In Sweet Company

“My spirituality is not something I practice but something I am, something I live. … we must each live and act in accordance with the knowledge that we are a part of Something Greater than ourselves.” — Katherine Dunham, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE

We sat on the floor in a circle — twelve women — in a hotel ballroom nestled on the shores of Lake Geneve. It was the kind of a room where diplomats gather for brandy and conversation, a paragon of Old World elegance and design. The carpet was richly textured; the molding that rimmed the ceiling was gilded and baroque. Twenty minutes earlier, Ginny and I breached the stately ranks of upholstered chairs — peach-colored sentinels poised for the next onslaught of distinguished derrieres — and muscled them to the back of the room. That we were preparing this lavish ballroom for a Native American Pipe Ceremony seemed incongruous. But that was before the ceremony began, before I understood how a paradox can be transcended by women who embody what unites rather than divides us, by women who allow their hearts to objectify that which makes us whole.

We had come together, these women and I, two days before as delegates of a Global Congress convened under the auspices of the United Nations. It was the fall of 2002; time, our leaders said, to bring women of the world’s spiritual traditions together to talk about individually and collectively advancing the peace process. More than 500 women from 70 countries traveled to Switzerland, each of us propelled by an urgency more grave than any of us imagined at the time. Preachers and rabbis and nuns, leaders of indigenous tribes, social justice activists, judges, diplomats, artists and writers, educators, doyennes of commerce, directors of foundations and NGO’s, princesses and Hollywood actors, women who had themselves been victims of war: the faithful, the impassioned, the wounded made their way.

I met Ginny on the first day of the Congress. She was from Colorado. Big-boned and blond, she looked like a snowcapped mountain in the morning sun. We had lunch. We walked by the Lake. We shared a late supper. Somewhere along the way she told me she was a Pipe Carrier, that she had brought her pipe to Geneva on the off chance someone would want a Pipe Ceremony. Was I interested?

Late in the last afternoon of the Congress, I spotted her in the hotel lobby. Organizers had agreed to let her hold a ceremony during the dinner hour. I offered to pass the word, but recruited no takers. “Well,” she said, when we reconvened, “let’s make the space for women to gather and see what Great Spirit wants.” It was then we moved the chairs to the back of the room.

During the next several minutes, the massive doors to the ballroom opened and closed many times. Some women saw us sitting quietly on the floor and joined us without a word. Others asked what we were doing, then stayed or went. When twelve women were seated in circle, the ceremony began.

Ginny closed her eyes, lifted the pipe and offered our gathering to Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky and to the Four Directions. “In my tradition, the stem and the bowl of the pipe represent the masculine and feminine aspects of Spirit. The smoke is a two-way street, the pathway our prayers trod and the means by which Spirit enfolds us in blessing during the ceremony.”

She filled the bowl with mountain herbs, and sent it clockwise round the circle, inviting us to offer — silently or aloud — the imperatives of our hearts when the pipe passed into our hands. In the time it took for the pipe to reach me, the external locus of the group’s control shifted. A primordial ardor had entered our midst that diverted my awareness from the circumference of the circle, from the edge of life — from our individual comings and goings, from the material world rife with separateness and opposition — inward, toward a luminous, collective core. A prayer rose within me for the women of our gathering and our world that we find the clarity and courage to do what we had come to Earth to do. I passed the pipe.
Ginny sent the pipe around a second time. This time when it came to me three words formed in my mind: “Great Mother Heart.” I understood these words to be both an invocation and an affirmation of the strength women could draw on in times to come,  a declaration of the possible.
The pipe returned to Ginny; she lifted it once again to the Four Directions, to Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky, and thanked Great Spirit for our gathering. She disassembled the pipe and returned it to its pouch.

Fifteen minutes passed in utter stillness. Someone stirred; someone rose to leave. I asked if we might each share where we were from before we parted. “America, France, Venezuela, India, Switzerland, England, Iraq,” we said. Then One by one, the  Great Mother Heart moved into the world.

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