Wednesday, November 19, 2014

To smudge or not to smudge

Do we have "sacred places?"
Have you ever smudged, and if you did, was your heart in it? No doubt you've already heard about the canceled MCC event in Winnipeg. Seems the Pentecostal Church whose space they had rented got wind of the Aboriginal performers' intention to "smudge" before their appearance and decided this would be inappropriate in a Christian church. It's been all over the news so you probably already know about the competing opinions on this development. 

Coincidentally, it fell to my lot on the last two Sundays to lead a couple of adult classes in discussions of Ezekiel's temple visions and I did some reading on the nature of burnt offerings as religious ceremonies, particularly in Judeo-Christian history. A rabbi writes that the smoke from the sacrificial altar is/was an aroma pleasing to God, as well as having cleansing attributes, of course.

I've visited cathedrals all over Europe and must say that wafting candle smoke and the exotic aroma of burning incense has become a powerful, soothing balm to me. But then, the candles and the aroma of burning pine needles affected me similarly during childhood Christmases, as did the burning of dry leaves and garden debris in the fall.

More recently, I have found the experience of smudging with the smoke of burning sweet grass soothing,  somehow elevating. I was told on a recent visit to an exhibit at Wanuskewin Heritage Park that smudging before entering the exhibitcommemorating murdered and missing Aboriginal womenwas mandatory. Our guide spoke of cleansing, of reconnecting with our creator through the medicinal elements of creation: sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco. Her description wasn't that far removed from the rabbi's discussion of the benefits experienced in ancient offerings and sacrifices.

But my church has no ceremonies involving incense, sacrificial firing, first-fruits offerings or smudging. For me, then, it's hard to separate the experience of such ceremonies from the claims of aromatherapy. But being inclined to think liberally about matters, I'm happy to accept that when one person says he feels forgiven, cleansed by a ceremony and I say I feel refreshed and relaxed, we may be saying the same thing.

I don't think I'd ever warm to the possibility of burnt offering as a spiritual exercise, but invite me to a smudging, offer me a candle to light for my lost daughter and I'll thank you.

As to the Pentecostal church that was made uncomfortable by smudging on their premises, I understand. I don't expect their sensibilities would be up to admitting a kinship to  Native spirituality and the thought of its exercise on their "sacred" territory was bound to elicit discomfort. My elders were angry when we children would wander into the pulpit area of the church. Despite our Anabaptist theology's downplaying of the sanctity of places, many of us remain sensitive to the possibility of defilement.  

Dust-ups like this one are commonplace; always have been. Some of us adapt quickly to change, are willing to explore new ways of seeing things; others are threatened by it. Where religious traditions and beliefs are concerned, those tensions are particularly acute.

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