Religious rites from every major religion have been passed down to us over the centuries and were originally inspired as a means to praise God and to serve the people. The kinks and potential hazards were worked out long ago. Safety measures were even built into some of them to prevent needless deaths or injuries.
That's what makes the three deaths from a recent sweat lodge and vision quest in Sedona Arizona, lead by New Age guru James Ray, who appeared in the popular movie, "The Secret," particularly tragic. Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died shortly after the sweat lodge. This past Saturday, Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota passed away as well. All were reported to be in good health before the weekend event.
It appears from all accounts that many of the steps that are the usual practice of any sweat lodge or vision quest were omitted from Ray's weekend. The first indication is the price tag that was set on the event. Each participant was reported to have paid between nine and ten thousand dollars apiece, which smacks in the face of Native American tenets.
It is the practice to only accept donations that cover the expenses of the water pourer or shaman, but not as a means of income.
I have participated in a few sweat lodges where there was a requested donation of fifty dollars, but no one was turned away who couldn't pay. The point of the sweat lodge was never about the money.
There is nothing wrong with earning a good living, but there's also never been a story of any religion where the religious leader became wealthy off of the followers that ended well, no matter what the justifications.
However, even more important than a question of money is the amount of respect given to any particular religion through how it is practiced. It's a form of respect to learn the steps and be sanctioned to perform them.
To do anything else would be like someone deciding they were a Catholic priest because they showed up at church a few times and really dig the vibe.
To set out, even with the intention of opening people up to the idea of change and something better in their lives, but without any guidance or sanction is to mock the ceremonies in a weak mimic of the actual religion.
It is even unclear whether or not Ray was ever trained by an actual water pourer, the Native American term for the leader of the lodge, and therefore, would have known there were steps to adhere to and what was their significance before trying either ceremony. Ray was also reported to be leading the more arduous vision quest, another religious rite, ahead of the sweat lodge. A vision quest is usually led by a shaman, the equivalent of a minister or priest.
Sweat lodges are held in a lodge built at the direction of a shaman, not rented, and a vision quest is held on what a shaman has directed as sacred ground. Not just any old wooded area or secluded mountain top will do. Each step of the way the leader is asking their Higher Powers what is the next right step. They call in the Spirits of the grandfathers and grandmothers and give each part the reverence it deserves.
The idea that this is religion and not self-help is so drummed into each participant that those of us who are Christian, such as myself, are given the opportunity to pray using our own language. Again, it's about the respect.
We are there to learn humility and accept help by getting the ego out of the way. That's tougher to accomplish when there's a lot of money on the table.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com, or visit www.martharandolphcarr.com.