"Clothing optional," it read.

sweat lodge.jpg

You know that dream where you're naked in front of others who are fully dressed? Now imagine the opposite: You're clothed in a roomful of naked people. Only it's not a dream, it's real. That was my Thursday evening...

For many years I've been drawn to the spiritual in nature. I find God in the outdoors, and I enjoy helping others connect with God on mountains, beside rivers, on trails in the woods. So when I had the chance to register with a group who was offering a backpacking retreat, I jumped at it. The fact this group arises from a different religious tradition was a bonus: I'd get to experience how others practice outdoor spirituality. My intention was to broaden my knowledge, make connections with others outside of my tradition, and enjoy God in the midst of it all.

It was only after I signed up that I read the fine print regarding the evening event that preceded the backpacking. We were going to attend a Native American sweat lodge for the purpose of purification. Note that this group isn't Native American, but they have found great meaning in the sweat lodge ritual prior to schlepping heavy packs for a weekend. "Interesting," I thought, "even more learning to be had!" But a few days before the retreat I realized I had missed two very key words in the description of the sweat lodge: "clothing optional."

I thought, "I can do this. Not many will really get naked, right?" "Right," I replied to myself. 

The sweat lodge itself is an interesting structure. It's a circular dome, approximately 12' in diameter, with an interior peak height of about 5'. Draped with heavy insulation-type blankets on the exterior, it looked kind of like a big, gray, wooly lady bug. In the center of the dirt floor is a pit where red-hot stones, plucked straight from a bonfire, are placed during the ritual. Waves of intense heat billow outward from the stones when the facilitator pours water on them.

Each of us brought two towels, one to sit on, and one to dry off after the sweat lodge. I had picked out a loose-fitting tank top and running shorts to wear. Having only met my fellow retreatants that day or the night before, I wondered nervously who, if any, would bare all. With the stones ready and lodge prepared, our lanky facilitator dropped his pants before stripping off his shirt. We're outdoors under a fantastic canopy of trees and one by one - all ten of my fellow lodge-sitters, nine men and one other woman - slowly remove every bit of their clothing canopies. Every. Single. Piece.

Except me. The awkwardness of the situation was highlighted as I stood in black shorts and an aqua top, amongst their gleaming white bodies, averting my gaze, trying to mask my inner freak out. "Seriously? Seriously???," my inner voice groaned. 

Around age four I got my first pair of glasses. At the time it was a badge of honor - I finally fit in with the rest of my bespectacled family. In my youth and adulthood it proved to be annoying, even with contact lenses. This night though, it was a godsend. Asking the guy next to me, who had done this ritual many times, whether or not I should bring my glasses into the lodge, I heard the wonderful words "that would not be a good idea."  I removed them, which now meant that I was almost blind and slightly panicked about stubbing a toe or falling in the fire, but, hey, I couldn't see! Granted, no one else would know I was almost blind, thus I realized that I needed to work on not staring directionless, lest I appear to be checking out someone's plumbing.

Our facilitator - I'll call him Jim - got into the lodge and sat, spread-eagled, by the door. "Come on in," he said cheerily. I happened to be nearest the door, so I stooped, entered the lodge, and shuffled around the entire circle to be seated at Jim's right. In turn, everyone else paraded in around the pit, stooped and shuffling, to take the next spot in the circle. It was tight in there, and took effort to keep my bare knees from resting against the naked knees on either side of me, especially since it was total darkness when the blanket door-flap was closed during the ritual.

There were four rounds in total, some containing songs, some including dialogue and sharing. Each round took approximately 15 - 20 minutes (I think), with a break in between. During each break we had the option of shuffling out of the lodge to hose down and "expose" ourselves to the night air. With each round more rocks were added (by a naked participant with a pitch fork, if you can imagine that), more water was poured on, and it grew hotter and hotter. Near the end of round three I began to be concerned. My heart rate was rising higher than I am comfortable with, and I began to be light-headed. As the group entered into a song I did not know, my hand found Jim's shoulder and I leaned over to whisper that I needed to get out. Now. No one had yet needed to bail early during a round, and it felt like it took an enormous amount of inner strength to face the (self-constructed) embarrassment of exiting early. 

Instead of Jim immediately opening the door flap, letting in the light, and letting me out like I wanted, he said, "It'll be over in a few minutes. You can lay down behind me, it might make it better." My first thought was, "Dude, are you kidding? Lay behind you? You have no clothes on!", which was closely followed by a second thought, "Whatever...I'm dying here!" Leaning over slightly, my head and shoulders felt instant relief behind his back. It was staggering how much heat his body was absorbing, shielding me, making it possible to finish out the round.

One other guy also sat out the final round. Both of us stumbled to find our glasses and put on some dry clothes, then we sat quietly on a bench, listening respectfully to the muffled sounds coming from the lodge. When it was over, Jim insisted on all of us shaking hands and saying thank you to one another - three times. My fellow fourth round dropout and I were completely clothed, so at least I had company in the intensely odd experience of shaking hands repeatedly with a line of nude people. By this time I had gotten pretty good at keeping my eyes at eye-level and the glasses didn't instill quite as much anxiety. Or maybe I was just getting used to these naked friends of mine.


I can't say that I had a spiritual encounter during the sweat lodge (unless you count the dream-like aspect of this surreal event!) , but I certainly appreciated the physical sensations I experienced (no, no...not those kinds of sensations!). Firstly, the sweat was so unlike the perspiration from exercise. It felt clean. In physical exertion the sweat leaves behind a gritty, salty residue. Sweat lodge sweat felt like true water; water that is emanating from just about every pore in the body. Even my fingers were dripping sweat. Instead of the usual ickiness that accompanies exercise sweat, this felt like a self-generating shower. Sort of.

Secondly, while sitting motionless in the open air after the third round it was like my body was humming. There was almost an electric charge to it, an energy pulsing.  I can't recall ever feeling that way, like my body was tuning into universal vibrations. It was wild, and admittedly, it felt good! I have no idea what was really going on physiologically, but I can see why this is done as a purification ritual. With the combination of the clean sweat and the body hum, there was a sense of newness. Sort of.

I can say for sure that I'm really glad I could experience these feelings and sensations with my clothes on.  Not to disparage those who were flappin' free, not at all. When asked by my backpacking group what my pastor friends would've thought of this ceremony I replied, "Well, in general Christians aren't as comfortable with nakedness." The quick response: "Oh, our tradition isn't, either. Even Native Americans don't necessarily do sweat lodges naked; many wear clothes." Oh. So the naked thing truly, truly is "optional," and everyone - except me - jumped on board.

Contemplative Richard Rohr regularly hosts men's retreats in New Mexico. For a good chunk of one day the guys are sent off into the desert alone. It is common for many of them to strip off their clothes during this alone time, even though Rohr does not advocate this. Something about nature and wilderness can cause a person to want to be fully "them," with no barriers. In comparison with life wounds and inner emotional turmoil, clothes are a relatively easy barrier to remove in an attempt to reveal more of one's authentic self. 

I do wish I could be more comfortable with nakedness. Clothing is a huge part of Scripture, as is nakedness. Adam and Eve looked desperately for clothes after choosing to find life in a source other than God, which means that beforehand they pranced and cared for the earth in bare, bronzed bodies. Several places in the Biblical text say that God clothes people in righteousness. Clothes are a literal protective covering, and a symbolic covering of acceptance, purity, and honor. And, conversely, clothes are also equated with violence, as in "he is clothed with violence." (You are what you wear, maybe?)

In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul relates nakedness with a longing to be united with God in heaven. "I don't want to be naked," Paul groans, "I want God!"

Being naked, just the very thought of being naked, can evoke some powerful feelings. As I experienced on Thursday, just being in the presence of naked people brings up a lot of emotions!! But these bodies of ours are good. Really good. As lumpy, pimply, dimply, or sculpted as they may be. I may not have checked out the unclothed forms of my fellow sweat lodge-sitters, but if I had I would have seen beauty there. (Confession: I think I still might've given the dangly parts a bit of a miss, though.)

Maybe, had my brain been able to consider it, I might've been able to channel the emotional awkwardness into recognizing a spiritual desire for something similar to what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians. Maybe our nakedness/clothed-ness has more to do with our spirituality than we realize.

Maybe. In situations of group nudity, though, I'm still happy that my vision stinks.