Darkness enfolds us as we begin the first round of the Inipi Ceremony. For a moment, everything is still, and then the rocks sing as they transform fresh water into steam, releasing their medicine into the lodge. There are two rows of people in the lodge today. I sit in the back, to the west, so I do not feel the heat, yet. It will work its way back to me and settle upon me, becoming hotter and heavier as more and more water is poured upon the Grandmothers in the center of the circle. Eventually, it will fill my lungs and penetrate my skin. It will give of itself until we are drenched with it, and then we will become one with the medicine, or we will fail and need to leave the lodge.
As moist heat saturates the air around us, the prayers begin. I join in the singing, finding myself again in the sacred words. We will sing four songs, with four push-ups each, and then, the door will be open, bringing light and the relief of cool air. This will happen four times before our ceremony is complete.
Some will not make it through all four’ doors.’ Some are not ready to meet the Great Spirit today. They will succumb to the fear in their heart, and they will surrender the gift this opportunity offers for a breath of dry air. I will not. Each round will expect sacrifices. It will ask me to forfeit myself. I will give anything it asks.
Every time I step into the lodge, I know I step into the Great Earth Mother’s womb, and as I leave, I am reborn. Through this ceremony, birth will become the place of honor and celebration. I always understood it to be in my heart.
I have been sharing in this sacred ritual and this place of community for some time now. I have come to love the lessons and the people here. I have abandoned all the other teachings I once studied and released all of the other religions I once knew, and I have found my truth in this place. I have come to know God again in this ceremony. I feel the warm nurturing of the Great Earth Mother within the lodge, and as I sing prayers to the Great Spirit, I have finally come to understand; I am their child, and their love for me is unconditional. I will not be asked to surrender my innocence for the love I receive in this place. I will not be asked to compromise myself for their commitment to me. I am filled like I have never been filled. I am loved like I have never been loved, and I finally understand what it is to live with honor. This is my new home. This is my new community. This is the truth I have always known within my heart and sought within the world.
I love everything about the teachings of the Lakota People. I sink into the beauty of sacred rituals. I love how the lodge pushes me to be stronger and wiser than I have ever been willing to be. I love the way my heart beats with the sacred music when we come together to sing with the Drum and how the songs we sing open my soul. I love the honor and respect shown to all of creation and how it is understood; man is not more; he is not better; he is not alone upon the mountaintop, destined to rule the world. We are all equal upon this Earth; men, women, children, animals, trees, flowers, rock, soil. We are all part of creation, and we must all find harmony with the Earth if we are to survive. Each of us must come into balance with all things if we are to feel peace. We must lay aside our arrogant nature and find gratitude for the abundance of life and humility for our place within this abundance.
Great truth saturates my being as I sing the sacred songs and breathe the hot breath of the grandmothers. I give myself to the lodge, and as I do, the prayers deepen. The heat finally reaches me where I sit in the west, and it is greater today than it has ever been. I feel it overwhelm me even before the first round is complete, and as the door opens for the first time, no draft reaches back to find me where I sit in the west. The wind will not blow tonight. I will not be offered any relief. I understand now. I will know the gift of the west tonight and all it has to offer me. I will learn the meaning of surrender and faith, and if I am strong, I will allow it to free me.
The heat sits upon me like a thick cloud sits upon the mountain top. The door closes again, and the heat builds. I push my body beyond the limits I once thought defined me, and I surrender myself to my fears. I stand before them and know them until I understand I no longer need them. As I sing my prayers, I begin to see myself in the setting sun. I see the great, orange ball sinking upon the horizon, and as the colors leap into the last of the blue summer sky, I stand in the midst of them. Golden flames lick the lodge around me, and I allow the setting sun to burn from me all of those things which no longer serve me. I surrender myself to the heat, opening my soul, and releasing everything within it. I empty my vessel and allow for the potential of a new truth.
As the door opens a second time, the air outside is still and lifeless. I mourn the wind, crying for the sweet summer breeze. I beg it to blow against my drenched skin, but it does not respond. There will be no relief from the heat today. Tonight, I am the Phoenix. I will burn myself to ashes, to hopefully rise again with a new song.
The air in the lodge is thick with moisture, and sweat pours from my face, gathering with the saturated dress clinging to my skin. I cannot tell the medicine given by the Grandmothers in the center of the circle from the sacrifice of my own soul. The steam blends itself with my sweat in a flood of pure clarity.
Raising my head like, I look through the lodge door, daring the breeze to look back and deny my plea. From my position in the west, I can see directly into the fire pit. I contemplate it for a moment, thinking of the west and of the setting sun. Then, I notice something hovering above the fire. It is the white form of a woman. I don’t know if she is made of the smoke lazily billowing from the hot coals or a mist separate from the smoke. Before I can clearly define who she might be, the door closes, and the heat surges again.
As the third round of the Inipi continues, my tears begin to flow with the steam and the sweat. I cry, and I pray my gratitude to the Great Spirit for my life. I pray gratitude for the challenge as it helps me grow, and I pray for the courage to be successful in my upcoming Vision Quest. This year will be my first year of Vision Quest, and I am grateful for the opportunity to commune with the Great Spirit. I know I cannot comprehend how this experience will test my character and strength, but I know it is where I belong. I know I will come to stand before the Great Spirit, and He will show me the way.
The door opens for the third time, and this time the pipe is passed. I do not share in the Chanupa Ceremony today. I can barely lift my head from my chest. The heat has wrapped itself around me and will not soften. As the pipe journeys around the circle, I sit through the open door, and I weep openly. Those around me allow me my process and do not interfere in it. I am comforted, but they do not ask me if I have need. They understand I have surrendered to the lodge, and this is good. The tears I shed are a gift to the Grandmothers. I give them openly, to be living in a good way.
After the pipe is offered to every hand in the lodge, the door closes for the final round. Wrapped in darkness, I finally crawl into the Great Spirit’s lap, and I pray for life. I cry as heat rips the agony from my being. I cry my sorrow to Grandfather Sky, and then I cry my joy. I cry until I am no more, and everything is left to Him.
Now I am humble. Now I am ready to stand before the Creator. Now, I am worthy of his message. Now, I have earned the right to Vision Quest.