“You may not have known it, but each of you carried a prayer up here with you today,” were the words of Mike jr. as he prepared the altar for our butte-top pipe ceremony. The staff carried by the leader, he told us, is the Keeper of Prayers, and it must guide the way up the sacred ground. To an outsider, it would appear as merely a stick bejeweled with beads and bedecked with feathers, but to its disciples, it sits at the center of our altar. It harbors the divine reason for which each of us makes our daily climb.
Ritual is always dripping in symbolism. Scholars assert that it is because we cannot stomach the notion that our existence is merely the product of chaos, nor can we cope with the idea that the human experience transcends our full comprehension. And therefore, we are all natural creators. We create meaning and order where we see fit. We find something in nothing. We smoke the pipes, eat the bread, and hearken to the spirits in an effort to assure ourselves that we know. When even the smallest insight on life is revealed to us, we remember it forever. And inversely, we feel incomplete when we find our preconceived notions of divinity to be absent. In his essay entitled “Religion as a Cultural System,” Clifford Geertz says this constant Truth-crave is a result of our “moods and motivations,” which externalize themselves in symbols and irreversibly attach deeper significance to them. He claims that religion offers another world in which we can choose to live, implying that we eternally flutter on the threshold between the profane world and the realm of the sacred.
From the crest of Bear Butte, the pipe ceremony follows standard protocol; three pipes passed clockwise, customary singing and drumming, Mike in the middle, the brief interruption of his seemingly ever-ringing cell phone, the tobacco offering at close. The staff stands at the heart of the altar, rising up out of the perpendicular plane of the earth. Red beads reflecting yellow light and feathers floating horizontally on wind. The Keeper of the Prayers.
As the pipe reaches my right side, I draw in, allowing the pipe’s breath to mix with my own. As I do, I remember the words of a past yoga instructor, “when we breathe we take something from outside of ourselves and make it part of us. It is our connection to the universe.” I let it roll out of my mouth and return it to the wind. The pipe continues to travel the human circle. I struggle to hold silent focus but my mind is held hostage by the panoramic expanse before me. I hear Mike Sr.’s voice in my head: “sit still and maybe you’ll learn something.” Maybe next time, I think, when it’s dark and not so beautiful. The loose rocks shift under my boots; chiming plates of solid earthen crust. The feathers of the staff continue to ride the light breeze. The sun glitters on the blinding surface of a pond behind and below. I see 360 degrees of earth disappear into sky. The drumming. My heart. The residual taste of tobacco with every breath and beat. The Om in everything. Mitakuye Oyasin. And then ceremony ends. No ghostly figures, no taps on the shoulder, no ancestral whispers in my ear. Nothing? No.
What is prayer? Is the term prayer simply the sacred alternative to ‘motivation’? Is it fair to say, as the scholars suggest, that humans are naturally greedy and therefore we have constructed a supreme being with the mystical ability to grant us our wishes if we are deserving of them? Prayer is more than just a mental effort to manifest our deepest desires. A Christmas list is not a mantra. In Lakota tradition, prayer is just as frequently an expression of gratitude as it is a request. This is crucial because it presents a duality in prayer that is not applicable to motivation. If the staff carried to the top of Bear Butte were to be called “the keeper of motivations,” it would likely take on a much darker and primitive realm of wants and desires. The difference between prayers and motivations is that prayer, being a sacred word, allows us to offer forward our best self. It is a manifestation of our intrinsic virtue. It is how we come to realize all of the blessings within our personal experience, and how we can begin to put others before ourselves. It is the state of having no ulterior motives, because it is the shedding of social constructs that conceal our inner light and prevent us from living from the heart. It is the safe and solemn space to exist without the hardened layers that guard us and put us at odds with our environment. Prayer is the harmony of body and soul. Prayer is the Om in everything.
The Keeper of the Prayers is, as I understand it, a symbol of Soul. It is not any sort of container because prayers aren’t objects in a box. Prayer is proof that we are all innately good. If you strip us down the soul, we too may be merely decorated stick figures, but we are beautiful. Not the kind of beautiful that you hang on your bedroom wall, but the kind that renders you speechless and fills you with the Truth, indigenous to all humans, that Life itself is divine. Ritual, as I understand it, is not the recipe for achieving answers but rather the vehicle for reaching that space in which we can all just be. Religion is remembering what we already know, and everyone remembers and communicates the story slightly differently, but the fundamentals are the same. Spirituality is the reminder that we, too, have been kissed by the blessed spirit of life, unrivaled by any material beauty, and we are responsible for reciprocating that love and beauty outward. It was the Bible that said, “Do you not know your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” We are all natural creators. We can all create beautiful spaces. But religion is not the ends, it is merely the means. Where one ultimately goes with his or her practice is unique to each individual.
Geertz, Clifford, Religion as a cultural system. In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press, 1993.