Sometimes you have to grow down into your ancestral roots before you can grow up. I learned this in September 2004, the morning I woke from a dream with a pounding heart.
It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, but it definitely caught my attention.
I dreamed I was attending an outdoor Yom Kippur service. I walked down to a grassy field and saw a man sitting on the ground. He was wearing a yarmulke and guarding something.
A breeze swept through, stirring his papers, so I bent down and picked them up.
“No!” yelled the man, “Human hands haven’t touched that scroll since Moses wrote it!” I panicked and fled the scene.
Later that day, I experienced my first waking life Yom Kippur service. The Rabbi approached me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “We have a 400 year old Torah that survived the holocaust. You can pray with it if you’d like.”
My heart raced again as dream fragments flooded my mind. I didn’t want to get too close to anything that resembled sacred script for fear of accidentally touching it!
A bit leery, I entered through the temple doors.
Oriental rugs were draped over the altar, and the sound of ancient music filled the air as musicians sung traditional songs I didn’t understand.
I was overwhelmed with emotion: I felt like I had finally come home.
I grew up Lutheran, steeped in Norwegian culture during the holiday season, but my paternal grandfather, whom I never met, was Jewish. On that day in 2004, I felt his blood in my veins as I reconnected with the thread of something ancestral.
Sometimes growing up spiritually is really about growing down into our ancestral roots.
As a spiritual director I often work with people who feel called to spiritual traditions that are not theirs by birth. Christians return to the earth. Jews sit zazen. Buddhists take communion.
I also witness ancient practices authentically surfacing in the lives of those I companion, like dreaming of traditional shamanic healing practices. People are often surprised when I tell them they are doing things that people have been doing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Unfortunately, I’ve also experienced many people ignoring their authentic inner guidance because it tells them to do something that from an outsider’s perspective looks like religious appropriation.
Appropriation, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is when a person assumes the tradition of another religion or culture. For example, a pipe ceremony led by a Christian, European-American could easily be construed as religious appropriation because it resembles a sacred Lakota tradition.
I understand the frustration many communities feel about their sacred, traditional ceremonies being appropriated by outsiders. The world has a long legacy of abuse that has stripped many people of their sacred, cultural inheritance.
At the same time, I know that authentic spiritual callings spring up from the well of the unconscious mind, longing to be honored, to be practiced. And sometimes they resemble the sacred rituals and ceremonies of other cultures.
I’m not suggesting that a divinely inspired call to use smoke in ceremony should result in a person becoming a Lakota Pipe Carrier. I suppose it might, but this is a very detailed ceremony, rich in tradition, and should be reserved for the Lakota community and their guests.
I am suggesting, however, that when we dig deep enough we often find our ancestors had similar or parallel practices to the traditions of other cultures. Using incense or smoke in ritual and ceremony is cross-cultural. Being called to use sacred smoke and a pipe can be divinely inspired and is not in and of itself appropriation.
It’s sometimes a fine line to walk between appropriation and authentic spirituality. But there are only two beings who can ever know if your path is right for you, and that’s you and whatever you call Spirit, whether it’s God, YHWH, Allah, the Universe, your inner voice, Goddess, Great Grandfather, etc.
There is a lot of pain and suffering caused by appropriation, but there is also pain and suffering caused by people not listening to their authentic spiritual call because they don’t want to offend another culture (or because their religion doesn’t support their path.)
Four years ago I was invited to pray with a 400 year old Torah. As a born and bred Christian, sensitive to the ways in which Christians have harmed others in the name of God, I questioned my right to be participating in a Yom Kippur service. As I entered the temple, I wondered what the initiated Jews in the congregation would think of my presence.
But I felt an ancient calling that pulled me toward the Ark. I slipped my shoes off and walked on hallowed ground, pulled back the curtain and sat on one of the many floor cushions. I remembered my dream of touching the script that Moses wrote and realized a need to grow down into my ancestral roots in order to recover a lost part of my connection to the Divine.
We all have an authentic call to grow down into something, but so many of us have forgotten how to listen that we don’t recognize the voice or the need.
Close your eyes for a moment: When you listen, what does your heart tell you? How are you being called to grow down, to reconnect with lost parts of your Self, or your ancestry, or your childhood dreams?
Will you let other people’s fears stand in your way of cultivating authenticity?
Or are you willing to answer a higher call?