Sweat and Sanctification

Mitakuye Oyasin – all my relations.

In this land of free speech, there are millions of voices. As the lyrics of our national anthem float through the air of athletic stadiums across the country, some athletes make their voice heard as they silently take a knee. When the game is over, the Internet, television, and radio become a frenzy of words both commending, and condemning these actions, as well as their motivations, intentions, and receptions.

These conversations respond to the reality that our country is seemingly overwhelmed by issues of violence, race, inequality, disparity, and discontent. As a Student Fellow at the Center for Public Humanities, I have been able to participate in conversations surrounding mass incarceration, the inherent racism of the founding documents of our country, and the frustrations of inner city students in Harrisburg whose programs do not have the funding to teach them history, or social studies.

One of the most controversial elections to date has brought these charged topics to the political forefront. Everyone is talking about immigration, foreign policy, race relations, and environmental injustice. The instantaneous ability to amplify our voices, and the sheer number of words we exchange is unprecedented in human history – and yet we still feel hopelessly uninformed, and misunderstood. Though we long for peace, we still respond quickly, viscerally, and defensively.

And as Christians, we find ourselves caught in the same chaos, trying to make the voice of truth stand out in the midst of the clamor, trying to shout words of healing to a broken world.

I wonder if it is not our conversation that is truly in need of healing.

Two years ago, I entered a sweat lodge for the first time. I had just started a summer job as a backpacking guide in Western Colorado, joining a dozen other college students from across the country to guide peak ascents, kayaking excursions, and rock climbing trips. I had seen the wooden hobbit-house that sat off the main dining hall, but at that time, I knew nothing of how that dark, earthen room and its simple ceremony would transform me.

It was base camp tradition to hold a sweat after returning from every backpacking trip. So, when we completed our staff expedition at the end of May, the returning guides taught the new staff how to conduct a sweat.

A sweat cannot be performed alone. It is a communal task. The circular pinewood room is lined with small wooden benches. Fifteen people side-by-side is a tight squeeze, the ceiling just above each outstretched head – but a full sweat is a rich sweat.

A sweat cannot be performed quickly. First, a great fire is prepared in an iron stove outside the lodge. Wood must be piled up days in advance to sustain the intense heat required. Then, carefully selected lava rocks are heated for at least six hours before they can be withdrawn with metal pitchforks.

Everyone participating in the sweat then takes turns blowing the ash off the glowing rocks. Even a few small embers will turn a purifying sweat into a painfully smoky experience. A sweat cannot be done carelessly.

The rocks are then placed in a pile in the center of the lodge. Three metal buckets frame the pile: two with cold water to relieve participants from the heat, one larger bucket with hot water to produce the steam. Each bucket also holds a branch of sagebrush. The sweat is about healing, and the aromatic oils from the sage provide the purifying strength of the steam.

There is nothing easy about a sweat, I soon learned. The heat is not only uncomfortable; at times it is overwhelming, disorienting. The room is dark, and small, and even when it is not full, the presence of the other participants is palpable. Breathing becomes labored, and thought does not occur without great effort, what more conversation.

Every sweat requires sacrifice.

The Lakota-Sioux saw the Sweat Lodge as the womb of mother earth. To enter was to relive the birthing process, a transformation from the old to new self. They saw the darkness of the lodge as human ignorance, contrasting the fire—the undying light of the world. The heat in the rocks marked the coming of new life and the hissing steam, the activation of the creative force of the universe. With reverence they would whisper mitakuye oyasin, “all my relations,” as they entered. It was a simple prayer of healing, and unity, a prayer of right relationship. Shalom. We are all related.

I didn’t understand the sweat lodge when I entered for the first time, but I could feel something sacred in the silence, and the shadows. Thankfully, the sweat lodge is about learning with a sincere heart.

Sometimes, we would sweat with our clients. Those rounds were always twenty minutes. Just enough to get the experience, release some toxins, and leave us feeling refreshed, and invigorated. But other times, we sweat with only staff. We would stay for twenty minutes, and then twenty more… Ninety minutes later, we would be sprawled out on the grass like wilted flowers, watching satellites speed their way across the bright Colorado sky.

We did this all summer. Every backpacking trip ended in the lodge. Every peak ascent was followed by a sweat. As the days wore on, we paid less attention to the heat of the steam, and the aroma of the sagebrush. In the darkness of the lodge, we began to unpack the darkness within us. We told our stories. We wept over our brokenness. We prayed for healing.

As a people, we, students, Americans, humans, have never needed the sweat lodge more than we do right now. We are in desperate need of conversation, but not the anonymity of YouTube comments, or the detached repartee of Facebook threads. We need to speak and listen slowly. Fully.

Issues of injustice and inequality must be addressed, but we need to begin these conversations with the prayer of unity on our lips. We need to sit in circles that force us to acknowledge the humanity of those we dialogue with, to remind us they too have a past, a story, and a future. We need to enter these conversations bent over, acknowledging the mysteries of all we do not understand, acknowledging our ignorance, our brokenness, and our own need to be restored.

The Sioux word for healing art, wahpeeyah, means to readjust, or to make anew. So often, even for Christians, our dialogue surrounding these deeply human issues is no more than a debate. For reasons good and bad, we want to convince the people around us of our own point of view. But peace is not, and cannot be a debate. Peace cannot be a competition. It must be a readjustment, a rebirth.

True Shalom can only be achieved when the shadows of darkness are acknowledged and confronted. When we willingly engage in the slow, laborious process of listening, of understanding one another. When with a simple prayer, we are reminded of right relationship with ourselves, our community, our earth, and our God. True Shalom will be achieved when we suffer under the hardship of these questions and conversations together; with words carefully weighed, and slowly spoken.

This is the way of the cross. Jesus did not shout to overcome the political voices of his day. He knelt, and drew in the sand. Jesus did not pander to public opinion in order to receive an invitation to dine with those in power. He ate with beggars and prostitutes. The way of Jesus is communal. The way of Jesus is slow. The way of Jesus requires the rebirth, not only of our bodies, but also of our dialogue.

There is a reason the exit of every sweat lodge faces East. It is the direction of new life, the direction of tomorrow. Leaving the lodge, and the conversation within, does not constitute the end of the healing process, but rather its beginning, which is why it must be returned to over and over again. The sweat is not an event, but a ritual process of reflection, growth, and healing.

This is a process we must enact as we strive for peace. In our classrooms, our social media accounts, our academic institutions, and at our dinner tables, we must enter dialogue with respect and reverence, with cleared schedules, shared humanity, and bowed backs.

Mitakuye oyasin. In the eyes of the Prince of Peace, we are all related.


img_9042Joel Johnson is a Senior double major in English and Sustainability Studies at Messiah College. Next year, he hopes to attend Northern Arizona University to continue pursuing applicable research in sustainability by exploring the interplay of nature, and environment.

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