1995 Feb 12 – 6th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)

1995 Feb 12 – 6th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)

Cycle C 6th Sun Ord Time

Lk 6, 17. 20 – 26

Dear friends,


This week’s Gospel is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Luke’s beatitudes are much more direct and plain speaking than Matthew’s. Luke not only lists those who are blessed, he also counterbalances his list of the blessed with a list of the accursed. It is as if Luke does not want the reader to miss what he considers obvious. For when God chooses to bless one group of people, then it stands to reason that God also chooses to curse another group of people.

In Jesus’ day (as it is today) the rich, the powerful, the full, and the contented were assumed favored by God, while the poor, the powerless, the hungry, and the discontented were believed cursed by God. According to St. Luke in this week’s Gospel, God sees the world in exactly the opposite way. For God indeed has favorites, the surprise being that from God’s point of view, it is the poor, the powerless, the hungry, and the discontented that receive God’s favor. Conversely, God’s curse equally rests on the rich, the powerful, the full, and the contented. It is a plain and forthright proposition.

For each succeeding generation of Christians, St Luke’s list of the blessed and the cursed has served as a challenge and an indictment. I don’t need to belabor the point that our Church history is filled with examples of individual Christians and Faith Communities who have met this challenge in their own time and sided with God’s favored and consequently were “hated, ostracized, insulted, and called evil” (Luke 6:22) because of it. And there are also plenty of examples in our Church history of individuals and Faith Communities capitulating to the ways and values of the world, accommodating the Gospel message to please the very people Luke tells us God curses, who shared in the “riches, the fullness, the laughter, and the public honor” given to the “false prophets” of old (Luke 6:24-26).

We may well ask ourselves how have we measured up in our time to this challenge given to us in today’s Gospel? As individuals? As a faith community? As a citizen of our city, our state or our nation? What are our attitudes towards the rich and the poor? Do they correspond to Luke’s beatitudes? Perhaps the terms poor and rich are too abstract. We could just as easily ask, how does the current political rhetoric on welfare reform measure up to Luke’s beatitudes? Will the “Contract With America” be a blessing for the poor and a challenge for the rich?

As for me, as an individual, and as a citizen of this nation, I know I belong to a privileged class of people. As a white, well-fed, well-cared-for male in this First World setting, I am painfully aware that much of my material well-being is ill-gotten, rewards taken one way or the other from the very poor and disenfranchised people, Jesus calls blessed in today’s Gospel. For me, this is a plain and forthright look at the ways things are from the perspective of St. Luke’s beatitudes.

I also know that I will be ETERNALLY grateful that the entire New Testament is not just one of blessings and curses. The New Testament also tells us of God’s great love, God’s gift of mercy, and God’s kingdom mission of justice. Because I know God’s love and have experienced God’s mercy, I’m free of the curse of my privileged class and I welcome the challenge each day brings to help make God’s kingdom real by seeking justice for the poor and oppressed explicitly demanded in today’s Gospel text.


95 02 12


A big plus for me in returning to this Federal Prison Camp in Yankton has been my re-entry into the circle of the Indian Sweat. One of the positive side effects of being incarcerated in the USA today for a Native American is the access and opportunity to participate in their traditional religious and spiritual ceremonies. This of course was not always the case. The Native American community had to fight long and hard to win the right to practice their religious ceremonies and spiritual traditions inside USA prison systems. Much of this struggle for religious freedom was fought and won during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Today many incarcerated Native Americans are reaping the benefits of this hard fought struggle.  Ironically for most incarcerated Native Americans, their exposure in prison to the Indian Sweat and related religious ceremonies is their first serious emersion into their own Native American culture and spiritual heritage. And for a few incarcerated non-Native American participants, like myself, being a guest in a circle of a Native American Sweat lodge has been a rich and privileged experience of an old and sacred Spiritual tradition.

The Sweat lodge ceremonies and Native American tradition practiced here at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp are mostly taken from the Lakota Indian traditions. This is because the Lakota Indian people are located in this area of the country. Each Native American tribe and nation has their own ways of worshiping and traditions that they follow. However, there are basic elements, traditions, and beliefs that are common to all. Perhaps the best Lakota symbol that captures the essence of the shared Native American beliefs is the Medicine Wheel. In it we can see the circle, which stands for “Wakan-Tanka”, the Great Spirit who created the universe and has no beginning and no end. The entire life of the people, creation and Mother Earth can be found in this circle, along with the four great Spirits of the four directions. These are the basic forces working in all Native American cosmos.

The Purification Ceremony that takes place in the Indian Sweat lodge is one of the oldest and most commonly shared rites for all Native Americans. Elements of this rite can be found in all the major religions of ‘the world. Its origins reach back before recorded time.

The “Inipi” or Sweat lodge here at Yankton FPC is located on the West side of the Kingsbury residence hall. It is a 40 ft. by 40 ft. area, enclosed by a 6 ft. solid wooden fence. The whole enclosed area is considered part of the lodge. It is looked upon as a sacred and holy place to be respected as any church or chapel structure. Inside the fenced-in area is the Inipi itself. It is a round 15 ft. in diameter structure built with willow branches and leather ~traps. It is covered with large burlap tarps. At its highest point in the center, it is no more than 4 ft. tall. In the center of the Inipi is a round dugout pit that is 5 ft. wide and 6 inches deep. It is into this pit that the hot rocks are placed during the ceremony.

The door of the Inipi faces west, towards the fire pit, just opposite the Inipi. It is in this pit that the fire is kept to heat the rocks. Between the fire pit and the Inipi is the Sacred Mound. This mound is made from the dirt dug out from the pit in the Inipi. Upon this mound are placed several sacred objects.

One of these sacred objects is a buffalo skull. The buffalo is a very special animal to the Lakota People.  From the buffalo came the essential materials for the Lakota people’s daily survival. When a buffalo was killed, every bit of its carcass was put to some useful purpose for the tribe. Having a buffalo skull on the Sacred Mound is a reminder and symbol of the great sacrifice the buffalo made for the Lakota people. Also placed on the Sacred Mound is the peace pipe. The peace pipe is the most sacred Lakota object.

The first peace pipe was brought to the Lakota people by Buffalo Calf Woman, a mythical being, sometime during the 16th or 17th centuries. It is their symbol of peace and harmony. It is equal in importance to the Lakota people as the Eucharist is to Catholics. When it is smoked and passed around the circle, it is the most sacred and holy moment in all Lakota ceremonies. The peace pipe is held in the highest regard and is kept in a place of honor all the time.

Everything within the enclosed fenced area-the rocks, the water, the steam, the sage, the tobacco for the pipe, the fire, the willow branches, the Inipi, the darkness within the Inipi, and the word- everything has a purpose and a special meaning. Everything that is said or done during the ceremony is done to bring the great Spirits of the Creator, Mother Earth, and the Four Directions into the midst of the circle gathered inside the Inipi.

The actual ceremony begins with the filling of the peace pipe and prayer around the Sacred Mound. The prayer and the ceremony to follow are led by the pipe carrier. The pipe carrier is the sole authority and leader during the ceremony. In a very real sense, the whole of the service depends on his vision and spiritual powers. All other participants must submit to the pipe carrier’s direction and wisdom. Most of the prayers and all of the songs are done in a Native American language. Sometimes things are explained and the stories are told in English. However, most of the ceremony is done in a Native American tongue.

After the opening prayer, the peace pipe is placed on the Sacred Mound and everyone enters the Inipi in clockwise direction and is seated around the center pit. We are allowed to bring in a face towel and may wear our boxer shorts, if we wish, but nothing else. Once everyone is in the Inipi, the hot rocks are brought into the Inipi by the rock carrier with a pitchfork. The doorman takes the rocks with the pitchfork and places them in the center pit. The first six rocks are placed in special places. They represent the six Great Spirits- the Great Spirit “Wakan-Tanka, Mother Earth and the four directions. After each of these first six rocks are brought in, special prayers are said over each one to call forth the spirits they represent to be in our midst and take care of us during the sweat. Once the allotted number of rocks is in the Inipi, a bucket of water is brought in and the door is closed. Now the circle is in complete darkness.

Then begins the first of Four Doors. Water is thrown onto the rocks, steam is produced and it becomes very, very hot. Prayers are said, songs are sung, and drums are beaten. It is a very intense experience. One has to work very hard to concentrate on the prayers and the songs lest the intense heat distracts them. It takes a lot of trust in the power of the spirits to keep focused. Our prayers are believed to take on more power because of the suffering we experience with the intense heat. In the process of praying for ourselves and for others, in this pitiful and humble manner, it is believed that the spirits help to purify us, give us the courage and strength to continue’ on the “Red Path”, the right way of life. At the proper time the pipe carrier brings the praying and singing to a close, says the final prayer and the door is open. This process is repeated four times. Each session is called a Door. They last about 10 minutes.

Between the 3rd and the 4th Door, the peace pipe is brought into the Inipi. Special prayers are said; it is lit and passed around the circle clockwise. Each one takes the peace pipe reverently, smokes a few puffs and passes it on to the next person saying “Mitakuya Oyasin” (to all my relations).

My re-entry into the circle of the Indian Sweat has been a great spiritual asset for me, though I am limited to’ the degree in which I can fully enter into the tradition and spiritual heritage since I am not a Native American and am a believing Christian. Nonetheless I have benefited a great deal from my participation as a guest in the spiritual discipline of the Sweat. In some measure I have experienced the great truths and spiritual powers embodied in this old and sacred ceremony. It has taught me that there is much that we non-Native Americans can learn from the Native American religious experience.

Fr. Frank Cordaro





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