As I shared last week, I recently participated in a Native American Listening and Healing Pilgrimage event sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. It was a powerful and painful day—and in this post I want to reflect on one of the gifts I received on that day, specifically regarding spiritual language.

The day began and ended with prayer and song led by Native women. The opening prayer was especially powerful for me because it included spiritual language that I don’t normally use. That unexpected language made the prayers feel fresh and newly alive—and a part of me wishes I’d written more down. However, that would have involved leaving my internal stance of prayer, which didn’t feel right in that moment.

So, here’s what I remember. The woman prayer leader invited ancestors, angels, and spirit guides—what I would call the Communion of Saints—to be with us during the day, to bear witness and support those who were speaking and those who were listening. More than once, she asked that only those spirits who were “100% benevolent” and “healthy” to join us. That got me thinking about which of my own ancestors I would want to be present and support me. I also imagined there are a number of more violent and outrageous saints who would probably not understand or be supportive of such a healing endeavor!

She also asked Mother Earth—and I don’t remember her exact words—to take the stories of trauma that were shared in our time together and metabolize them. For me, that raised images of magma burning that trauma away (as in the refiner’s fire of the prophet Malachi) or compost slowly transforming waste into nourishing soil. She spoke more than once about the powerful “medicine” that would arise out of sharing stories that had been silenced.

I also heard how the “blood, sweat, and tears” of Native people were infused in the walls of the churches they built. In response, I thought of Ken Follet’s epic novel The Pillars of the Earth about the building of a medieval English Christian cathedral.

We learned that tears are sacred to the Tohono O’odham people. So, if we cried during the day, they asked that the tissues bearing our tears not be thrown away. Instead, they were collected and will be burned as part of the healing service that will close the year of pilgrimage in November.

There was more, but I hope you get the idea. We can become accustomed to our familiar spiritual language. Listening to the voices of those who worship differently from us can refresh our perspectives and bring us new images and invitations for a vibrant and faith-filled future.

When have you experienced an unexpected use of spiritual language? What happened, and what was the result?

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