A couple of days ago I showed up to a talking circle held at a First Nations gathering space in Montreal. I have attended (even co-led) talking circles before, in the sense that I have sat with others in a circle, committing myself to absolute listening as the ‘talking stone’ slowly makes its way round the circle, speaking only when the stone has been placed in my hands.
This recent circle was so compellingly different that I consider it, in fact, to be my first, set apart by its intentional ceremonial aspect. This healing or sharing circle ceremony is an example of what the circle co-leaders called the ‘Red Way’. It began with a smudging to purify us for the act of sharing and receiving each other’s stories. We asked the Great Spirit to give us protection and guidance as we passed the eagle feather around the circle. A flame and a small bowl of water were placed among the other sacred ‘helpers’ (sage, cedar, tobacco, and sweetgrass) in the middle of the circle, representing the principles of male and female.
What also made this talking circle significantly different for me was that I was the only non-native participant. The circle was meant for honest sharing, so I had to admit in my self-introduction that I had no Nation through which to present myself. I cannot lie: it made me feel a little self-conscious and unintentionally invasive. However, I was blessed to have sat among a loving and respectful group of people.
Reflecting a day later about my discomfort (one of the circle’s co-leaders told us negative emotions are just as much sacred helpers as the medicines and objects placed before us in the middle of the circle), I felt I was being called to contemplate the issue of source and transmission. Acknowledging we all come from somewhere and have a deep need to commune with and assist in the transmission of that source is, I believe, a fundamental life characteristic. A Nation is not just an ethnic designation, but a microcosmic container of larger sources that are channelled and fashioned into tools and traditions. As far as I can tell, First Nations people like those who gathered that evening are reclaiming those tools and traditions as essential ways for them to transmit what brings them life, joy, and meaning.
I mentioned a while ago in this blog that I was not raised Anglican–nor, for that matter, was I raised to profess Christianity. Digging into my past to find out what fundamental tools or traditions I was given early on to develop and transmit, ‘asking questions’ and ‘uncovering authenticity’ are two that come to mind. My father was a professor of Political Science, and I often listened attentively to what he discussed, and, perhaps more importantly, how he discussed it (needless to say I developped the spirit of debate from an early age). My father also had a passion for literature and poetry, from which I picked up a keen sense of finding the most distilled, piercing qualities amidst rhythm, sparseness, and abandon.
These are among the earliest culturally transmitted tools and traditions that I acquired to help me face the world. In the meanwhile, I have acquired many others; and I expect to acquire more still, as I grow older and journey through life. When Jesus was asked to account for the amazing learning he demonstrated, he said: “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is true.” [John 7: 16-18] If we each inquire into our unique existence in the world, we will inevitably discover threads connecting us with something larger than ourselves, encompassing what is at once ‘behind’ us in the past and ‘before’ us as what is yet to come, not to mention what underlies and motivates all of it. Connecting with these larger stories and sources, we can surely overcome the feelings of isolation we might feel as just ourselves; and finding ways to transmit them is a gift we can offer in thanksgiving.