The drive itself took, what, fifteen minutes? Twenty at most. At the time, St. Paul was definitely Minneapolis’s poorer, more down-at-heels twin. Now it’s described as a somewhat bookish brother to Minneapolis in that it is festooned with small liberal arts colleges, tightly adherent to tradition, fastidious in its street level presentation, and less interested in the high-rise, glass-sheathed architecture meant to be appreciated by “angels and aviators.”
I arrived early at Mazakute Episcopal Mission, which was named for Paul Mazakute, the first Native American ordained in the Episcopal Church. I nervously entered the small church in the run-down part of town, and searched for the Rev. Virgil Foote, with whom I had scheduled an interview for The Witness magazine (which sadly ceased publication in 2003 at the age of 86). Foote is a Lakota, and his wife Kathleen, also an Episcopal priest, is white. Together they ministered in this little church to a blended congregation: about 70% of them were Native Americans of several different tribes, the rest white, black, and Latino. They said their ministry represented the place where the Red Road and the White Road cross.
The service itself was a conventional Rite II liturgy, with a few significant adaptations. The priests were careful to take off their shoes before stepping up behind the altar, since it was sacred ground. They used a mixture of sage and sweetgrass in the thurible in place of the more common frankincense or Jerusalem incense. There were medicine flags behind the altar on either size of the cross, gifts from the medicine men and women of Standing Rock and Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations. And drums accompanied the Prayers of the People, which were read in several different languages.
I was warmly received at the coffee hour afterwards, which was really more of a potluck lunch. Then Virgil astounded me by inviting me to the congregation’s Inipi, or sweat lodge ceremony (one of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota), which they conduct most Sunday afternoons after the service. Of course I leapt at the chance.
We drove to the sweat lodge, which the congregation had constructed the year before, and while the fire-tenders made a large fire in a large firepit, and heated volcanic stones that retained heat especially well, the rest of us made prayer bundles of tobacco, one tiny pouch per prayer. Some of them we offered to the fire; some we carried with us into the lodge.
The fire-heated stones are brought into the lodge and placed in the center, in a pit. Water is poured on the stones periodically to create steam. The temperature in the lodge was higher than any sauna or steam room I’ve ever experienced—hotter than anything I’ve experienced—and after the flap was closed and we were in pitch darkness, it was a case of extreme sensory deprivation: no light, no oxygen, no water.
Four times during the ceremony—at the end of each of the four “rounds,” one for self-purification, one for healing, one for calling the spirits, and one for gratitude—the flap is opened, and we breathe for a few moments, and a ladle of water is passed around; but that one ladle must be shared by all, so one is constantly torn between desperate thirst and putting someone else’s need ahead of your own. Each successive round, the lodge gets hotter and hotter.
Prayer are said, in English and in Lakota. Songs are sung. The grandfathers—the stones themselves—are honored and thanked. The sacred pipe is smoked and passed. In that extraordinary heat and darkness, visions are not uncommon. The ceremony lasts for a good two hours.
Beyond that, tradition dictates that nothing said inside an Inipi can be repeated outside the lodge. The sacred setting and complete anonymity allowed us to share with greater intimacy than in any other group setting I’ve ever encountered.
We finished not long before sunset. Cool air. Water. Light. Gifts of incaculable wealth. The sense of connectedness—to the spirits, to the Great Spirit, to the earth, to one another—was overwhelming. It made you want to sit very quietly for a long while.
That evening at their home, I interviewed Virgil and his wife Kathleen. Perhaps I’ll post the complete interview sometime. But what I really learned from them is hard, even now, to articulate.
I learned that thoughts and words are far more powerful than we could imagine.
I learned that wise people of every religion realize that the truth is found in every spiritual tradition—it’s only the language and the external symbols that are different, and once we understand the underlying reality, division ceases to exist.
And once again, I learned that sometimes the simplest questions can dig out of us the most hidden of hopes. At the end of the evening, for example, the Footes asked me if I understood the content of the vision that came to me when I had my initatory out-of-body experience. I told them, in a small, hesitant voice, that I thought it meant I was being called to be a healer. But, I said, I don’t know what form that would take or what it would look like. They suggested I visit a medicine man friend of theirs at Pine Ridge when I drove through South Dakota.
We offered a few more prayers with the sacred pipe, then I headed on my way. I ended up in an overpriced motel in St. Paul at midnight. Was I miserable because I was tired and the place wasn’t worth a quarter of what I had to pay? Or was it because I had caught a glimpse of something that was to completely alter my perspective on life, religion, and reality, and I didn’t want to go back to the ordinary world quite so suddenly?