Suffering through Prayer:
When ceremony models the secular
by Ben Feldman
As Mike Junior, a medicine man on Pine Ridge reservation explained to our class, “Our life here is hard and when you come here, you see our struggle. But if you look closer, you see that we have a beautiful spiritual life.” This spiritual form of life, ritual, and ceremony, I argue, equips the Lakota people with an ability to make sense of material suffering and find meaning in their secular lives. Drawing upon the theory’s of Clifford Geertz, we can understand how recreating suffering in the sweat lodge ceremony, everyday hardships are rendered comprehensible. Moreover, his ideas highlight how embedding suffering in the context of prayer can provide guidance on how to live in a world where suffering is inevitable.
The residents of Pine Ridge face abject poverty and lack access to public health resources. According to re-member.org, 80-90% of residents on the reservation are unemployed; the per capita income is estimated to be $4,000/year. The rate of alcoholism on the reservation is estimated to be as high 80%, and 1 in 4 infants are born with symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. The reservation is essentially a food desert; diabetes rates on the reservation are 8 times the national average. Furthermore, life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti (re-member.org). Needless to say, residents of the reservation endure a variety of types of stress and suffering.
One of the most commonly performed ceremonies is that of the sweat lodge. Most Lakota men that I spoke to said that they participate in sweat about every night, or every other night. For this ceremony, rocks are cooked in fire then placed at the center of a low-lying structure made of bent willow branches, blankets, and tarps. As a ceremony of rebirth, the sweat lodge is conceived of as womb. And as cycle of renewal of the lifecycle, entering the lodge functions as a temporary sort of death. After everybody files into the lodge, the door to the lodge is closed, rendering the space pitch black. The leader of the ceremony then begins to pour water of the hot rocks to the pulse of chants, drumming, and ancient song. As the ceremony continues, water is continually added to rocks, filling the room with fiercely hot vapor. During the ceremony, sweat ran into my eyes, breathing became extremely difficult, and at times my entire body felt like it was seared by horrible sun burn. Many students in our class reported thinking that they were going to die during the sweat lodge, and one student even lost consciousness. When the songs are finished, much to the relief of participants, the door is opened and cold air let in. Typically, this process is repeated four times in each ceremony.
Even though Mike Senior enjoyed joking that he was going to cook us tender white kids alive, the intensity of out experience in the sweat lodge is not solely due to our status as unconditioned outsiders. Regular sweat goers struggle through the ceremony too. During one sweat, a Lakota man in his mid-thirties continually lifted up the edge of the lodge, offensively ‘breaking the circle’ of the ceremony, to stick his feet out and allow cold air into the lodge. After the fourth round of the sweat was complete, he ordered me to hurry and stand up so that he could exit the more quickly. Many of the regular participants in sweat emerge from the lodge crawling on hands and knees and gasping for air. After they have regained their breath, they often joke that the sweat lodge wasn’t hot enough. The sarcastic humor of this joke lies in the barely endurable intensity of the sweat that ended only moments ago. However, the intensity of suffering in the sweat lodge is also what makes the ceremony so powerful. Suffering in this context provides the Lakota people with the ability to manage suffering in secular life.
Mike Junior often offered prayers for poverty, addiction, and material struggles during the sweat ceremony. However, these were in no way attempts to evade the struggles of material reality. Contrary to common belief about the transcendent power of prayer, the sweat lodge does not help individuals endure situations of emotional stress because it “open[s] up escapes from situations and such impasses as offer no empirical way out except by ritual and belief in the domain of the supernatural,” (Malinowskoi, p. 67). Rather than providing an escape to suffering, the sweat lodge brings suffering to the forefront of the participant’s awareness. This is exactly how prayer in the sweat lodge is able to remedy what Geerts calls ‘the problem of suffering’. “As a religious problem,” he explains, “the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering, but how to suffer, how to make physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable–something, as we say, sufferable,” (Geertz, p. 104). The sweat lodge remedies the problem of suffering by presenting suffering as it is. Participants emerge from the ceremony triumphant. Thus, actualizing suffering in ceremony renders suffering sufferable.
The sweat lodge does this by bringing elusive justifications for material struggle into the realm of digestible fact. Without being able to understand how it is fair or reasonable that extreme poverty is rampant on the reservation, this ceremony serves as a reminder that struggle simply exists. In this sense, sweat lodge functions as what Geertz would call a “model of reality”. The physical discomfort of enduring extreme heat parallels the realities of hunger, illness, and stress on the reservation. As a model and interpretation of reality, the sweat communicates the nature of secular life. Functionally, the sweat lodge is able to actualize what may be too difficult process on its own. By shaping itself to mirror certain tones of everyday life, sweat provides a medium for reflection, processing, and understanding.
This may be one reason why one Lakota man was able to speak up about his personal struggles during sweat lodge. After the second round of the sweat, he told the group between tearful gasps for air that he has recently felt like he was “constantly followed by a dark presence.” In the anonymity of darkness, heat from the rocks creates a blank slate for participants to (re)present the realities of everyday life. The excruciating heat reinforces a worldview where pain is understood to be a normal part of the mundane. However, prayer and ceremony in this context also provides a mechanism to make pain and suffering meaningful. This man continued to explain to the group that he has recently been having difficulty praying, but that evening’s ceremony made him realize that “now is a good time to start praying again.” Thus, sweat makes suffering meaningful by modeling an appropriate response to suffering.
In this sense, the sweat lodge has a specific action tendency. The sweat lodge teaches us that when faced with hardship, we are supposed to pray. During the heat of ceremony on the third night, Angelo, a Lakota man sitting to my left, turned to me and instructed, “when it get’s more difficult, pray harder. Pray for your grandmother, your brother, your sister, your family. Just pray.” The sweat lodge not only communicates the hardships reality, but also provides instruction on how to best respond to hardship. Using the language of Geertz, the sweat lodge functions as a model of what is while functioning as a model for what ought to be. For those able to endure the heat of sweat, the sweat lodge provides an ontological guarantee for their ability to understand a world where suffering exists, while also providing participants with a mechanism to endure the world’s hardships. Suffering, in this context, teaches us that prayer is a meaningful way live in a world where suffering exists. In the heat of sweat, prayer attempts to remedy suffering by justifying suffering’s existence.
The power of the sweat lies in its ability to give the Lakota people a vocabulary through which they can comprehend the nature of suffering and relate it to their everyday experiences. This ancient ceremony retains relevance in the modern world because it addresses the uncertainties, puzzles, and paradoxes of modern life. The sweat lodge extends the analytic abilities for the person who seeks to understand why his people experience hardship. The sweat lodge extends the ability to endure for the person who struggles to find hope. And finally, the sweat lodge extends the moral abilities for the person who struggles to make sense of world full of wrongs. The relationship between this ceremony and secular life is reciprocal. By modeling suffering, the sweat lodge provides a lens to better examine suffering in one’s own life. But by teaching how to respond to suffering, this ceremony influences the content of secular life. Ultimately, this ceremony draws its religious power not from of its connection to divinity, but from its connection to secular life.
Geertz, Clifford, Religion as a cultural system. In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press, 1993.
Malinowski, B. Magic, Science and Religion. Boston, 1948.
Re-member.org. “Pine Ridge Indian reservation.” Accessed on 10/14/14. http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx