Indian Country Today: The patterns of sacred colors pressed in glass on the doors of St. Alexius’ Meditation Room are rounded, reminiscent of Chippewa art and decoration, as well as geometric motifs, like the Lakotas’.
The colors and patterns also are appropriate for a room used by Muslim medical staff for prayer, since there is no depiction of the human form, which is forbidden in Islam.
The colored doors and side windows designed by artist Butch Thunderhawk allow light into the simply-furnished room. Rows of chairs line soft sand-colored walls. Natural materials complete the space – a wood plank ceiling and slate floor. The back of the room curves into a gentle bow to suggest the circular themes in Native American spiritual practices and the ceiling is inset with a large louvered ventilation cover. The ventilation was built in so that the room can be used for smudging and the use of incense or the ritual pipe.
Smudging, or using the smoke from smoldering herbs and plants such as cedar, sweetgrass and sage, is associated with healing and prayer, said the Rev. Julian Nix, a chaplain at St. Alexius for 21 years.
The smoke is gently fanned across the people present with a feather or fan of feathers, representing healing purification and the rising of prayers, Nix said. Religious practices that use incense or smudging, anything involving fire, were difficult to do in patient rooms, both for space and for the risk of fire, he said.
The Meditation Room is a separate space just off the solarium on the main floor at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.
The solarium’s winding paths and standing greenery are meant to give a park-like feel to the space. A large open-air gathering space just outside the solarium is furnished with tables and benches, large potted plants, and a life-size sculpture of St. Vincent de Paul and a group of children, its tawny finish now interspersed with white where snow has come to rest.
Both the solarium and the Meditation Room were created in 2005, designed in collaboration with St. Alexius’ staffers and people from the Standing Rock, Three Affiliated Tribes and Turtle Mountain communities.
The staff was asked what they would like and the solarium – a place for both staff, visitors and families to unwind, pray or just sit in silence – was the result. Consultations with the Muslim doctors on staff, those from India, Buddhists, and elders and others from North Dakota’s tribes wanted a space that could be used for ceremonies and prayer practices that wouldn’t be suitable in St. Alexius’ Christian-themed chapel.
The whole process included educational sessions for the entire staff on the spiritual practices of other religions and cultures, Nix said.
In the solarium, a large man-made tree has been placed under a glassed-in dome, while nooks of seating make the large space feel like an intimate collection of private spaces. The winding floor leads toward a large fireplace. Soothing music is played there, ranging from Native American flute to Eastern “world” soundscapes.
Both spaces were dedicated to recognizing “the whole person, and all the people,” Nix said. Modern medicine has to fit into the lives of the people coming there, he said.
“Healing is not just physical, but (takes place) in the mind and spirit as well,” he said.
The best medical care can be defeated by fear, but thrives in a place where your beliefs can be freely expressed, Nix said.
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