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, March 28, 2018

Extending an invitation

I invite you to join me in reflections and prayers. This Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday / Holy Thursday, I'll again be participating in the all night vigil at All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, California. Though it's quite a lot to post on this blog, I'll be posting the prayers and readings and activities throughout the night, as we pray, reflect on the sacraments, sing, walk the labyrinth, and kneel with Christ throughout the night.

If you'd like to stay on top of those reflections and prayers, they'll be posted on my Facebook group called "Camino of Healing". It's at and you're welcome to join our prayer community as we journey towards a healed personhood, life, and world.

Prayer Tree in front of City of Hope Hospital, Feb 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Overpacking, Stones, and Strangers - The Camino to Easter

I walk out of the monastery in Sahagun, Spain in Sep 2014
and am awed by the sunset
As we enter Holy Week, after a season of loss, I realize that there are lessons from the Camino which are helping me walk the journey to the cross, with others, with Christ.

Travel lightly

So many of us are encumbered with things that hold us back, hold us down. We want to move easily, with comfort, and in peace. We know that we can save our backs and feet - and especially stay focused - when we don't have luggage that weighs us down.

And yet, we are our own worst enemies. We overpack in our lives. On the Camino de Santiago, this is most often because we want to bring everything in our backpacks. This instinct is almost always grounded in one thing: fear.

Fear of want.

Fear of not having something we feel is necessary.

Fear of hunger, of danger, of darkness.

And yet, a most important saying along the Camino is "The Camino Provides". Most travelers don't realize that there are food options everywhere you go. That we find pharmacies in every village. That we can find people who will share their water with us.

The Camino DOES provide... so long as we accept its generosity and the love. We have to forget about the uncertainty of fear in order to gain the certainty of love.

Release the Stones

Our packs like our lives are overloaded and, within a few days, you start seeing people leave things behind in the albergues. We have to release the materials items, these stones, that weigh us down and say goodbye to them. We let go so that we can flourish on our walks.

But it's not just about releasing a physical stone. It's also about letting go of the emotional stones that hold us down. Unlike the fear that drives us to overpack, the emotion that we can't unpack and leave behind is anger.

People on the camino, myself included, get frustrated by crowded cafes, by bicyclists who don't warn you of their approach, of cars that don't see you. In our exhaustion, we get angry that we have to change plans because there's no room at the albergue, or because blisters appear, or people smoke or talk too loudly, or take selfies, or drink too much. The litany of gripes can seem endless.

We may not have packed that anger in with us, but it's coming along for the walk. And we can't seem to let it go.

So we have to treat our frustration and anger like stones. We have to recognize the weight that they bring to our journey and trust that it's possible to release it. We must set the stone down. We can't walk with Christ, in love, with open eyes, when our hearts are filled with granite.

Embrace the Stranger

We may travel the Camino alone, or we may travel with friends. But around us at all times are strangers. People from other lands, speaking other languages, with different diets and customs. They're like you and me. And they're not.

They are like the Samaritans. Yes, go back far enough, and we're related, but today we're different. And they might be overpacked, with stones, with the same troubles as ourselves.

It's easy to walk past them and not realize what's going on in their lives. But my greatest memories along the Camino are when I didn't walk past the "other", but instead invited them into my space, my life, my journey. By sharing the pilgrimage of life together, we create a larger life, a larger sense of self, and a discovery of shared values.

Often times, it's that moment when we realize that we're overpacked that we also realize that we need the stranger to help us out. Together, you can pool information, resources, food, laughs, memories. The things we yearn to find on the Camino are unknown to us. They await to be learned and discovered, but for now those insights are strangers. And, we can't embrace the insights of the Camino if we can't embrace the stranger.

I hope that your journey through Lent brought you ever closer to Christ, to Easter, and the hope you seek to find and celebrate. And now, as we near the end of this 40 day walk, may your Holy Week remind you of the need to travel lightly, to set down your stones, and to embrace the stranger. May your Holy Week be anointed with grace.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Wiping the Ashes Away

Photo from a visit to Coventry Cathedral, UK. 2013.
There are moments when I realize that the family and people around me mean more than relationships, more than knowledge, more than a good story and a laugh. They represent more than genetic connections and more than shared values.

They represent life. Life flowing from them to me, from me to them, from God to us, and through us, and with us. Life not in isolation but in deep connectedness.

I've been grappling with a lot of loss lately. Some of the loss I've described in prior blog posts, with friends passing on, with family members facing hospice. Local friends have confided their plans to move away this year. On top of all that are issues about "things" that in the end don't mean much, but in our world of flesh often times define us to others.

The accretion of "stuff' in our lives spans from material goods to homes, from jobs to vacations, from entertainment options to vague things like standing in the community. People who retire, become unemployed, downsize in homes - they all confront a destabilizing change in the stuff with which they are familiar. All things pass and yet we hold on to this "stuff" because they delight us, define us, and bring constancy to a changing world.

In facing loss in the "stuff" column, it's easy to describe that loss as a grieving process. But for me, it's hard to grieve over stuff. At least, it's difficult for me to grieve like I grieve over the loss of a person I love.

With a person, I weep. I cry. I sometimes sob. And it takes a while for me to say goodbye. And I continue to talk to that person as though they were still with us.

"Stuff" doesn't mean that much to me. Or so I think. So I often tell people that they should treat the loss of stuff as a loss similar to grieving, but in practice I find it different, difficult even.

I don't weep.
I don't cry.
I don't sob.

In chatting with my mom the other day, I was reminded that wisdom takes years to brew and our elders have much to teach us. Filled with life and love, she pointed out that as I face loss of "stuff", I wasn't grieving right. I was anxious, yes. I was confused, yes. I was upset, yes.

But did I feel the pain, she asked.

Did I let the loss speak from my heart rather than my brain?

No. Because I hadn't wept. I hadn't cried. I hadn't sobbed.

Her words resonated with me. And they complemented a conversation I had had just a week before. My spiritual director pointed out that I'm going through a season of loss right now and that my Lenten disciplines need refining. If I'm to prepare for Easter with all this loss, rather than adding more ashes to my face, rather than bringing yet another reminder of our mortality to my life, I should prepare for new life.

I should wipe the ashes away so that my face can be seen once again.

So after speaking with my mother, I gathered my thoughts together. I gathered my feelings together. I gathered the pain. And I let the pain into my heart.

I wept.
I cried.
I sobbed.

And somehow, I'm starting to feel differently. I'm wiping the ashes from my face, not with oils or soap or water. I'm wiping them with the sacred tears from my eyes, my heart, my soul.

And as I let the pain in, as I let the tears flow, as the ashes slowly get wiped away, I feel the light coming into my wounds. I feel the life of others flow to me. I feel the love of God flow in, around, and through me. The pain is real and I'm letting it in. And somehow, it gives me hope, for it reminds me the promise of Easter.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Just a Matter of Time

There is nothing new in facing death. It's been discussed for thousands of years. And sometimes certain phrases, such as the "to sleep, perchance to dream" soliloquy in Hamlet show that people have ruminated on death versus life ages ago, in words far more poetic than I could offer.

Yet the troubles with family or friends who are slipping away, with death a matter of "when" rather than "if", of "how many days or weeks" rather than "some day in the future", these questions never come easily or become easier with practice. No, there's always a rawness to it, of not wanting to let go.

It's especially acute when there's a bit of an emotional roller coaster involved. Heath and our journey of healing is rarely a straight-forward line. There's usually a twisting road before us. Sometimes, the medical prognosis looks great, other times it's worsening. And sometimes, eventually, it's worsening to the point of just saying "it's just a matter of time."

Just a matter of time.

No amount of time is inconsequential. Every moment counts, to us, to those who love us. Every meal, every bite, every laugh, every tear, it all counts in the calculus of whether life can be more miserable than death itself. I love chocolate, but as the years pass, chocolate increasingly hurts my health and I must choose to limit my consumption of sweets.
To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune … 
…’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep —
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

For most, the equation is simple. Death must be avoided at all cost. But I think that given the medical advances we have today, there's a prolongation of a life sustained beyond comfort, joy, and dignity. That complicates the dialogue because we have to wonder how much painful intervention do we want as we near the end. Must we continually try to cheat death, to push off the inevitable, to evade the reality of life's cycles? Many of us understand dignity in life, but cannot discuss the dignity of death.

When do we say that it's time to say goodbye?

I don't think there's one answer for all. We each have our individual world views, faiths, and fears that may or may not coincide with those of our family and friends.

We had lunch with a family member on our way back from a weekend trip. She was hospitalized after a massive heart attack and seemed to survive it, surprising everyone around her. And we left with smiles and laughs. We also left hearing that there wasn't going to be much time left. We left hearing that it's just a matter of time. We left with questions of hospice care.

It's just a matter of time before we must pack up our toys and give them away, because we can't take them with us. We say our goodbyes.

It's just a matter of time, but I want that time to matter.

So I say to those still in our midst: I want to laugh with you. Cry with you. Break bread with you. Rejoice, remorse, reminisce, regret, and reveal with you. We have only so much time left with each other. It may be just a matter of time, but it matters to me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Ashes Feel Like Salt

For some who observe the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is an anchor that prepares us for the penitential season. Before we get to celebrate life made new on Easter, we positively must recognize that all things must die. Christ died. We must die. Death cannot be evaded and we will one day return to the formless clay from which we were created.

And yet this reminder, this lesson, has for me this year been an unnecessary, almost brutal assault. For it's been an emotional roller coaster for me and for the people I care for in my life. I've lost friends to cancer and accidents, and had scary talks of cancer and hospice for some in my family. All within the span of 4 months.

Stephen and I were taking advantage of his day off to take a walk along the beach. It was a beautiful day, one where we rejoiced in the perfect Southern California temperatures and cloud-dappled sunny skies. We could see for miles and breathed in fresh ocean air. The breeze kept the allergens away and for the first time in over a week I could see clearly, breathe easily, and didn't sneeze once.

So I broke down when I saw that a dear friend had lost his battle with cancer. Stephen held me up against the wall of a building beside the beach so that I wouldn't crumble to the ground. I at first felt the sadness of a life gone too soon, but then felt something more profound, and I didn't expect the pain.

I visited with John and Gerti three days before. The hospital visitor sticker is still in the car, as I hadn't even had time to dispose of it. And I might not. For while I stood by John's bed, Gerti and I were unsure of what was happening. That happens when so much medication and so many procedures are in play. But before I left, before she left for classes, she asked me to lead us in a prayer.

There's no doubt in my heart that we become alive when we are stitched together in prayer. We become one tissue, one heart, as we pray together. And I was grateful to the point of tears to have the opportunity to hold hands with John and Gerti, to pray together, to give thanks, to ask for healing. Our hands were in each other's hands and our hearts beat as one.

So I cried yesterday as I recalled that moment. It was a deep cry. It was a cry of mourning because that moment of love and unity was one that I will not have again. I agonized that I could not pray with John and Gerti again, not here, not in these bodies.

And as Ash Wednesday comes, when ashes are imposed upon our foreheads, when I impose ashes on the foreheads of others, I think this morning, "This doesn't feel like ashes I'm imposing. This feels like salt. This feels like the salt from the tears from our faces."

I guess I'm supposed to learn something from all this. Or remember something. Or share something. But it feels so raw. The circle of life feels disrupted because it's just been a litany of scares and deaths. I need to see friends and family having babies so that I can see that cycle of life spinning gracefully.

I don't want to rub salt in our wounds. I don't want it in my raw flesh. I want to feel the fresh air of life. I want to feel the spray of the ocean.

I guess there's the rub, isn't it? We can't appreciate life around us, life renewed in front of us, if we don't recognize death, as well. Our faces may be cleansed by the spray of the ocean, but even in that baptismal washing, we can taste the salt, and our toes are grounded in the sand. I like others want the joys of today, every day.

But the joys, the hands held in prayer, the hugs, they are all temporary. We all return to the land from where we came. We cannot hold on to the illusion of permanence. We can only hold on to the promise of love that never ends, of lives made new, of an understanding that our lives do not belong to us but are a gift to use as best we can for the time we have.

Today, I await the imposition of ashes. Today, I feel the intrusion of the salt. Today is only for today.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Difficult Discussions

Stephen and I just had a difficult discussion. We were talking about advance medical directives, living wills, and health care durable power of attorney issues. We've never talked about this at length, other than some sad chats after the movie "Million Dollar Baby".

But recently, the family has had to confront these issues. Jim, my father-in-law, is currently caring for his longtime companion, Sheila, who had a massive heart attack this week. She was on a ventilator and there wasn't any confidence that she would ever be able to breathe on her own again. Moreover, her kidneys apparently were no longer working. By Thursday, the family was dealing with a situation where even if she could breathe without the ventilator, we had to be ready to face hospice options. It was a painful discussion for Sheila's sister and Jim.

Fortunately, with much of our family and friends praying with us, we took out the ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own. By the end of the day, when Stephen and I arrived at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of St. Joseph Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California, she perked up into her smiling, feisty ways and immediately wanted to hold our hands, give her a kiss, hug us, and chat away. Sheila was "Sheila" and we had to remind her to not speak too loudly and to breathe deeply since she was just on a ventilator. Best of all, her kidneys seemed to be working once again, and talk of hospices are for now on hold

We're thrilled and filled with joy and gratitude. And it's a marked contrast to the dread and sadness we all felt. Sheila's had a colourful life and though her memory has been slipping more quickly lately, she is still a character.

Many people, perhaps most people, are uncomfortable talking about health care options in crisis or terminal illness situations. Many don't have wills much less living wills. Yet accidents and health care emergencies can happen at any time. Are we ready to deal with this? Are you?

I want to say that we resolved everything this morning but our difficult discussions are only beginning. There are lots of things to consider. Stephen, for example, would rather I make all the decisions but agrees that it would a painful burden to place on me. And I wonder how our feelings will change as we get older and how often we will need to change these directives.

But it's a start. Healing isn't just for those who are gravely ill, but also for those who remain here. For us to walk our camino of healing, we have to face everyone's healing, not just our own. We can't do it ourselves. We have to talk, in trust, in love, with mutual respect. In a way, how can healing occur without all that?

I hope that you don't face these issues but the reality is we all must at some point, for ourselves and our families. I can't pray that you won't face this, but I will pray that you will be granted wisdom, compassion, and strength as you confront transitions to the life beyond our visible world. I pray that you can plan and talk in advance, so that when the time comes, you can walk in that thin space aware of the love and light guiding you. And when you or someone must walk through that sacred veil to the other side, we can during that journey intertwine our fingers not out of fear, but out of love, life, and grace.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

This Little Light of Mine, I'm Gonna Let it Shine

Praying at the Healing Service in Lourdes, France
Many of us said goodbye to Rev. Zelda Kennedy when she retired from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena at the beginning of summer. And, as she battled cancer, many family and friends stood by her side to be with her and to ease her way into eternal light. Some of us had a chance to say goodbye one last time before she passed on December 29.

I didn't say goodbye to her in the end, but I did get to give her a big hug, and she's known for her hugs, at a chance meeting at church in November. I didn't feel moved to say anything to her. I thought afterwards that perhaps I should have. But it didn't seem needed or even appropriate at the time. Apparently she didn't either. We hugged and just felt each other's warmth and love. In retrospect, that hug was sacramental. It was a blessing to me, it was my blessing to her, and we acknowledged the divine during that hug.

Zelda touched many of us with her effusive love and joy. She oozed with the Holy Spirit and felt your heart better than most. And she organized pastoral ministries at All Saints Pasadena so that we could be caring, inclusive, and compassionate, with the parish and also with each other. When she faced the end of her time on earth, it was obvious to all that the grieving would be intense.

And it was. There were daily vigils of prayer and story telling from the moment her move to hospice was announced. And after she moved on through that divine veil, we held a nightly novena, a ritualized way to offer prayers both personally and communally. Her North Carolina family and friends said goodbye last week and this past weekend, we in Southern California did. The memorial was profoundly emotional, sad at times and downright joyful at others. With Zelda dancing down the aisles with us, we sang out "This Little Light of Mine".

I've been examining my heart during the past few weeks. The tears flowed freely at first. Sobbing burst from my lungs since July but were just as powerful after Christmas. And I wasn't a confidante. I was just someone who was touched by her, who worked closely with her for several years as the Pastoral Care liaison from the vestry, and as a Labyrinth ministry leader. She opened my eyes to recognize and accept rather than evade and reject gifts of love.

It might not be obvious from this blog, but before I started it, before Zelda touched me during our regular meetings, I resisted opening up, letting people into my heart, revealing my inner self. I was lousy at hiding my inner feelings, but I wouldn't admit them easily until the wounds grew to unbearable sizes. My first long term relationship suffered from this behavior. But things started to change and my journey took a new turn.

And my journey continues to this day.

So what happened during those weeks between Christmas and the memorial on January 13? I pray daily, so that wasn't different. I pray weekly in Taize worship, and that has in the past made big impacts on me. But I was praying communally, like in Taize, daily during this time. Somehow, in some way, I felt that community prayer working on me.

How is that possible? What was it about repetitious, chanting prayer that comfort many people like me? I don't know the answer but I do know that it's a salve. I get to share my open wound with others as they share theirs with me.

But we don't dwell on the wounds. We repeat our prayers. We acknowledge the pain, and focus on prayer. Together. And it brings life. Like the Lord stitching a baby together in her mother's womb, like the scab stitching together the edges of cut skin, the prayers bind us together into living tissue, living cells that come together and become living membranes, living tissue, living beings.

We become alive when we are stitched together in prayer.

Perhaps that's why I ask for your prayers often. Or why many ask me for mine. We pray so that the light shines on us. On all of us. On all parts of us.

Including the wounds. Because as the mystic Rumi once said, it's in the wounds where the light enters our being.

Let that little light shine. Let it shine on us all. On all parts of us. And like Zelda, be the little light that shines on others.