Being Reborn From Mother Earth
Karen D. Brown
For as long as I can remember I've always had negative feelings toward "organized" religion. Church was a bore and I can't remember the last time I set foot in one, other than to attend a wedding. The Bible never made any sense and I didn't even own one until my grandmother gave me one just recently. Attending the Native American Purification Ceremony (Sweat Lodge) appealed to me because I've always had an interest in Native American culture. They appear to be very spiritual people and their religion seems to be based on positive energy. The few times I have attended church, I remember leaving with the feeling that I was doomed to helljust for being normal. I felt that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven I had to deny the feelings and urges that came to me naturally. After attending the Sweat Lodge, I must confess - religion seems to take on a new meaning once you have a truly spiritual experience.
The Sweat Lodge was held in Northridge at the home of Lynn Creighton. I was well prepared physically. I had on my swimsuit, I had my two towels, my two gifts for the fire people and I had my organic juice to share with everyone. I even drank a lot of water throughout the day in preparation for the amount of fluids I would lose during the ceremony. As I approached Lynn's house, someone else was arriving and walked with me to the door. It was at this moment that I learned I would have to pray out loud by myself. That, I was not prepared for. If I had known this ahead of time I'm sure I would not have attended.
Immediately upon entering the backyard, I was introduced to Lynn. She appeared to be in her mid to late fifties and seemed warm and down to earth. She wore a long covering of some sort. It wasn't what I would consider a dress although one may call it that. There were some other participants there who seemed familiar with the environment. I got the impression they had been there before. I was relieved to see Gretl, my classmate. Although everyone was very receptive to me being there and treated me very nicely, Gretl's presence gave me a sense of comfort in knowing that I wasn't "alone". All in all there were three men and seven women including Lynn. Only one gentleman actually looked Native American to me. Others may have been but I didn't ask. There was one lady there who had brought her daughter with her. This was her daughter's first ceremony and at 21 years old, she was the youngest participant. The rest of us ranged from our early thirties to late fifties. I spoke with one participant and although he had "sweat" (as he calls it) before, this was his first time "sweating" with this lodge. The lady who had brought her daughter invited him. He informed me that the format of the ceremony varies based on the training of the leader but basically there would be prayer involved. Prayer? Those butterflies came back to my stomach but it was too late to back out now!
Lynn is an artist and the room in which the opening ceremony was held was filled with her sculptures. Her sculptures were all in the form of a woman's body. Some were a little abstract but you could tell that it was the form of a woman. There were also animal horns hanging on the wall. I also remember seeing a dream catcher. There was some furniture. Mainly shelves that displayed her artwork and a few tables. It was about 8:30 p.m. and the ceremony was about to begin. There were pillows arranged in a circle for us to sit on. In front of Lynn, there was an "altar" consisting of feathers, some sort of pipe, a crystal skull and a shell containing sage. There were also a few items that I couldn't identify. In the center of the circle was a huge gem. I think it was amethyst. That served as the resting place for the goddess. We also placed our gifts for the fire people and our donations there.
The first thing we did was purify our chakras with the sage, paying special attention to our eyes, hands and soles of our feet. Lynn did some ceremonial gestures with some of the objects at her altar and then introduced us to the goddess. She was made out of wood and didn't appear to be the form of anything in particular to me. We held the goddess and we went around the circle and introduced ourselves and told whatever information we wanted everyone to know about us. This goddess had special meaning. I could see it in the way they held her for a while and closed their eyes before they spoke. I was afraid I would not revere the goddess in the way that they had. I was very conscious of not holding like I was trying to figure out what it was even though that's what I was trying to do! I liked the way that everyone was open and felt free and comfortable. It lessened my anxieties. I loved the way that one participant spoke about a specific issue she was having in her life and Lynn offered her some words of wisdom in a friend-like manner. She didn't "preach" to her. The overall tone was very casual. People got up if it was necessary without asking permission. There was laughter. Yet at the same time, you could tell that the ceremony signified something very sacred to them.
Now we were ready to sweat and pray. Two participants volunteered to be the fire people and permission to enter the cave was asked from the ancestors. The cave was located way in the back of Lynn's backyard. The foundation was made of wood - twigs and limbs - and it was covered in fabric. The cave symbolized the womb of Mother Earth. It was explained that once we had completed the four rounds of prayer, we would be ready to be re-born. At this point, most of the participants removed their clothing and covered up in their towel. We face the opening of the cave, Lynn did a blessing over us and then we had to crawl into the cave. Once everyone was settled, the fire people shoveled the hot rocks into the hole in the center of the cave. Another participant sprinkled a substance over the rocks to purify them. We sang some Native American songs and I was surprised that I was able to pick them up and join in. I'm not sure if I was saying every word correctly or even if I was in the right key all the time but it felt good singing along with the group. After all the rocks had been purified and the fire people entered the cave, the opening of the cave was shut and it was pitch dark in there. I couldn't see a thing! Within seconds I was drenched!
During the first round of prayer we had to pray for ourselves. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt doing it. Was it the darkness? I'm sure that helped. On a deeper level, I think a lot of it had to do with the sincerity of those who prayed before me. It was hard to ignore. It gave me the courage to open my heart and pray for that which I sincerely felt the need to pray about. It was even more encouraging when I got a few "ho's", a sign that someone was in agreement with me. In the darkness, my other sense were keenly at work. The smell of the burning rocks was refreshing to me and the sound of the water sizzling on the rocks was music to my ears. Even the feeling of sweat running down my body just seemed to elevate me to a higher level of spirituality. I think I was in Heaven. Since we could not see each other, there was a verbal cue for the next person to pray. When you had completed your prayer you would say "oenestica". (I think that's how you say it) The group would repeat it after you and the next person would start praying. I noticed that most participants prayed to the "Great Spirit." I liked that idea. After the first round of prayer, the cave was opened so we could get some air, water was passed around for us to drink, we sang more songs and more rocks were added into the cave.
The second round of prayer was an opportunity for us to pray for others. At this point, one of the participants could not stop crying. We sang a song for her but she was not able to stop crying in order to do her prayer. Although I could not see what was going on, I think Lynn moved over to where she was to try to comfort her. After the second round was completed, we had a baptism in the pool. This was not a formal baptism. I was waiting for some kind of ceremony to take place but everyone just jumped in the pool and went for a swim. That was fine with me. After sweating so much in the cave, I welcomed a dip in the pool. We then re-entered the cave for the third and forth rounds of prayer. These weren't as long as the first two.
The third round was us getting rid of a negative thought or behavior that we no longer needed. Someone gave up "waiting for permission" and that phrase really had an effect on me. The forth round of prayer was for us to say whatever we didn't get a chance to say before. We sang more Native American songs and then we sang Amazing Grace which was a pleasant surprise. It was especially pleasant because they changed the phrase "that saved a wretch like me" to "that saved and set me free." It was all about being positive and having a positive image of oneself. This was so different from the religious experiences I was used to. We then crawled out of the cave and went back into the first room where we started. Lynn performed a few more ceremonial gestures. We all shared the snacks we had bought, presented the fire people with the gifts we had gotten them and carried on casual conversation. I noticed that Lynn was carefully putting away the items on her altar. They all seemed to have a special place. It was around midnight when we ended the ritual.
This was the most positive religious experience I have ever had in my life. I'm glad I had to pray out loud by myself. In doing that, I felt that I had contributed something to the ceremony and that made it even more spiritual for me. I think people attend Sweat Lodges because it gives you a sense of genuine closeness with the participants who share the experience with you. Yeah, we prayed in the dark but we knew who was speaking and in the end we all had to face each other in the light. At that point, all of your insecurities have vanished and everyone is there just being supportive. Next time, I would ask the participants how they got started going to Sweat Lodges because, as I mentioned earlier, none of them appeared to be Native American except one. They all seemed like they were open to people asking questions. Who knows, I may even ask what exactly that goddess is. I don't think anyone would be offended. There weren't any taboos that I could immediately recognize. During the ceremony, Lynn even mentioned something about the beauty of an orgasm. I've never, at any religious gathering, heard sex and spirituality being talked about as if they are one in the same. Talk about purifying your soul! I felt purified! There was no fear there and no negativity and because of that, I would definitely do it again!