Q&A: Sacred Fire Asheville fire keeper Patrick Hanaway

LET THERE BE LIGHT: "In just about every major tradition and for Indigenous peoples around the world, we’ve connected around fire in order to have light, warmth and connection," says Sacred Fire Asheville fire keeper Patrick Hanaway. Photo courtesy of Hanaway

By day, Patrick Hanaway and his wife, Lisa Lichtig, are physicians at their integrative and functional medicine practice, Family to Family, in Weaverville. By night, the couple are stewards of a different type of healing practice: They are fire keepers with Sacred Fire Asheville, the local chapter of an international nonprofit.

Since 2002, Hanaway says guests of all faiths and religious backgrounds have attended the nonprofit’s multiple monthly events to experience “the transformational energy of fire [and] its healing presence.” He says humans all have fear, courage, gratitude, grief and humor, and yet “we get caught up in our separateness instead of our sameness.”

Men’s fires take place the third Thursday of every month, and women’s fires occur on the new moon. Additionally, a community fire is held on the second Saturday of each month. Alcohol and drugs are prohibited at the events, which range in size from a handful of participants to 150 people. No matter the turnout, Hanaway says he cherishes the opportunity to “slow down, connect with people and open my heart.”

Hanaway spoke with Xpress about why fire is sacred to him, the importance of fire throughout the history of humankind and what it means to be a fire keeper.

This interview has been lightly edited. 

What is your personal connection to fire? Why is fire sacred to you?

I have been involved in Tibetan Buddhism and other kinds of spiritual teachings. One of the things that emerged [across teachings] is how do we connect with each other in community as “common heart” [a connection for healing insight]? In just about every major tradition and for Indigenous peoples around the world, we’ve connected around fire to have light, warmth and connection.

As I began to spend more time around the fire and deepen my understanding and become a fire keeper, what I found was that it’s a context where people of all different views, perspectives, livelihoods and economic backgrounds — a diversity of people — can come together and be with each other and open their hearts.

Where were you first exposed to Sacred Fire? 

An emergence of this international organization Sacred Fire occurred about 20 years ago. But my connections to it were older than that — 25, 30 years ago. Working with Indigenous elders, I began to spend time around fire pujas and began to make offerings and connect with fire. The first interactions were with Tibetan elders working with fire ceremonies here in the United States and in Nepal and India.

What is attending a sacred fire like? 

We meet by the fire shortly after sundown. We spend time — sometimes multiple hours — allowing people to express themselves. We talk until there’s nothing left to be said. We want to create the space for people to open their hearts. We find it has a healing quality to it. It’s actually something that’s quite unusual in our culture at this point in time.

You and your wife, Lisa, are fire keepers for Sacred Fire Asheville. What does it mean to be a fire keeper?

The fire keeper is the one that opens and holds the space. That means we create a context to allow for people to be able to be together and to be vulnerable and share together in a space of safety. They know they will not be hurt or attacked; they know they can express what’s on their heart. They know other people aren’t going to try and fix them and change them.

Tell me about making offerings during the fire. 

At the beginning we make offerings to the fire. The offerings are made in the tradition of the Wixárika people. That’s what they call themselves; the word in Spanish is Huichol. We’re gifted with their approach. It’s a way to consecrate and open the space and be open with each other. Offerings are optional; people don’t have to do that. But offerings are made to the fire and connection to [north, south, east and west] in the center. That opens the space for songs, poems, stories, jokes and heartfelt expression of what’s going on.

What do you think it is about fire that brings people together?

One of the first stories that we hear in most Native cultures is how fire arrived. Fire gave us the opportunity to light the darkness and warm the cold and cook our food. But it also created the opportunity to gather and connect, which then allowed us to step back and reflect and coordinate our plans and actions. As we did this, it allowed people to come together in new ways — not just for themselves but for each other to build shelter and clothing and make crops. This was really a huge shift in evolution.

Can people bring technology to the fires, like to play music or take photos?

[laughs] No technology allowed! Turn it off! If you want to connect on your technology, stay away, because we’re focused on connecting with each other. We ask people to turn off their technology. There’s occasionally someone who is on call for something urgent, and they’ll kindly ask “Can I keep my phone on silent in case I get paged?” Of course, we’re open to that. We’re not trying to act in restrictive ways, but in ways that help us connect with each other.

Who can attend a fire at Sacred Fire Asheville? 

Everyone is welcome. We’d love to have kids come. It’s definitely family-friendly. We had a fire awhile back where there was a 3-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. One woman brought her mother, who is 91. To watch the 91-year-old grandma play with the 3- and 4-year-olds was so beautiful. It’s really just about being humans and connecting with each other. That warms my heart.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Q&A: Sacred Fire Asheville fire keeper Patrick Hanaway

  1. Erin

    I’m so glad Mountain Xpress interviewed this amazing man! These fires are such a joy; in fact, I try to attend as many as I can. There’s a real feeling of belonging, not based on politics or “belief systems,” but instead on our shared experiences as human beings living in these times.

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