When Women Gather
In 2002, I participated in a global congress convened under the auspices of the United Nations. Hundreds of women representing the world's various spiritual traditions came together to talk about how we could individually and collectively advance the peace process. This story describes a unique highlight of that moving experience.
We sat on the floor in a circle--12 women--in a hotel ballroom nestled on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. It was the kind of a room where diplomats might gather for brandy and conversation: a paragon of Old World elegance and design. The carpet was richly textured; the molding that rimmed the ceiling was gilded and baroque.
Twenty minutes earlier, Ginny and I had breached the stately ranks of upholstered chairs--peach-colored sentinels poised for the next onslaught of distinguished derriéres--and muscled them to the back of the room. That we were preparing this lavish ballroom for a Native American pipe ceremony seemed incongruous at best. But that was before the ceremony began, before I understood how any paradox can be transcended by those who embody what unites rather than divides us, by those who allow their hearts to objectify that which makes us whole.
We had come together, these women and I, two days before. More than 500 women from 70 countries traveled to Switzerland, each of us propelled by an urgency that was far graver than any of us imagined at the time. Preachers and rabbis and nuns, leaders of indigenous tribes, social justice activists, judges, diplomats, artists and writers, educators, doyennes of commerce, directors of foundations and NGOs, princesses and Hollywood actors, women who had themselves been victims of war: the faithful, the impassioned, and the wounded all made their way.
I met Ginny on the first day of the congress. She was from Colorado. Big-boned and blonde, she looked like a snowcapped mountain in the morning sun. We had lunch. We walked by the lake. We shared a late supper. Somewhere along the way she told me she was a pipe carrier, and that she had brought her pipe with her to Geneva on the off-chance that someone would want to participate in a pipe ceremony. Was I interested?
Late on the last afternoon of the congress, I spotted her in the hotel lobby. The conference organizers had agreed to let her hold her ceremony during that evening's dinner hour. I offered to help her pass the word, but was unable to recruit any takers.
"Well," she said, when we met up again, "Let's make the space for women to gather in circle and see what the Great Spirit wants." It was then that we moved the chairs to the back of the room.
During the next several minutes, the massive doors to the ballroom opened and closed many times. Some women saw us sitting quietly on the floor and joined us without a word. Others asked what we were doing, then came or went accordingly. We were a disparate group, a confluence of races and ethnicities, of various ages and affiliations, with no conscious common resolve that we could name, other than to sit together in the palatial splendor of this now deeply silent room. When 12 women were seated in the circle, the ceremony began.
Ginny closed her eyes, lifted the pipe above her head and offered our gathering to Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky and to the Four Directions. Slowly, with exquisite deliberateness, she removed the pipe from its pouch and spoke to us in hushed tones about its symbolism: "In my tradition, the stem and the bowl represent the masculine and feminine aspects of Spirit. The smoke is a two-way street: the pathway our prayers trod and the means by which Spirit enfolds us in blessing during the ceremony."
Ginny assembled the pipe, filled the bowl with mountain herbs, then sent it clockwise around the circle, inviting us to offer--silently or aloud--the imperatives of our hearts when the pipe passed into our hands. We closed our eyes.
In the time it took for the pipe to reach me, the external locus of the group's control shifted. A primordial ardor entered and fortified our midst and diverted my awareness from the circumference of the circle, from the edge of life--from my individual comings and goings, from the material world rife with separateness and opposition--inward toward a luminous, collective core. A silent prayer rose within me for the women of our gathering and our world, that we would each find the clarity and courage to do what we had come to Earth to do. I passed the pipe.
Ginny sent the pipe around a second time. This time when it came to me, three words formed in my mind: "Great Mother Heart." I understood these words to be an invocation and affirmation that conceptualized and embodied the wisdom and strength women and men could draw upon in times to come, as well as a declaration of what was possible if we made the words our own.
The pipe returned to Ginny; she lifted it once again to the Four Directions, to Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky, and thanked Great Spirit for our gathering. She disassembled the pipe and returned it to its pouch.
Fifteen minutes passed in utter stillness. Someone stirred; someone rose to leave. I asked if we might each share where we were from before we parted. "America, France, Venezuela, India, Switzerland, England, Iraq," we said.
Then one by one, these women--and Great Mother Heart with them--moved into the world.