Last Friday GP and I were at McGill where we lectured and shared our work with a group of university students. We were invited by a psychology graduate student, CS, who heard of the presentations we gave at Concordia University. AS, a professor at the Loyola campus invites us every year to his class room and thus, for the last decade. Every year we face a new generation of students and introduce them to Sacred Circle tradition and Indigenous Dreaming. No matter how many groups we visit we always have one or two students who are uncomfortable with Shamanism because they are committed to Religion and/or God.
At the end of a three hour presentation last week a young woman and psychology student approached us introducing herself as a devout Catholic.
“I don’t want to insult or persecute anyone,” she started with poise and confidence, “but I have a difficult time being open minded to Shamanism because I’m a devout Catholic.” I couldn’t help but nod; but there wasn’t much to say in reply to her statement. I remained silent for a moment and waited to see if there was more she wanted to share.
“You mentioned Creator during your presentation,” she added noticing that I wasn’t going to get defensive and upset about her comment, “but do you have any kind of relationship with God? When you call on Spirit do you call it by a name?” she asked. I had to repeat her questions in my mind a few times before answering. I wondered if she heard the judgment in her words or if she understood that despite her reassurance that she wasn’t trying to insult us or persecute us there was definitely in her comment a bit of both. Still, the short silence between us allowed me to let my eyes roam over the young woman’s head and see the trees blossoming out doors of the McGill Education building. A small bird perched on a branch and let out a few chirps which for a small moment seemed louder than the student’s voice.
I reminded the young woman that Shamanism isn’t a Religion and that there are many different religious denominations in the groups that we are invited to talk to.
“We give people the space to call the Great Spirit by whatever name is introduced to them on their individual paths,” I explained trying to stay sensitive to her question, “in no way do we pretend to know best or attempt to convert.”
The young woman nodded to my reply and again, mentioned that she didn’t want to be insulting or judgemental. It seemed like she wasn’t getting to where she hoped to get. I looked over her shoulder while she sought out courage to ask another question and noticed that the little bird perched in the blooming birch was still chirping away completely oblivious to what was going on in the classroom. GP was packing up the Wheel and other students gathered around him and JP, a student who had accompanied us for the afternoon, to share stories and ask more questions.
“I guess what I’m asking,” the young student asked somewhat nervous for the first time, “is if you believe in God? From my perspective you spoke in the name of God a few times today when you talked about Spirit or told students about their future. I feel uneasy because I don’t think you have the authority to talk in the name of God.”
I nodded again wanting to objectively hear her perspective. Too many times conflict surges from these kinds of exchanges and I didn’t want to give power to judgment when the last three hours had been about learning, healing, beauty and abundance. Through the last 20 years of lecturing on Shamanism the toughest lesson I had to learn was to step out of linear thinking and ego in order to bridge circular thought and wisdom. How many times do we allow one judgment or negative thought destroy important and powerful experiences in our lives because we’re insecure or too damn stubborn? Again, I saw the birch and the sparrow chirping in the background.
As I started to speak earlier on that afternoon I explained to everyone that all of our Wheels start in the east and that our First Nation ancestors built their wigwams always facing the east where the sun rises. I told the students that from a practical point of view it meant that Creator demanded from each and everyone of us to mimic the beauty of the rising sun. It’s expected of us to be heroes, to be in service, to be generous, loving, attentive, aware etc…. From our first waking breath in the morning to our last breath in the evening we are called to follow the sun’s journey which is a walk of empowerment. As we continued to speak of the Wheel we asked some students to be open minded and participate in a shamanic experience. When NAT, a young man in the group, shared his story and how he struggled with his relationship with his father we worked together to get him to a point where he believed in himself and his future. At the end of the journey we asked him to cry out: “I’m strong. I’m ready. I can be my own man.” He later helped in convincing a young woman in the group that she was connected to Mother Earth, fertile and capable of caring for herself and others.
“We are not incapable,” I said.
“YOU are capable,” I pointed to some of the students after listening to their struggles and their wishes and personal desires.
Where the young Catholic woman saw me speaking in the name of God, I saw myself speaking with medicine: Empowering others. I explained to the young student that it was a question of perspective and that there was no right or wrong as far as was concerned. The Medicine Wheel speaks of different perspectives coming together and revealing the different facets or reality of Creation. I mentioned to the young lady that I was educated in the Catholic religion; brought up at the convent by nuns until the age of 18 years old. The young woman looked at me astonished. She seemed somewhat surprised that I would be teaching about Shamanism with that kind of a background. I informed her that most First Nation people are Christians. With the arrival of the Europeans came the arrival of Christian doctrines. History shows that European Religion was imposed on its New World subjects.
“How do you reconcile both worlds?” the young catholic student suddenly asked, seeing me in a new way.
“I don’t have to reconcile anything,” I explained still glancing at the bird in the window, “because I don’t see a separation between shamanism and Catholicism.”
I talked about Saint Francis of Assisi. He talked to animals, he was connected to the Earth, and he preached a shamanic wisdom that was respected by the Pope and Catholicism. I mentioned the Acts of John, in the New Testament where John actually makes a Medicine Wheel proclaiming the four directions and using stones. I spoke of Jesus’ totems: Dolphin, Dove, and Lamb. Then, I looked up at the bird in the window and said: “I bring nothing new to the table. I simply remind us that we can be more than what we keep complaining that we are.”
On the way back home GP and JP, my companions for the day, complimented me on the way that I handled the young woman and her judgments. For them, it was obvious that the young student was out to reprimand as well as persecute us.
“She wanted to make it clear that if you’re not Catholic your not on the right path,” JP announced with anger.
“But we’re all baptized Catholic,” I responded, “so what else is there to say?”
“…that you shouldn’t betray your Church by being shamanic as well,” concluded GP with a smirk.
“Whatever she thinks or voices out to me,” I said as a final note, “it’s really about her journey, her exploration of the Catholic Church, her relationship with God, and where she positions herself faced with experiences like today.”
“It boils back down to SHAMANISM,” I concluded.
It seemed clear to me that my discussion with the young lady wasn’t about her judgments towards me or Shamanism; but about her and like other students in the class who explored failing their parents; bathing in darkness; troubled by issues and abuse; or etc…. this was what our shamanic presence brought up for this young, Catholic psychologist.
I whispered to the little bird still perched in the tree, in the end that I hoped this young student would find her way like everyone else that crossed my path. I giggled and said: “Would this talk between us be more powerful if I called it a prayer?”
The sparrow flew off right after our short discussion and I had the feeling we both shared a common sentiment: “Live and let live…”