The large stones glow red hot near the feet of those seated inside the sweat lodge as the tent flap is lowered, immersing participants in total darkness. Water will soon mute the stones' glow, filling every crevice of the enclosure with hot steam.
But first, Native American ceremonial leader Arnold Thomas speaks in reverent tones, his voice a mirror to the rising warmth that begins to fill the spaces between those inside, chasing away the winter night's chill. He talks lovingly of the air, the water, the trees and the glowing "stone people" placed in the pit as a foundation for the ceremony to follow.
As he sprinkles bits of cedar and sage on the sizzling stones, the smoke offers a sweet aroma — a "blessing" that he encourages participants to breathe in, with gratitude for the earth and her many gifts; for the ancestors that perpetuated life; for the lives of trees, animals, birds and plants whose bodies, furs, feathers and fruits provide sustenance for all humanity.
Designed to replicate the womb of mother earth, the lodge begins to swell as ladles of water bubble into clouds of steam, invisible to the eye in the pitch-black enclosure where white hands can't be seen in front of their white faces. Sweat begins to form on more than a dozen foreheads, noses, necks and backs. Droplets soon become rivulets, as the steam opens bodily pores.
More ladles of water sizzle on stone as Arnold's drumming and chanting rise with the steam. Clothing becomes saturated, and a towel can only temporarily stem the streams of sweat pouring from faces and foreheads.
Participants are urged to offer prayers, either silently or aloud, offering their gratitude to the creator and asking for assistance with ailments physical, emotional or spiritual, either for themselves or for others.
Once the heat becomes nearly overwhelming, the flap of the tent is lifted and steam pours out into the frigid January air. The ceremony leader continues his instruction, repeating many of the phrases he's used before, urging each person to absorb the words mentally while their bodies recover physically from the intense heat.
After the steam has cleared, those who watch over the super-heated rocks in the fire outside the lodge begin carrying more of the "stone people" to the pit inside with a shovel, each one place carefully atop the water-cooled stones until their warmth begins to radiate through the tent once again.
The flap is closed, the darkness returns, and round two begins.
These ancient ceremonies have been performed over the centuries by various Native American tribes as a process of purification. This particular lodge often houses veterans of war, seeking to purify both broken bodies and spirits that have turned to drugs or alcohol for comfort.
As participants in a clinical pastoral education program at Salt Lake's VA Hospital, those gathered in the lodge this night are immersing themselves in a faith and cultural tradition few outside the Native American fold know about, and fewer still have experienced.
And as the night wears on, with minutes becoming hours, each comes to understand with every physical sensation how literal that immersion will be.
Perry Schmitt is a soldier and Fort Douglas chaplain who served five tours of duty, two of them in Iraq. Stationed first in Baghdad and then Mosul, the scars he brought home are the emotions that rage inside after watching 46 of his comrades die.
He comes to the lodge without fear of the heat. It's 130 degrees under the Baghdad sun.
"Physically the strongest feeling came when Arnold poured the water on the red hot stones. The steam immediately got my attention. It was intensely hot, but after 30 seconds or so I got used to it."
As he and the others were asked to share why they chose to participate, Schmitt spoke of the emotional pain he brought home. Sensing he may be able to help in the healing, the medicine man asked Schmitt to stand at one point in the ceremony, and performed a ritual around his head and shoulders as the others watched silently.
"Emotionally, I felt the strongest feeling when Arnold smudged me with the cedar, wafting the smoke all over my body. I have not done this before. It felt good to receive this much care and attention. I was filled with gratitude to receive this much love and respect."
As a Nazarene, his Christian faith came to the fore as he poured out a series of verbal pleadings asking God for help and healing.
"Spiritually, I prayed as much as I could during the ceremony. I prayed intensely for my family and some friends having very tough times right now. I also prayed for myself. I resolved again to get rid of as much of my pettiness, smallness, littleness and resentfulness as I could. I hate it. I also resolved to make my life count for something bigger than me, to make it count for Christ and the people he loves."
Rosemary Baron said she found "parallels to my own spirituality, but such vast differences as well: the drumming and heavy chanting and the inclusion of every single person within the circle. Those are things I don't often find," in her Catholic rituals.
A retired school principal, she has traveled widely and experienced much, "but nothing like the lodge. … I felt so wholly purified in body, mind and spirit. I'd describe it as all-inclusive, because it touched every part of my being: physical, emotional and spiritual."
She found the circle of participants to be "very open, and very inviting, in that it lacks pretense. There was no show going on — it was all done in the dark."
The intensity of the fire and building of heat "played its part in purifying process — skin and body as we breathed in the steam, there was a purifying of the spiritual and emotional aspect of our being. That intensified as we went through the course of the evening."
After nearly four hours, Baron emerged from her journey through the ritual, prompted to pen a prayer, which includes these impressions:
"Purify Us, O Creator! encircled reddened lava rocks, rising tobacco incense; oh, heavens; altar of thanks and praise; snow fog moon star heavens. Purify Us, O Creator! womb emerging; relatives summoned; humans encircling.
"Purify Us, O Creator! drum heartbeat rhythm of soul; blessed Arnold; praise chants; petition chants; offering chants; prayer chants."
A retired pilot for United Airlines, Melvin Ward found the most meaning in the medicine man's words, as Native American faith practice is based in part on "being so grateful for things rest of us take so much for granted. How grateful they are for ancestors, grass, trees, clean water and clean air. I guess they have been environmentalists for a long, long time."
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ward sought out the chaplaincy program in pursuit of a childhood dream of learning about other faith traditions and using that knowledge to reach beyond his own.
"I was impressed with deep sense of gratitude I heard," which made him ponder on "what a miraculous blessing it is to drink clean water and enjoy the beauties of nature. We really are stewards of the environment."
Native Americans "refer to mother earth with great affection, and I was overwhelmed with his complete sense of gratitude. I think we could learn a lot from that."
While he wasn't impressed with any new spiritual insights or feelings "probably because I'm entrenched in my own culture," he "related to the ancestors theology quite well. I sensed there is almost a worship of ancestors whereas as LDS people don't worship them, but we have great respect for them."
At age 73, Ward said he "enjoyed the experience," but found he was "beyond medium-rare by the last round. I handled it okay, but I was ready for the closing prayer."E-MAIL: [email protected]