Today rain wept from the leaden sky. Rain pounded sideways, drenching. The great Lake Superior roared. Waves splashed with fury against the rocks along the Keweenaw Bay. A walker needed to step oh-so-carefully on slippery rocks. Place feet consciously, pause, take step, place foot again. It was a treacherous rain-sodden walk.
Sweat lodge memories have been nudging the back of my mind recently, memories kindled a couple of decades ago. When I was invited to attend sweat lodges with local Anishinabe people here in the Upper Peninsula. It’s a long story which involved a lot of strange dreaming in my life. At one point I dreamed a voice said, “I want you to learn about the Native American people.” The story took a lot of twists and turns but eventually I was invited to attend sweat lodges and ceremonies. This lasted about seven years back in the ’80’s and ’90’s.
The first time I entered the lodge and sat in the darkened womb of Mother Earth, I almost wept. It was a feeling of remembrance, of returning, of being completely safe, of being held in the embrace of an ancient culture and spirit. Something deep in my soul remembered this sacred ceremony. It was a ceremony of prayer, of steam, of connection with the Infinite. It helped me to remember who I was in a deeper sense than just a little white girl who only understood white culture. It was as if the spirit of my great-great grandmother from a native tribe in New York whispered in my ear, “Wake up, Kathy, and learn to be truly alive.”
In the following years I probably attended two or three dozen lodges (a handful of these were conducted by respectful non-natives). Hot lodges, cool lodges, challenging lodges, easy lodges. They were all deep ceremonies of prayer and healing. We witnessed prayers come true, healings happen, mystical occurences, quiet prayers, deep connections. I cannot share what happens in lodges, because I promised to keep that sacred, but each experience offered a spiritual gift to the participants. Some of the gifts involved learning how to grow up, learning how to let go of ego’s relentless attachments (um, still working on that!) and learning how to surrender. It was like the church of my childhood in many ways, although in other ways in was very different.
Three people died in a sweat lodge in Arizona recently. My heart breaks thinking about this. Immediately I imagined that lodge, imagined the heat, imagined the suffering. So many of us want to know more…how could this happen? You feel perhaps the terror and disorientation of the weakened fasting participants and your heart clenches in sorrow. I, too, have fasted before a sweat lodge. This feels very close to the marrow.
And yet, another feeling also comes in. Some people hear of this horrific incident and condemn all sweat lodges. Thinking perhaps they shouldn’t exist; not understanding. Not understanding the sacred nature of this, a ceremony which has existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps thinking of limiting or restricting the ceremony. And that also makes me sad.
I think of how all religious and spiritual ceremonies and groups and churches can be fraught with challenges, how good-meaning folks can screw up, how some folk aren’t perhaps so well-meaning. How we need to be alert and aware with both our mind and our heart. How we must be careful. How we must listen to our deepest heart. There are no easy answers.
Today I stood in the pouring rain, stared out over a churning lake, and thought about fire, rock, lodge and medicine. Said a prayer for the people who died. Said another prayer for the sacred sweat lodge. Asked permission of the ancestors to write this blog. The rocks said, “yes.”