by Elizabeth Cruse
When Chris Park announced at morning meeting that there would be a sweat lodge that night I thought well that sounds alright. Saunter down the field a little way just before dark, maybe even only as far as the sauna and shower, take my clothes off and get toastie warm while having a nice chat with a few ovates, bards and druids. I’m up for that I thought and promptly forgot the time of the initial meeting because, I suppose, I didn’t really see why an initial meeting was necessary.
I was disabused of this casual view when I encountered Chris with some other campers in the middle of the field busy constructing the sweat lodge and digging a fire pit. It was clearly a serious matter and I began to understand that a great deal of careful work needed to go into preparing for the event. I found myself volunteering to fetch water, lacking the muscles and skill for bender building, chopping and digging. Even this modest task however, proved no joke. First find your buckets and when found, clean your buckets. Then trundle wheelbarrow with full buckets over a tussocky field and labour to lift them to the ground. (A pint of pure water weights a pound and a quarter so you can do the maths for a couple of gallons – that’s 16 pints for those of the metric age). Add to that a vivid demonstration of the laws of turbulence and chaos as the increasing agitation of the water causes it to slop over the sides of the bucket into the wheelbarrow and you begin to sense my increasing irritation and frustration.
Later that afternoon, in an interlude of clear skied sunshine that lasted the rest of the day, my mood became more tranquil and Rebecca, sensing my complete ignorance under the façade of cool explained to me exactly what would happen. She was clear and reassuring and never made me feel a fool, and I am very grateful to the May Queen for easing me into the process of enjoying the sweat lodge in a calm and reflective manner. It seems to me that not making people feel fools is an OBOD talent, for Chris and Pete (Bodger) – the main movers of the project also contrived to make me – and I think all of us sweat lodge virgins (three or four of us out of fourteen) – feel safe and respected. I found this particularly valuable as a woman in a minority of four.
At around eight o’clock (Druid time of course) fourteen of us gathered around the by now beautifully constructed fire. I was reminded of a hero’s funeral pyre. Phrases from Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium intermittently ran through my head as we lit the fire and sat around, sharing our thoughts.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire….
Come from the holy fire,
… And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
The flames insinuated themselves between the logs, rippling and dancing until at last the jagged rocks of Karelian limestone piled on top collapsed into the searing heat at the heart of the mature fire. In fact they did not collapse for a long time for they were tightly wedged and held up as an arch is held up by its keystone. But only when the fire was at its hottest did we stand naked in front of it before entering the sweat lodge. Then the incandescent stones were delivered to us.
What happened in the close darkness of that space, around the red hot stones that glowed and sparked in the fire pit, wrapt in dragons’ breath of steam I am not at liberty to say. But I can share this in retrospect: the image of bees had been with us during the Lughnasadh ceremony the day before so that when I had meditated in the evening after the ceremony the gold of candlelight through my closed eyes with the sounds of the camp outside made me feel as if I was at the honeyed heart of a bee hive. So now, crouched in the circular sweat lodge, I had a vision of honey, only this time it was honey like a pool of lava from which the heat of love radiated out into camp, into the wider OBOD community, into the coldnesses and wounds of the world. Whatever my unconscious expectations they had been exceeded. When we stood for the last time around the dying fire, under the by now clouded stars, poor bare forked animals, there was yet a sense of being born again and of sharing, to quote William Blake, the human form divine. Can she be serious ? Yes, utterly.
This is the story of my life. I encounter something (someone, even) about which or whom I know nothing – or just a little gleaned from books – think it sounds like fun and adventure and in I jump. Like a bear raiding a bees’ nest I have had to endure some pain as a result of this policy but the memory of sweetness is always what lasts.
Which is just as well given that the next day, exhausted, we had to dismantle it all until there was little in the apparent world to say that it had ever happened. Only mud and grass and sky where there had been fire and spirit and magic in the dark.