Soliloquy in an International Cloister

Watch your step as Brother Lawrence takes you inside the monastery walls of a five hundred year-old international order. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish you had ignored your hormones and joined the monastery.

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Location: Rome, Italy

03 September 2008

Having the vapors

I constantly receive expressions of sympathy from my brothers for the fact that my job requires so much travel. Not being one to pass up any chance for sympathy or the material rewards that might accompany it, deserved or otherwise, I graciously accept it. The tricky part for me is to feign nonchalance to my feigned exhaustion, if you can follow that. You see, I basically like my job, and it isn't all that difficult, normally. However, I can't just come right out and say, "Oh, don't feel sorry for me. This is the greatest, easiest job in the world!" That would ruin the whole sympathy thing (especially the material rewards part). On the other hand, it would be unbecoming of someone in my position to overplay the exhaustion card. The brothers want me to be stoic in the face of difficulties, self-giving, concerned more about them than my own health or well-being so I give it to them. It's all fake, but it makes them happy so what the hell!

Anyway, one of the things I like best about my job is the chance to experience different cultures. On my recent trip to Japan, for instance, I was invited to participate in a Tea Ceremony, which I found to be beautiful and very civilized. I am willing to try most things at least once (although I will not, for instance, eat balut). So it was that when I was invited to participate in a "sweat" with a group of Native Americans of the Crow tribe while visiting Montana a few weeks ago, I eagerly agreed. I vaguely remembered one of the brothers explaining the ceremony to me years ago, but I couldn't remember the details. If that brother had survived the experience, I figured, how difficult could it be?

Pretty difficult, it turns out. First of all, you have to take off ALL your clothes. Certain tribes allow bathing suits, but for the Crows, it is stricly au naturel. Lest you get any ideas, there is no mixing of sexes for the ceremony. The men go first, and after they have finished, it is the turn of the women. Although I have no problem undressing in front of others in the locker room of a gymnasium, for instance, the thought of sitting naked among other naked men for an hour or so was slightly disturbing for me. To make matters worse, the reputation of Native American men as the best endowed in the world awakened the old fears of inadequacy in me. Thank God it wasn't a cold day!

After stripping. we crawled into the sweat lodge—a low, rounded tent. A hole in the ground near the lodge's opening was filled with red hot stones taken from the fire that had been built outside the tent a few hours earlier. Once everyone was inside, the flap was pulled down over the opening, plunging the lodge into complete, utter darkness. The only light I could see was a faint, red glow from the stones. I suspected that my lily white buttocks were glowing in the dark, but I couldn't tell for sure. Next, the leader sprinkled a pinch of powdered bearroot on the stones. I couldn't decide if the odor of the resulting smoke was pleasant or choking. Then, while saying some prayers, the leader ladled water onto the stones, creating a choking, scalding atmosphere within the tent. To "enhance" the effects of the steam, everyone was provided with leafy switches with which to lash themselves. This was meant to "open the pores". Yeah, right! Within a minute or so, the atmosphere became breathable again and I relaxed. I had survived! That's when the second ladle of water was poured on the stones. Then a third and fourth. Much gasping.

Shortly after pouring the fourth ladle, the leader opened the flap on the lodge to let in some fresh air. We were given some water to drink. After about ten minutes, the flap was closed and the process started again, this time with seven ladles of water. The flap was again opened, and everyone began to crawl out of the lodge. The steam seemed to have the same effect on me as it would on, say, carrot sticks. My limbs felt limp, and I was unsure whether they would support my weight. Outside the lodge, the eight of us flopped onto the ground like so many albino walruses. Air never felt so good. 

After about fifteen minutes, my intimate communion with the four winds was interrupted by the announcement that intermission was over, and the third act was about to begin. Back in the lodge for four more ladles, a ten-minute break, then an "uncounted" number of ladles. I had been advised at the beginning of the ceremony that if the atmosphere became too unbearable I could lie prostrate with my head towards the fire. This is what I did for most of rounds three and four. Not very manly, I know, but necessary. Fortunately, it was so dark inside the lodge that most of the others never knew that I spent the last rounds kissing Mother Earth, as it were.

Afterwards, the others all congratulated me on how well I had done, although I suspect that they do that for all newbies. Never mind that, I think I'm ready for the Vision Quest!