Tuesday, November 12, 2013


In my idea of how to think about designing an experience that is intense, clarifying, and transformative (we’ll just assume that’s possible), and using a buffalo jump as a way of thinking about the stages of doing such a thing, the beginning is something like a “headland” though that’s a geological term usually reserved for a cliff next to a sea.  The headland of a buffalo jump is a broad grassy place hospitable enough to attract and occupy a group of buffalo.  Not the limitless hordes that used to surge back and forth over the prairie, but a manageable number, maybe only a few dozen.  A congregation. I want to talk about ecological “sensorium” related to the whole phenomenon of getting buffalo to jump over a precipice, and then try to translate that into what it means for a resource for an “intense” experience.

The knowledge needed depends upon the context.  As much of the out-skin world as possible should be absorbed into the in-skin brain memories: the smell of the grass and the plants that grow among it; the stroke of the wind and its direction; how it makes the grass bend; the stage of growth of the grass and whether the other plants are budding, flowering, or gone to seed; the sounds of the bison, their piggy grunting and lionine moaning, which record the stage of their reproductive year and the presence of calves.  How do the animals and the grass interact?  Do the bison bite deep, or do they tear away to the side?  Do they accumulate a mouthful, or swallow as they go?  Do they prefer certain plants and avoid others?  Do they graze in a straight line or wander?

Sometimes hunters disguise themselves with coyote hides, since those animals are taken for granted, always slipping among the buffalo, hoping they’ll stir up a rabbit or ground squirrel, enriching their own sensorium, lifting their noses into the wind, pausing to void.  But it is not enough to wear a skin since the buffalo also note movements, sound and smell.  The sly hunter must imitate what a coyote would do as cleverly as a Method acting student trying to “become” an animal.  Even more effective might be the imitating of a buffalo calf in trouble, which will bring “nursey” cows to see what’s happening.  The point in this accounting is not the actual killing of the animal, but the long, subtle, patient, absorbing of detail into imitation strong enough to become understanding, a cross-species mind-meld that is the stock in trade of a good hunter or fisherman.

I try to imagine a congregation’s liturgist watching the people.  Does such a person notice the smells of the church space and then the people who enter?  Once I sat in the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago -- a huge and wealthy institution -- smelling wet fur coats and the intense, nearly toxic, perfumes popular at the time.  Most churches smell of cleaning products and some have a thin hint of mouse.  A Blackfeet Bundle-Opening in the Sixties smelled of smoke smudge, elderly people who used Ben-Gay and didn’t shower every morning, and the simmering berry soup.  

These are the details that poetry and novels use, but they are also attunements to the reality one must address to be an effective celebrant.  I’m not at all sure that a designer of deep experience can be effective without knowing the people, at least as a class of society and a location on the planet.  There will be histories shared and histories unknown.  The most common complaint I hear about traditional funerals is that the pastor didn't seem to know the deceased.

So the scout preparing for a buffalo drive needs to know the mood of the herd.  Are they nervous because of thunderstorms?  Are they in rut, the males starving themselves and on the prod as they try to establish a rutting order?  (I suspect that’s not a good time for a jump.)  Are the females calving or are they in the time after calving when the babies are nursing and growing and the business of everyone is grazing and digestion?  (Not a good time to imitate a wolf.)

Maybe that’s enough to make the point that a liturgist must know in subtle and immediate ways the nature of those who have come.  If this is an institutional congregation that defines itself according to certain premises, or ethnic origin, or economic status, or historical practices, all those things should be taken into account.  For some it is the reassurance of a predictable pattern that matters and they need the factor of recognition that allows their participation with confidence.  Others need to be jolted into paying attention: maybe blindfolded, maybe asked to lie down, maybe with strange sounds.  But such things won’t work if people aren’t physically able to do as requested.  

Starhawk used to include in her events what was called a Spiral Dance.  The people formed a long line, holding hands, and then the line was curled into itself with one end in the middle and the rest of the line wrapping around it.  For Westerners who are used to avoiding body contact, or at least not random body contact, this was a startling challenge and not always comfortable, even when it was women only.  In fact, having learned from experience, Starhawk warned people who might be claustrophobic under such circumstances to NOT position themselves at the inner end and gave them permission to honorably opt-out.

Half-psychiatrist, half-anthropologist, the liturgist by whatever name needs to have a repertoire of strategies and patterns, not just a library of readings or even a drawer full of effective sermons, but movement, sound, material objects.  It takes experiment.  I had a sermon on Persephone that I accompanied with six pomegranate seeds for each person, but they were sticky and staining.  Next time I used red glass beads that looked like pomegranate seeds, but they took too long to count out.  In future I would thread six at a time into a group unless it were a small group and patient enough to count them out.  

A psychiatrist once had a practice of asking his patients to hold their arms up and out to him and pucker their mouths, like a child asking to be picked up and kissed.  He said they often broke into tears and remembered old vulnerabilities.  Once I preached in a mental hospital and a dark, squat little woman came up and made exactly that gesture to me.  I didn’t pick her up, but I kissed her on the mouth.  She moved on easily, smiling.  I don't know what it meant.  I just recognized it.

Before doing a funeral or memorial, especially for someone not known well, many ministers will gather the closest people into a group to describe the person and their relationship.  The actual ceremony then comes from that material.  Often it is a small detail that gives release.  One old but flexible woman I had known was in the habit of drawing her feet up under her as she sat in a chair.  When I described that, there were mixed smiles and tears of recognition, which I hope meant release.  

There was a period of time -- after that watershed Aquarian time -- when such acted symbols got so elaborate and injudicious that people actually died pretending to “re-birth” and totally confused each other about boundaries and focus.  The recent “sweat lodge” deaths are a good example of moving from one context with safeguards learned from experience to another where one small change (using plastic tarps instead of hides, blankets, or canvas) killed people.  But in that same time-period, the Sixties and Seventies, the old Blackfeet were opening Bundles with dance-imitations of animals that were uncanny in their poetry, because they were based on long, patient, meaningful observation of the animals.

Bob Scriver's depiction of a Beaver Bundle Opening: the women are dancing 
with sticks in their mouths, holding beaver skins, "being" beavers
(to be continued)

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