Thursday, July 08, 2004

Watonga II: Thursday

The materials for the Watonga Vacation School are based on materials used for Camp Cathedral during the previous year. The theme of last year's "Camp Cathedral" was "Under the Same Sky," which concerned humanity's diversity. The advantage of this is that we don't need to re-invent the wheel — no new lesson plans, music, or crafts. Simple is good. I should mention the lesson plans are intended for ages 3-6.

We fed the kids breakfast while the music team (myself as leader, with 2-3 others) played. The organizers were well-intentioned, assuming the kids might not have eaten — but as it turned out, many of them had. That was followed by a brief Biblical passage, a song, then a story on why there were so many religions. Chelsea read this story, which compared different faiths to people finding different paths up the mountain. I appreciated the "many rivers lead to one sea" aspect of this story.

We then took the kids to a local park, where Mother Carol officiated at Holy Communion. After this, were games. Once they seemed to have spent their energy with the games, Cheri gave them canvas shoulder bags to decorate. These bags would be used to hold the crafts, photos, and other keepsakes the kids would gather during VBS.

We stayed at the park until about one o'clock, at which time various volunteers drove the kids home (all the kids lived relatively close to the park, or the church we were meeting in). The counselors then went to Roman Nose State Park, which is a lovely area just a couple of miles north of Watonga. Many went horseback riding, or rode in the paddle-boats. I went hiking with Kent and Jackson.

The trip to Roman Nose reminded me of a time Dana and I went there. It was during an especially hard time in my life, and Dana decided a camp-out would be good for me. As it turned out, it rained the evening we got there, and we ended up sleeping in Dana's car. We didn't have a camp stove, so breakfast was an adventure (most wood was too moist to catch fire). I also remember what a mountain goat Dana was as we climbed the hills — what pass for mountains in Oklahoma. I had a hard time keeping up.

I did better with Kent and Jackson. I got a little winded, but I managed to keep pace with them through the whole trail (~2.5 mi).
That evening the group went to Concho to join a sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is part of the Cheyenne/Arapaho spiritual tradition, and should not be confused with Swedish saunas and the like. The tradition at this particular lodge was to have four rounds of about 10-15 minutes each. One of my motivations for coming on this trip was the sweat, and I was determined to make it through at least one round. The lodge is a small dome, about 2-3 yards in diameter. In the center of the dome is the pit where the heated stones are placed; this pit is, maybe, a yard in diameter.

The stones are heated throughout the day. More are added with each round. Each round begins with a sprinkling of sage and cedar on the stones, and people are encouraged to ceremonially "bathe" themselves in the smoke. Once the prayers begin, water is poured on the stones, which produces an amazing amount of steam. I am told the temperatures in the lodge rise over 200° when that water is added.

Randy was leading the sweat that evening. He explained he had learned the method from his elders; in particular, his uncle, who was there. He talked about this being a prayerful time, and entering into it in an attitude of prayer. He explained that his uncle would be leading chants in their native language, but we were welcome to offer prayers in our language if we wished.

He talked for some time as ten heated stones were placed in the center of the lodge. He made a special effort to relate his spiritual practice with Christianity, which impressed me. Then, finally, the flap of the tent was closed. I closed my eyes as the Native chants rose. I held in my mind the image of two people for whom I wanted to offer prayers.

Then — prayers were offered up in English. And, in the tight dark confines of the lodge it seemed that I was being bathed in the many languages and voices, such as we had bathed ourselves with the smoke of cedar and sage earlier.

I was feeling overwhelmed, and overheated. I had been told to lean close to the floor, and bend as far away from the smoldering stones as possible; this helped. When I arose, I felt the gentle touch of an eagle feather, which is the traditional way of helping cool someone off. It actually worked, also.

Well, at the end of this, I decided I better rest and drink as much water as I could. I was feeling especially dehydrated. So, I skipped the second round, but I returned for the third and fourth. Of these, the most meaningful was the third.

At the beginning of the third round, Randy encouraged the guests (us missioners) to sing with them. "Don't worry if you're singing the right thing," he said, "but, you might surprise yourself." It made sense to try, since music is such a fundamental part of my spirituality. I discovered that I followed their chants fairly well — except for a phoneme here and there — and the singing helped take my mind off the heat. At the end of the fourth and last chant, a beautiful female rose up in the darkness: "Cast me not away from your presence, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." I recognized the voice as Nicole's, and I was both surprised and pleased to hear her sing. But, even more powerful was the response of our Native hosts. They voiced approval, in their traditional way.

The next day, the Indian Missioner reported a conversation he had with Randy following the sweat. "Your cathedral must be very prayerful. This was the most powerful sweat I've done." This was highlighted by the fact that at least two of our young people reported seeing visions during the sweat.

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