Oldest Church on Earth: A Sweat-Lodge Virgin Is Converted
I start slowly, but then things start to pour forth. It is like a combination of confessional and psychiatrist’s couch.
My eyes are wide open but I can see nothing—it was utterly black, with not the tiniest sliver of light. And it was hot, intensely hot. Drums are pounding nearby, reverberating like the heartbeat of some giant beast. Then a deep guttural voice starts singing in a language I’d never heard before.
This was far from what I expected when I arrived at the Quaaout resort in British Columbia. The resort sits beside the dark, trout-filled waters of Little Shuswap Lake in a rolling plateau of grasslands and pine forests between two mountain ranges. For 10,000 years, the Little Shuswap Indian Tribe has thrived in this wild landscape, hunting the plentiful game and fish. Today, the band thrives by hunting for tourists, who are drawn here by the wilderness, the Native-owned resort and—the reason I had come—the championship Talking Rock Golf Course.
On my first night at the resort I meet Ernie Philip, an elder of the tribe, who has a creased, leathery face and a long gray ponytail. Beating a drum, he sings a Native song of welcome for the guests in the restaurant. After dinner, I chat with Ernie, and he offers me an invitation, “I want you to join us in a sweat. We can’t expect white people to understand us unless they experience our traditions.” I am honored, but I accept his invitation with some hesitation—after all, my goal in coming here had been to lower my handicap.
It is a warm, sunny morning when I arrive at the sweat lodge, a circular pit house partially buried in an embankment beside the lake. Outside the entrance a fire blazes, heating 25 volcanic rocks. Beside the fire is a simple altar. Upon it is an eagle wing and skull hung on a stick.
Three men join me: Ernie, Chief Felix and Denny, a Cree visiting from Alberta. We change into swimming trunks and crawl through a narrow tunnel into the round lodge, which is about 10 feet in diameter and four feet high, with a fire pit in the center. We sit on skins on the floor and lean against the cedar walls.
“Welcome to the oldest church on Earth,” says Ernie. “Today was a prayer sweat.” I think, I hope this doesn’t go too long; I might be able to squeeze in 18 holes this afternoon. Denny brings in six red-hot rocks, places them in the pit and covers every crack in the doorway. Darkness settles over us like a thick blanket. Chief Felix, our master of ceremonies, uses a set of deer antlers to arrange the rocks that glowed a primal red before cooling and leaving us in total darkness. “These rocks represent the four quadrants of Earth,” he says. He sprinkles sage on the rocks and an earthy aroma drifts over us. Some burning pieces rose from the pit like fireflies.
He thanks the rocks and then splashes water on them. As the temperature and humidity soar he explains, “In the sweat we are all equals. We must open up our minds and seek ways to become closer with the Earth and all those around us.” His formerly shy voice now projects confidence through the darkness.
“We will go clockwise around the stones four times. First we will pray for ourselves. On the second round we will pray for women. Then for men and finally to give thanks.” He prays to the Creator to make him a better person and to give him wisdom in guiding his people. Although I am sitting only a few feet from the others, in the blackness I felt a thousand miles removed. It is a far cry from the rituals and hierarchy of any church I have ever attended.
Elder Ernie is next and he speaks of his youth in a residential school and how his anger toward the white man led him to alcohol and drugs. He thanks the Creator for releasing him from addiction and prays the Creator will channel goodness through his heart. Then he speaks in his Native tongue and sings in a deep bass tone while he beats his drum. Denny’s drum joins in, the temperature climbs and the small space echoes with loud thumping. Ernie ends his remarks with “All my relations,” a phrase of respect for ancestors that is traditionally used to close ceremonies or speeches.
Now it is my turn. It is difficult for me to speak—I have always kept my innermost thoughts and emotions private—but the darkness and heat are soothing. I say that I am a driven person, always needing to keep busy. My altar is the daily to-do list. I don’t spend enough time with family and friends, I say. The sweat is taking me down paths I normally never walk.
I start slowly, but then things start to pour forth. It is like a combination of confessional and psychiatrist’s couch. I speak of a friend who suffers from depression. I ask the Creator to offer him compassion and to make me slow down, to take time to support and love him. I felt an inner tension subside.
Denny brings in six more hot rocks and the second round of prayers begins. The heat rises, and soon I find the heat unbearable. We take a break and crawl out of the lodge, going clockwise around the fire pit. Outside, the glaring sun makes us blink and squint as we shield our eyes. I plunge into the cool lake while my compatriots lie on the ground on blankets. We scoop water from a plastic pail and gulp it noisily. After a few minutes, refreshed, we re-enter the blackness.
The chief prays for two women, one who is addicted to drugs and alcohol and the other who is unmarried with three children. The prayers of my companions reflect the Native philosophy of kindness and closeness to Mother Earth.
It is my turn again. It hurts, but I force myself to speak of my mother.
I remember her in her last year: thin, almost skeletal, hunched over her loom. She passed away at the age of 57 from a cancerous lung. I owe her so much, and so much between us was left unsaid. I speak of a lady friend who is a closet alcoholic. What demons chase her, I ask. The drums beat and echo in this tiny space. A thousand thoughts that had long gathered dust skitter around my mind.
Sweat trickles down my back, my sides and into my eyes. Once in a while we pass a wooden bucket of water around our circle, clumsily, like blind men. I splash water on my head, but it only brings momentary relief. Drums pound, drums echo.
A fresh round of prayers begins. I speak of my son, who has an anger problem that is threatening his marriage. Where does his anger come from? My companions give thanks to some of the social workers, friends and police who play such important roles in their community.
My invisible companions and I are from two different societies, but in the darkness we come together, sharing our troubles as though in a lifeboat on a stormy sea. Yesterday we were strangers, but now I am sharing confidences with them that I had never discussed with anyone.
Their church has an awesome power.
The chief closes the ceremony with, “All my relations.”
As we emerge, I feel cleansed and rejuvenated. The sweat ceremony had been more spiritual than anything I had ever experienced. I strode past the golf course without a glance. I need to call my wife and children and tell them I love them.