The moonlight shines through the small opening between the curtains in my bedroom as the scream of the alarm clock goes off. It is 5:30 am and the start of a new day. For many people, the start of the day means a quick meal before a run or a spin on a bicycle. As a person of Indigenous ancestry and a follower of Jesus, my day starts differently. Grateful for the gift of each new day, I sit to express my gratitude to Creator in prayer.
Each day starts with the smudge. Mixing a little sweet grass with sage and tobacco, I light the sacred medicines with a match and fan the small flame with my prayer fan to ensure that the smoke rises. I fan the smoke over my head so I can think good thoughts; I fan the smoke over my eyes so I can see things in good light. I fan the smoke over my ears so I hear good things and listen to what others say with respect and understanding. I fan the smoke over my mouth so I will say good things and only speak the truth. I fan the smoke over my chest where my heart is so I approach each day with love for my fellow human beings. As I am doing this, I pray to the Creator asking that I walk with a good heart and a good mind. I ask for his blessing on all who walk this earth so we can live in harmony with one another. I pray my heart is opened to receive the wisdom of his word as I settle down to read Scripture and pray the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer.
To some, combining the smudge with the Daily Office may seem contradictory. I can understand that view given our colonial past and how the Church failed to see how there are similarities in some of the spiritual practices of my ancestors and Church liturgical practices. After all, Indigenous ceremony is another form of liturgy used to pray to God. I believe that, while they are indeed different, they also complement one another.
Annishnabe author Richard Wagamese’s insights into smudging speak to the truth of the effect smudging has when used as part of prayer. On page 47 of Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, he writes: “Three strands in a braid of sweet grass. They represent three spiritual qualities – maybe love, kindness, humility. When I smudge myself, I purify myself in those qualities. I prepare myself in those qualities. I prepare myself for my day with the strength of those spiritual qualities. The smoke clings to my hair, my clothes, and it remains in the air of my home. As I move through the day and smell that fragrance, I am reminded of how I have chosen to live-and in that is power of greeting each day with reverence, calm and prayer. That is how I learn to direct my humanity toward peace, equality, and harmony: one day, one person, one circumstance at a time.” As my prayers rise to the Creator with the smoke of the smudge, I am made ready to meet God as I read and meditate on his word given to us in the Scriptures.
My ancestors learned through the passing down of oral traditions and stories recorded using wampum belts. For some, they were recorded using petrographs on buffalo robes. Lessons on how to love and live were passed on to children from generation-to-generation. If we look at how we came to have the Bible, this is not much different than the Hebrew Scriptures, passed on from generation to generation until they were documented on scrolls during the exile in Babylon.
Daily devotions have long been a part of discipleship, and even though we cannot meet together in public worship, it is important we continue to hold onto what keeps us connected to God. For some, it is meditation. For others, it may be praying using prayer beads. For me, it is the smell of the sage, sweet grass, and tobacco and beautiful rhythm and language in the prayer book. For me, walking the Red Road and being a follower of Jesus are complementary on this journey of being in relationship with our Creator.
Fred Matthews is an Indigenous Anglican in the Edmonton diocese. He worships and is a Lay Reader at St. Thomas’, Sherwood Park and at St. Faith's, Edmonton. Fred continues to be an active member of the Messy Church Reconciliation Team and assisting with the ministry at Frog Lake First Nation.