I am in the midst of the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop this week--which means 18 people are here sharing our island, our waters, our whales---AND our banya! How do you get 18 people clean each night in a place without an indoor bathroom? This is how:
Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water a day. We use maybe 3 gallons apiece. We’re just not that thirsty---or that clean. (One of my sons has worn the same sweatshirt the entire summer. Just 1 washing. And I just went 6 days without washing my hair. I’m lucky like that . ..)
Our water does not gush from our 2 faucets in the house: it ambles, urged along simply by gravity-flow from a tank above our house filled with water from our hand-dug well. Getting clean and staying clean take time and energy. We don’t have an indoor shower or a tub; we bathe in a banya, a word and a custom brought over by the Russians 300 years ago when they colonized this part of Alaska.
The banya is a wood-fired steam sauna in a building separate from the house. We build a huge wood fire in the barrel stove,
fill the inside tank (over part of the barrel stove) with water for our hot water.
We keep the fire stoked until the water inside is hot and the air temperature is about 200 degrees. It takes 3 - 4 hours---we have to plan ahead. Then we take turns filing out to the banya, towels over our shoulders. We steam and sweat, washing in basins, emerging red-faced, happy and clean.
We use very little water, but we use a lot of wood, all of it driftwood found on beaches, dragged to shore in a flotilla, stacked until we saw it up and burn it.
I’ve been dragging my body into that banya for 38 years now. Naked I sit, in my grime and sweat and the worries of the day, sucking in air almost too hot for my lungs. But I’m not really here to get clean. I'm here to get pure.
The banya, like a native American sweatlodge, is often a house of prayer for me. Two thousand years ago, on a grassy hillside, maybe a bit like the one where we built our banya, a promise and a blessing was given: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “
Am I pure enough yet to see the living God?
In a book of prayers from the Presbyterian church published in 1940’s I find this prayer:
“Grant that we may think clean, generous, humble thoughts and harbor none that stains the mind or dims our vision of Thee. So cleanse our hearts that we may ever behold thee face to face . .”
What I have seen of God so far is this:
He strips us,
he scalds us,
he sears our lungs,
our bodies weep . . .
And when we return again to the world,
we wear clean clothes, our skin shines,
people are kinder,
and the world itself is brighter than we left it.
How many of us are “pure in heart”?
Not me. But we shall be, one day. Even as we lean toward that day,
we have been made