I did a lot of reading, read criticism of the Church, and agreed with a lot of it. Then, thank the Lord, we got Pope John XXIII. He knocked a lot of barnacles off the bottom of the ship.
So you like the changes that came after Vatican II?
Oh yes, indeed. It got back more to the way the good Lord intended it to be. The worst thing that ever happened to Christianity was when Constantine, the emperor or wanna-be emperor, decided that Christianity looked useful and had his whole confounded army converted. He didn't get baptized himself, but he made Christianity the chamber-of-commerce church. It's hard to recover from something like that. The good Lord came to preach to the poor and the humble and the downtrodden, I don't think the good Lord intended it [the Church] to part of the power structure.
There's a slogan you hear it a lot: "You don't find any atheists in foxholes." But I thought, if there is any place you could grow atheists, it would be in a foxhole because of what you're seeing all around you. How can you believe that we're created by a just, benign, and loving God when you see all that you see? It seems obscene to think about religion when you're holding a loaded weapon, sitting there with the goal of killing the next guy that sticks his head up.
I wanted to ask you about what we now call 'near-death experiences.' You had one after stepping on a land mine. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?