“Many Want to Catch Fish but Few Want to Clean Them”
Recently Brad dreamed that he was in his grandparent’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was once again in Doe’s kitchen facing her old white oven.
When I looked to the right of the oven I noticed a door I had forgotten about. I couldn’t remember whether it led to a pantry, a storage closet, or somewhere else. When I opened the door, I instantly recognized it as the room where my grandfather cleaned his fish. The room was plain and unadorned—there were no pictures hanging on the wall and no objects resting anywhere. There was nothing present but a counter and sink where my grandfather would attend to his latest catch. My grandfather Reverend W. L. Keeney was professionally a “fisher of men,” but he also loved to go fishing. He fished the streams, ponds, and lakes of Missouri and anywhere else his vacations took him to explore the bounty of nature.
As a young boy my grandfather taught me that most people who went fishing with him loved the thrill of catching a fish and reeling it in, but they complained about how much they disliked cleaning the fish. As an adult I personally used to joke to friends, “You all catch and clean them; I prefer eating them!” But I never heard my grandfather complain about cleaning a fish. He was as serious about it as he was his lures, bait, various rods and reels, and the secret locations of his special fishing holes. When I was little I used to love carrying his tackle box when I went fishing with him. He loved everything about fishing—preparation for the trip, the journey, the fishing itself, the cleaning, and of course, eating that fish straight out of the frying pan with hushpuppies on the side and homemade ice cream that made the feast end right.
In the dream my grandparents were no longer living in the house. I stood in the kitchen and stared at the spot where Pa Pa cleaned the fish. As I remembered him and his love for life—with all its duties and responsibilities—I was suddenly overcome with how much I missed him. Tears began to flow and I was sobbing as if he had just passed away. I woke up from the dream in a daze of sorrow, longing, and deep love for both of my grandparents.
As I was lying there in the dark thinking about that little room off the kitchen I became confused. I thought how strange it was that I had forgotten about it all these years. Then I began to wonder whether such a room really existed. As I recalled the structure of the house, I realized that there never had been a special fish cleaning room in my grandparent’s home. My grandfather cleaned the fish on his porch or outside in the yard.
I knew I had been taken in vision to a spiritual classroom to receive an old teaching. Right off the kitchen where the cooking takes place is a room where you first go to get cleaned. Suddenly I heard my grandfather’s voice pour words into me: “There’s more to spirituality than catching fish and cooking them. The fish have to be cleaned. Many want to catch fish, but few want to clean them.”
Sacred Ecstatics is all about fishing: helping people become better bait to be caught by God. However, the middle phase is equally important—before you can be thrown into God’s frying pan you need to get cleaned.
These days many folks cringe at even the slightest hint of religious talk that suggests we need to be “clean” before we can receive the joy of a spiritual path. This response is likely a reaction to a distortion of a former spiritual wisdom teaching that sometimes fostered prejudice, punishment, and disdain for others. However, a liberating truth of transformation is lost when we reject outright the invitation to clean up our act in preparation to board the spirit train. As one old shaman told Brad, “If you haven’t committed a crime in the outside world, you’ve certainly committed one inside your heart and mind.” Cleaning, if done right, will make us less punitive and judgmental toward ourselves and others, as well as more open-hearted and vast-minded.
This train is a clean train, this train
This train don’t pull no liars
No false pretenders, and no backbiters, this train…
“This Train is Bound for Glory,” as sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Cleaning involves more than a pleasurable dip in a fancy bubble bath or a gentle waft of aromatic smoke. The scales have to be removed in order for our spiritual senses to be uncovered. This requires a sharp blade, a sword held by someone capable of discerning what should remain and what should be removed. It may come as a surprise that the more obvious crimes of humanity actually wash off more easily than the scales of false humility, pride, self-righteousness, and know-it-all-ism.
Jesus—Reverend Keeney’s main guide and teacher— did not take out his whip to castigate thieves, harlots, and social outcasts. He went after those typically regarded as successful, upstanding members of society—the established merchants, Pharisees, and the prosperous. Nothing pissed Jesus off more than seeing the temple littered with vendor booths and money exchangers. He didn’t politely ask if they would mind moving outside at their convenience. He had an explosive shit fit and expressed prophetic rage while whirling a bundle of cords. Jesus was cleaning the fish as well as cleaning the room where fish are supposed to get cleaned.
The Kalahari Bushmen describe their ecstatic way as a means of “cleaning dirty arrows and nails of n/om.” Healing itself is depicted as such a cleaning. Anger, selfishness, jealousy, greed, and pride are all regarded as things that clog us with trickster dirt. Optimal living is only made possible by having shiny, clean nails. That’s the way the Bushmen talk about well being—it’s clean nail living.
However, the Bushmen have kept alive a cleaning process that prevents people from simply turning into zealous moralists, gavel-wielding judges, and petty finger-pointers. Cleaning and cooking take place through bringing everyone together to sing holy songs that wake up n/om. We must get spiritually cooked in order to become clean and you must be cleaned before getting spiritually cooked—one does not happen without the other. There is still a time and place for using wise thoughts and words as brooms to help sweep away the dust of us. But a true deep clean requires spiritual fire and steam, the kind that also empowers the train bound for glory.
As you consider the three-step recipe for getting cooked, remember that the first step is the most important: building sacred ground. If you start right, you will end right. To build sacred ground and make room for God, the floor must be swept and the right ecstatic ingredients gathered and blended (movement, rhythm, sacred emotion, and soulful tone). The holy songs must come to help the n/om penetrate your body and heart, removing the outer scales that render you too hard and insensitive to feel the touch of God.
Unlike fish, however, the cleaning doesn’t just happen once but needs to take place often and forevermore. You are a fish in the vast sea who must be caught again and again to be cleaned all over again and then sent to an old school fish fry. Hush that ego puppy of yours and get yourself clean for the frying pan. If you are not clean, you will turn mean and even though you think you’re nice you’re actually ice and by this we mean that your trickster nature must be lean in order to glean what it means to be caught, cleaned, and cooked–the trinity of the holy fish fry. A new spiritual classroom has been built for us next to Doe’s kitchen—all the sweet and wise grandfathers are waiting there to get you good and ready for the big feast!
-The Keeneys, April 18, 2018
 Nails and arrows are metaphors for the way n/om – super concentrated sacred vibration and life force from God– pierce the body and take up residence inside us. For more on Bushman healing see first person accounts from the Kalahari doctors in our book, Way of the Bushman: Spiritual Teachings and Practices of the Kalahari Ju/’hoansi.