By Melanie Delva & Coyote Terry Aleck, re-posted from May 2017
The first three readings for this Sunday are a seemingly bizarre mix of passages dealing with stones. First, the stoning of Stephen as he testifies to the glory of Christ. Then the Psalmist describing God as his “strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” Finally Christ as the “living stone,” encouraging followers of Christ to, “like living stones, let [ourselves] be built into a spiritual house.” Stones that cause pain and death; stones that provide safety; stones that support new life.
I recently had the honour of attending my first Sweat Lodge ceremony with my adoptive family of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation. As a non-Indigenous person, this was a whole new experience for me, and I had (and have!) a lot to learn. My father, Coyote, explained to me that the lodge is the womb of the Creator, and when we come out, we are reborn – leaving behind the prayers and “work” we have done in the lodge. The central part of the sweat lodge itself – both literally and figuratively – are the stones. The stones are the ancestors – the grandfathers. In the words of Coyote, they “are the oldest ones on mother earth so we show a lot of respect when we make use of them in ceremonies.” As the stones were passed from the fire that had been heating them for hours outside the lodge, we greeted each one: “hello, grandfather – welcome.”
What would take place over the next four or so hours was beautiful, vulnerable, sacred and at times physically excruciating. Coyote explained; “we offer tobacco before we even lift [the stones] up and thank them for the work that they are going to be doing with us.” There were moments when those stones felt like my enemy – the heat from them making me feel like I was being punished, like I could take no more. But when the “medicine” was sprinkled on the stones and the burning smoke rose and enveloped my senses, those stones caressed me and made me feel comforted – their glow the only thing visible in the complete darkness of the lodge. Each time I emerged from the lodge emotionally spent and physically pushed to my limit, I felt ALIVE.
One of the things about Indigenous ceremony and spirituality that I have come to appreciate most is complexity. Very seldom – if ever – are things “black and white” or un-nuanced. Heroes can have dark sides, mythological animals and characters can be both benevolent and tricksters at the same time. They reflect the reality of the complexity of life. I think Christians have a lot to learn about this complexity. So often, we crave and will do anything to try to defend polarities.
In light of my experiences in the sweat ceremony, and learning from my adoptive father, the contemplation of these readings renders the linkages less bizarre. The stones in the lodge caused me to go to dark places that released from me a similar prayer of forgiveness to that which Stephen offered; their glow and strength made me feel safe; “the work” they did with me caused me to come out alive in a new way. They were both ruthless in their breaking of my defenses, my ego, my self-centredness, and yet soothing and healing. Indigenous ways of experiencing Creation and the Creator make those seeming opposites not only possible, but expected.
It is ironic that the gospel passage regarding Jesus being “the way” is the one that rounds out this set of readings. It is one that has been consistently used as a tool of colonialism and spiritual genocide – a way of attempting to crush so-called “other” religions and spiritualities that empower a people and thereby threaten imperial power. The way the colonial power defines God becomes “the way.” I am neither theologically educated nor wise enough to provide an exegetical response to that final passage. But what I do know is this: Christ said that even if humans stopped attesting to the Glory of the Creator, “the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). The stones in the sweat lodge caused all of us to cry out, and when we were spent, the sound of their testimony to the Power and Love of the Creator echoed through the lodge, through our souls, and caused us to be reborn.
Coyote Terry Aleck is an Nlaka’pamux healer and pipe carrier from the Lytton First Nation, living on the unceded territories of the shíshálh Nation
Melanie Delva is Reconciliation Animator for the Anglican Church of Canada, first generation settler Canadian, residing on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, Priest in Charge of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.
The Indigenous wisdom in this reflection has been shared with permission, in the context of a relationship and on-going accountability. The fire was photographed outside of the sweat lodge no photographs were taken in ceremony.