The Quaker Sweat Lodge

My experience growing up in a Quaker meeting has been, in part, the catalyst for my present ministry with youth. Meeting was a wonder for me from as early as I can remember until about age 17. Our meeting, like many meetings during the 1960s, overflowed with kids, and we had a lot of fun while being steeped in a liberal social philosophy of social equity, nonviolence, and simplicity.

By 17, though, this wasn’t enough; I needed to explore my spirit. I knew meeting for worship was supposed to be a mystical experience but I was unable to quiet myself enough to appreciate it. I started to experiment with different spiritual disciplines. I was initiated in mantra meditation. I did yoga on the lawn at sunrise. I investigated the "born again" Jesus movement. I learned several different types of breath awareness that helped deepen my meditation.

In 1974 a group of Indians called the White Roots of Peace visited Friends General Conference, held at Ithaca College in New York. There was something about this group that strongly attracted me. I began to read about Native Americans and, over time, found several Indian teachers who graciously taught me about something that caught my interest: the stone lodge, or sweat lodge.

My experience in the sweat lodge led me back to meeting. I have since adopted the sweat, in an honorable manner, into my Quaker practice; for the last 12 years I have been facilitating a Quaker sweat lodge. It has become a ministry for me and is the most important thing I do in my life. Along the way, I discovered a philosophical explanation for my experience, and I found out that ritual exists universally—yes, even Quakers have rituals.

According to Victor Turner, in his essay, "Betwixt and Between—The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage," there are three phases in all ritual: separation, liminality, and reaggregation (or reentry). The central point and purpose of ritual is liminality, where the rules of normal time and space are suspended. It is a time when everyday constraint and controls are let go in order to connect with a deeper mystical reality. Turner posits that liminal experience is necessary for health in individuals and communities. In many rituals, the liminal period is seen as a kind of death. The Lakota Indians say that the purpose of the sweat lodge is to "die to your spirit." Liminal rituals can serve as a platform for either refreshment or transformation.

The classic example used to explain liminality is the rite of passage for adolescents. This ritual is present nearly universally in so-called "primitive societies" and to some extent in more complex cultures. Initiates are removed from regular activities and are secluded. They become "nonentities," often wearing masks or painting their bodies. Whatever identity the initiate had beforehand must die so that the new can emerge. The child must be dismissed in order to become an adult. The analogy of the larva, pupa, and the butterfly is instructive.

Rituals with a liminal phase also exist on a societal level, as a form of refreshment. One example is Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In many villages, on the Day of the Dead many of the normal prohibitions on behavior are set aside. Things can get wild. The next day, everything resumes as before. The ritual acts as a valve to let off steam and serves as a reminder that everything arises from nothing. There are many simple and complex examples of this kind of social phenomena in different societies all over the world.

The phrase in the title of Turner’s essay, "Betwixt and Between," succinctly states the condition of those in a liminal phase. In the midst of this phase, one is neither the old being nor the new one. The pupa is no longer a larva but not yet a butterfly.

There are also liminal beings who assist in this phase. A shaman is an example; a Pueblo Indian sacred clown is another. The purpose of a liminal being is to facilitate transformation. As Walter Williams writes in The Spirit and the Flesh, these are often people who spend time investigating liminality and traditionally are often found at the edges of the social order.

I see teenagers and young adults as liminal beings who crave liminal activity. They are "betwixt and between": neither children nor fully adults. They are exploring the edges of society and reality in order to find themselves. They are a source of new ideas and have tremendous amounts of creative energy. Everything—from fashion, art, and music to political movements and technology—draws heavily on the creative energy of young people.

There is also a dark side to liminality; it can be dangerous. The very nature of exploring the edge of reality implies risk. This is why, in many rituals, a theme is death—the ultimate edge. Often adults are put off and can’t understand some teenagers’ preoccupation with death—for instance, the teens who call themselves "Goths." Some of what they do is intended to shock adults, but some of it is true liminality. The central point of my ministry is that we as elders must provide young people with meaningful, structured liminal experiences; if we do not, they will find their own.

The liminal activity that young people find can be dangerous and unenlightening. Drugs, drinking, driving fast, and unsafe sex are examples of the dark side of liminality. These activities do take one out to the edges of reality, but they have side effects that are, at a minimum, undesirable.

The "just say no" mentality misses the point; the liminality that young people crave is not the problem. What is wrong is that we as elders need to structure that liminality to be not too dangerous and to serve young peoples’ need for spiritual growth.

The sweat lodge is one of these experiences. It is a ritual steam bath. It takes place in a wickiup structure made of saplings stuck into the ground, bent over, tied together, and covered with tarps and blankets. There is a flap door on one side. The participants enter the lodge and sit in a circle. Outside, about 10 to 15 feet from the door, is a fire where rocks are heated until they are red-hot. The doorkeepers bring in the first rocks and place them in a pit in the center of the lodge. Then the door is closed and it becomes pitch-black except for the glow of the rocks. The water pourer, who is the facilitator of the lodge, pours water on the rocks, creating an intense steam bath. There are four rounds; at the beginning of each, the door is opened and more rocks are brought in. During rounds, songs are sung and prayers are said. The lodge lasts about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours. After the lodge, cool water is poured on each person, and then a feast is served.

Sweat lodges and their kin are found in many parts of the world. The Finnish sauna was originally a spiritual process until Christianity arrived, when the spiritual aspects were labeled pagan—and therefore evil. The Russian bannia is similar. Russians use switches called vennicks and take turns hitting each other during the bath. The spirit of the bath is also called a vennick. (A few years ago, a friend of mine who visited Russia with a workcamp had the opportunity to participate in a backwoods bannia. According to him, the spiritual aspect was still alive.)

In 1986, we held a sweat lodge at FGC, this time at Carlton College in Minnesota. Ken Miller, the conference coordinator, arranged with me for some Indians from Twin Cities Native American Center to come to the Gathering and lead a sweat.

Then at the 1988 FGC Gathering, at Boone, North Carolina, Hawk Littlejohn and his student, David Winston, led two sweats. David is my teacher, and Hawk is the last traditionally trained Eastern Cherokee medicine man. He truly is one—he uses herbs and other traditional Cherokee medicine. His demeanor is powerful, and he was very inspiring to me in developing the Quaker Sweat.

In 1989 I asked David if he or Hawk could come to the Gathering again. He replied that they were both involved with something else that week, but he added that since I had been involved with sweats for several years, maybe it was time that I led one. There is a saying in Native American spiritual circles, "You don’t choose Spirit—Spirit chooses you." So, that summer at St. Lawrence College in Canton, New York, I led our first Quaker Sweat Lodge.

It was very popular with the High School Program participants. So the next year, back at Carlton College again, we had two sweats. For the last 12 years, we have had sweats at almost every FGC Gathering, the exceptions being a couple of years when I could not attend. The sweat has developed a strong following among teenagers, young adults, and some older adults. Each year we have an overflow of people wanting to be involved.

I plan each year to have two sweat lodges of 40 to 50 participants each. I have also been invited for the last ten years to lead sweats at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s annual gathering of Young Friends at Camp Onas, in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.

We have held sweats on Snipes Farm in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where I live, nearly every month for the last 11 years. Young Friends from all over the country travel here to participate. Last summer, a group of young Friends from Wales and England did so. Their older brothers and sisters, who had come three years ago as part of an exchange program with Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting, had told them the sweat was the highlight of their visit, so this group had come for the same. A group of young Friends from Haverford College have come each year for sweats, and George School has sent groups for the last couple of years.

Several yearly meetings and quarterly meetings, including Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association and Baltimore Yearly Meeting, have invited me to lead sweats for their young Friends. I led a sweat a couple of years ago for Illinois Yearly Meeting in downtown Rockford. (Since I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find igneous rocks out on the plains, I brought a few in a duffel bag. This was not a good idea; the rocks were heavy and put holes in my bag! I also got some strange looks from the baggage handlers.)

It is difficult to explain the power of this ritual. What I have come to believe is that the Earth calls us to be in relation with her, and that the sweat lodge is a vehicle—a portal and a vortex of energies. We enter the lodge in bathing suits, close to the Earth, on our hands and knees. We sit in the mud. The four basic elements (earth, fire, water, and air) are combined to create a healing modality. We take rocks and put fire into them by heating them. Water is poured onto them, and it immediately heats and mixes with the air. The steam is called the grandfathers’ or grandmothers’ breath. This is the healing medium.

We entered a new phase this past year in the evolution of the Quaker Sweat; two young adults have become formal students of the sweat, and a couple of others have become not-so-formal students and are learning to be water pourers. This is an exciting time, as the Quaker Sweat now may be passed on to future generations. We feel as though we are at the beginning of a new tradition within Quakerism. It is an exercise in syncretism—the melding of different spiritual traditions, one that offers the healing of the Earth and humanity.

As I usually say during our orientation for the lodge, everything is a circle. We can look at the examples of an atom, or a tree, or our arms—all circles. The Earth is a circle; so are the solar system and the galaxy. A circle in time is a cycle. The hours of the day and the seasons of the year make up circles. The circle is the strongest geometric shape, because every part of it bears an equal share of the stress. The work of healing is essentially the mending of a circle. If I have a cut on my arm, for example, it is a break in the integrity of the circle of my body.

Our strength to survive and thrive is related to our realization and honoring of the circles of which we are a part. The Lakota say, "Me-tak-e-oh-ay-sin," which means "To all my relations"; this is the prayer that is used when entering or leaving the sweat lodge, to remind us that we are in relationship with everything.

We humans have a wound in our relationship with the Earth. As humans, we have an ability to think abstractly; that is, we can separate things and analyze them. This enables us to put them back together in different ways to create houses, cars, airplanes, etc. But we have become lost in our own creations and are wounded; there is a break in the integrity of our relationship with the Earth. Air pollution, wars, and the dangers of radiation are examples of this wound. Atomic energy is created by fission, the breaking of the circle of an atom. Although it has created tremendous power, its dangers are overwhelming.

Another wounded circle is that of relationships through generations. Older people are often afraid of and distrust young people. Younger people often resent the hypocrisy they perceive in older people. Deeper than that, though, I believe young people resent not having the spiritual mentors they need during their adolescence.

We are healing the wound of the generations in the sweat today. I am providing several young people with the spiritual mentoring they need. There are many ways to fill this need—the Quaker Sweat is one.

Healing the circle is the work of the sweat, whether it is the circle of ourselves, our families, our communities, or of all of life. It is important to humble ourselves and become grounded in simplicity.

As a young Friend, I went on a spiritual journey outside Quakerism. The mysticism I experienced in the sweat lodge led me back to my people—to Quakers. The dynamic quieting I learned in the sweat gave me access to the gathered meeting.

I hope that this article will be read as a call to action for mentoring our youth. There is much work to do, to heal ourselves and our human race. The sweat is an invaluable tool in this work.

George Price

George Price, a member of Falls Meeting in Fallsington, Pa., studied Native American History and Culture at University of New Mexico and earned a Master's in Social Work from Rutgers University. He currently coordinates several programs for inner city children and families.