Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fear, Health, and the Visitation

2016 Camino of Healing. Somewhere between Estella and Los Arcos
I've been reflecting on some of the events from my first Camino of 2016, the one that went from Lourdes to Santiago de Compostela. In it, I had to cope with a fever, hail, strained hamstrings, and countless blisters. Truly, during the hailstorm, I feared for my life (see Angel Messenger and the Comfort of Christ). But if you follow the daily postings on that page of my blog (2016 Camino of Healing), there's a consistency to it that I now see after the fact.

Pain, sickness, and the unknown create fear in us. They generate a fight or flight reaction of anxiety, and since we can't flee from pain and sickness, we're left with an elevated sense that we're fighting an external enemy. It may be true. It may be a parasite or virus living within us that we fight. But the psychology of that anxiety has its costs.

We get exhausted. We may start to despair. And we can give up on putting one foot in front of the other, as we struggle to maintain our strength. I've seen it in others. I've seen it in patients, in pilgrims, and in caregivers. And I have seen it in myself. And I see it in myself.

I'm waiting for my 82-year-old father to undergo a biopsy next week. He's recovered from a severe lung infection but the doctors are unsure of what they see in his lungs. This has my mother anxious. And that's ok. It makes sense to be nervous about the unknown in your body.

Somehow, though, we need to move past that anxiety. I was thinking about this as I reflected on the Feast Day of the Visitation (May 31). It's when cousins Mary and Elizabeth meet up and see each other with child. Elizabeth greets her, "Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."

I imagine that this must have shocked Mary. Here she is, having traveled over 80 miles back then, while pregnant, while young, while nervous, and her cousin greets her with a most amazing blessing. This must have been incredibly comforting and loving.

And according to Gospel of Luke, Mary responds with the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed forever.

I can't imagine that she was having these thoughts on that long journey to see her cousin. I see it as something that burst from her as the burden of fear and anxiety were lessened by her cousin's words, by her cousin's embrace.

It's why we visit each other when we're sick. We aren't all medical professionals so my advice isn't worth more than anyone working at a hospital. And people who comfort me are most often not the medical professionals.

It's our cousins, relatives, friends who do so, who lighten our fears and anxieties. And when I visit someone, I know I can't answer all or any of their questions of healing, but I hope that I can listen. I hope that I can hear,

So when I reflect on last year, and what transpired over the Pyrenees, or on the paths, or at Lourdes, I like to think that it was the simple stuff - a gentle hug, a tap on the shoulder, an embrace, a healing bath, a voice over the phone - that gave me strength to go on. And in finding that calm, in finding that strength, we like Mary can rejoice and find ourselves filled with a healing love that cannot be denied.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Wild Geese

Some days, the sun rises, the birds chirp, the flowers bloom. It's spring. Some days, all looks right in the world.

And yet, sometimes, deep inside some of us, the waters lie dormant and the skies are dark. In fact, the pain affects not just some of us. The pain hits all of us, at different times. Depending on the day, we all can look out that window and wonder why the world looks so bright when all feels so gray in our hearts.

I've been trained and been serving as a Lay Counselor at All Saints Pasadena for almost two years now. We meet with those in our church community who need advice, an ear, a friend who isn't already mired in the problems they have. We direct people to professionals when their problems are beyond our abilities.

Most of all we listen. We listen. We listen, we ask, we comment, and we pray.

I empathize with those assigned to me because we all have those bad days, weeks, months.  We all notice that when our feelings seem misplaced, dark silhouettes block out against the bright sky. We feel isolated. We are dimmed by the eclipsing moon, in shadows when we yearn to be in the light. And over there, a few steps away, we sometimes see that others are not in the shadow. We don't know how to get there, at least not on our own.

So we cry out. And we hope someone hears us. If we can communicate and ask for a sound, a turn of the head, a honk, anything that can show that someone hears us, sometimes that's all we need to get us on our way. As a Lay Counselor, I think I'm there to listen and honk for you if you need to hear my voice.

I do it in the spirit of Christ. I do it in a community of people who help other people. And I do it because if we don't, we all might find ourselves adrift in the sky, wondering where we'll land.

And it's something we all should do.

Tuesday night, during our twice a month meeting as a ministry, I read a poem by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I imagine the geese, flying to far off lands without a map, with a GPS that's built into their very being. But they can't do it alone. And they don't do it alone. No matter the weather, no matter the world around them, they make sounds and gestures towards each other. They call on each other so that they can stay the course, whatever that course might be.

It's enough to keep them in beautiful formation as they slice through the skies. They may not know their way out of the storm or the desert by themselves, but they say things to each other. They say things, and they listen to each other.

And they soar.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Blissfully Unaware of Threat

"Blissfully unaware of threat" in Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms

All Saints Pasadena Episcopal Church has an impressive musical program. I've sung with them for 17 years and in that time we've sung at the prestigious Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles several times with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And this June, we're tackling for the first time in two decades Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965).

It's an amazing piece, sung in Hebrew, and full of deliciously difficult chord progressions. I can say wholeheartedly that I'm glad I sing bass for this work, as the tenors have a wildly challenging job in this score. If you've not heard it before, I invite you to our concert on Sunday, June 5, 2017, at 5pm. For those who cannot attend, we will be live streaming it at

One composer note had the choir giggling during our first rehearsal of the piece. It was above the women's parts. Berstein wrote "Blissfully unaware of threat".  Undoubtedly, that might be the oddest and most amusing composer directive many of us have seen.

And yet it had me thinking into the night.

You see, Chichester Psalms is based on several passages from the Book of Psalms. The English text is as follows

Psalm 108:2
Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Psalm 2:1-4
Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.

Psalm 131
My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

Psalm 133:1
How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

The "blissfully unaware" notation comes as the women are singing the well-known Psalm 23, where we shall not fear, and we shall not want, where we will fear no evil, and where we lie down in green pastures.

As they sing this, the men come in with Psalm 2. And, boy do we ever. It's a hard-hitting, menacing sound that feels like a war cry. It's violence depicted chorally. This pounding cry is a stark contrast to the bucolic, pastoral sound of the women's voices.

It bangs on the heart.

As I thought about the text, it made me think about life, and how we who regularly attend church cherish Psalm 23. We yearn for that protection and peace, for heaven on earth.

And yet, the nations rage.  The people plot, in vain. We are stymied in our effort to find that tranquility.

Are we naive? When we're blissfully unaware of the threat, are we walking with blinders on? It sounds like we're doing it unintentionally, innocently ignoring the dangers that lurk around us.

Or perhaps, just as disconcerting, we are doing it intentionally. We choose to ignore the threat, to maintain a facade of bliss.

And is it bad? Is it bad to be blissfully unaware of threat? If we are at peace with ourselves and our Maker, then shouldn't we be blissful, whether aware of threat or not? Shouldn't we be willing to march to our call with the happiness that we do so with an eternal protection and grace that cannot be threatened away? It doesn't specifically mean to me that we do not see the threat. But it might mean that we do not react to the threat, that we do not feel threatened. 

To feel safety in the face of threat. Call it unaware or call it trusting. But Psalm 23 offers refuge and bliss, even as we are surrounded by a valley of death. 

May we in the abyss trust Him with bliss.