Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Picturing a Scary Love

Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit works tricks on me, because She likes to throw coincidences at me that catch me by surprise, leaving me to wonder what I'm supposed to make of things. Two different sets of coincidences in two days make me think, "ok, someone's trying to get me to think about this."

The first coincidence was on Sunday afternoon. Kristen Johannesen, an artist friend, had an exhibition going on at the Avenue 50 gallery in now trendy Highland Park, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. She and I were very close in high school and so I wanted to see her latest work. And, for some reason, perhaps because I knew he lived near there, I invited another high school friend, Glenn. Now, it wasn't planned, but Glenn and Kristen were influential in getting me to see photography as something as other than poorly cropped, overly posed family photos. They were particularly skilled in black and white photos and I learned much from them through the years.

I would have gone into the gallery but there was a poetry reading going on so I thought I'd wait outside. I paced a little. I watched the Gold Line metro go by a couple times. Then I decided to stand at the doorway and listen to the poetry. And I was stunned.

In the main gallery, there was a sign that said "Viva Las Fotos - A Memorial for Laura Aguilar", along with a photo of Laura. Laura's a friend from All Saints Pasadena, a brilliant photographer who died earlier this year. Her memorial in church was just one month ago.

I had first met her years ago, when she and I would set up the Taize service. She never talked about her profession. She would set the candles on the table and sat with us as we prayed, sang, and worshiped together. And one time, when I was taking photos of the candles, she adjusted them for me so that I would have a better shot. And another she asked if I could help her get the candles in just the right positions for her perfect photos. And they were beautiful. They were beautiful because she's a gifted photographer who until that day was just my friend Laura. Since then, I learned from others that her work has been shown in famous galleries and the tips she had been giving me were like private lessons from a master.

The main room of Avenue 50 Studio was filled with homages to Laura, created by other artists. And another room held some of her work from 1990 that had been filed away and forgotten. And there was a beautiful Dia de los Muertos ofrenda for her.

As I walked through the gallery with Kristen and Glenn, it occurred to me that perhaps the three who gave me the most guidance on photography were in the same space. The veil between the physically present and the spiritually present was remarkably sheer that afternoon. Laura was smiling at us from another level and it was a soothing balm to the grief.

Then yesterday, I was working away and popped a couple videos to play in the background. One was "Addams Family Values", one of many of my regular flicks we watch as Halloween approaches. It's a movie that juxtaposes unconventional (ok, amusingly scary) love and affection against what's expected from us. It's subversive, ironic, and a great way to celebrate the different faces of love.

After I finished working, I sat down to watch "Coco". This Dia de los Muertos movie came out last year, a celebration of family, love, and the timelessness of unity. My face was awash in tears, which happens whenever I watch it. I mean, the abuela look just like my own grandmothers!

Then before I walked over to an evening meeting, I took a look at this week's lectionary. It happened to be from the Gospel of John - the story of Lazarus and Jesus raising him from the "stink of death".

I couldn't help but reflect on this second set of coincidences. I just watched two movies, ostensibly about Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, but were about unifying love that goes beyond the living, lies outside the pace of the regular world, explores family and death. And now I'm thinking of Lazarus, his family, and the love that brought Lazarus back to life. It was a quiet, pensive walk that made me think of the concept of contrasts. And I found myself taking photos of images that made me think about juxtaposed, jarring contrasts.

There was a time when I'd laugh off a coincidence or two. But the ones from the past couple days, well, I think I was meant to reflect on them instead. Love, friends, and family eventually confront death. Death can be scary. Death can push away. Death can cause denial.

But death can also just be one scary moment, a blip in an endless timeline. We fear the loss, but that loss is effectively illusory. In love, in believing in love, in giving in to love, we can salve the hurts and walk out of our dark caves, into a timeless unity.

May your Halloween give way to a celebration of the love and spirits of all the souls and saints in your life. May that celebration be a picture that you can place in the ofrenda within you.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Angels By Our Side

I'm often asked about what I discover while walking along Spain's Camino de Santiago. I say that it's the people I meet that show me what I seek. It's not about me, my thoughts, the flowers, or sights. I learn and grow because of the relationships, short or long-lasting. The universe calms you on the walk and in the wild, quiets you down so that you can really meet people and listen to them, be present with them. And in doing so, well, in doing so that's really how I feel like I'm in touch with God.

In the 600 mile walk in 2016, besides my husband Stephen who joined me on the final 200 miles, I can say that I found three people who most influenced me. Three people who I view as messengers in my life. Angels really.

The first came to me during my most fearful moments in decades. I held back tears and panic because I was afraid that I would die of exposure while crossing the Pyrenees. I thought I had such good fortune because just when I thought, with the hot temperatures, my hyperextended hip could not get me over the mountains, I saw a luggage transport van which took my backpack to my destination. Unfortunately, in my haste, I grabbed almost everything I needed for the daypack I retained, everything except my jacket. As the clouds came, the temperature plunged, the rains attacked, and painful hail poured down for two hours, shredding my poncho and leaving me basically with just my daypack and quick-dry T-shirt. I could barely see past the fog and my steam-covered eyeglasses, where the trail twisted and where the cliffs threatened.

A figure came from behind me. I only saw his chin peeking out from his hat, a chin where my immediate reaction was "Oh, looks like the guy who starred in Jesus Christ Superstar". He asked me in an accent how I was and I responded with "cold, frightened." This young man just smiled, saying "You'll be fine. Where are you going?" I answered "To Roncesvalles (on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains 15km away)". Calmly smiling, he said, "I'll see you on the other side" and continued walking into the foggy hail. For some reason, this was weirdly re-assuring. Better yet, he wore a fluorescent red poncho, a colour so bright that I could actually see it through the fog and follow him along the unseen trail. I followed the young man into the swirling fog and hail, somehow comforted, somehow feeling safe, somehow confident. I wept as the hail stopped and I made it to the monastery which would house me, skipped dinner, and just slept.

I was back on the trail the next morning when someone placed a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see him once again, and he said that he knew I would make it. We smiled and he walked with me the whole day. We broke bread together on a mountain top. When I found out that his name was Thore, after the Norse God of storms and protection, my jaw dropped.

The next person who deeply touched me appeared after Pamplona. I had been upset and fearful that my blisters, earned from wet feet and the struggle over the Pyrenees, would impair me. For now, I was doing better. And I came across a person who simply radiated love. In fact, almost every person who ever met Daniel from Oxford described his intensely caring eyes and his beautiful affection for everyone he met. He was astonishingly humble, touching almost everyone he met. We talked and walked all day, breaking bread at dinner and the next day at breakfast. He was thrilled that I started in Lourdes and had some of the water that some say is filled with miraculous healing power. I brought the water to share with those on the Camino. He took a sip and I rubbed some into his hands.

And he did this while walking on crutches. You didn't notice them after you talked with him; you stopped seeing his bruised hands and feet. The reality was that his life-long condition slowed him down to just over 1-2 mph and it would take him three months to reach Santiago, three times longer than most. I can't imagine how he navigated the muddy, rocky slopes of the various mountains we crossed. When asked why he was on the Camino, he would respond "so that every day I can learn to walk." But he inspired such care in others, as we all cared for him. After evening church services, I lost track of him even though he had been beside me. I found him: he was giving alms to a needy man and asking if he had a place to sleep.

He embodied so comfortably, so easily, the unconditional love of the universe. Despite his challenges, he feared not. Yes, I shared the healing waters with him, and in his presence, I myself felt healed. Like St Francis' prayer, I saw us both receiving when we were giving... And every day, I learned to walk.

A third person who touched me was a deeply spiritual professor from Hungary. She was a talker and lit up every conversation. Annamarie speaks 7 languages fluently and showed deep caring about all she met. Soon after she checked into any albergue, she'd be leading yoga with anyone interested. At every stream she found, off came her shoes and socks, and up came her trouser legs. Wading into the rather cold waters, she'd laugh and thank nature, God, the universe and invite others to wade in with her. Despite my blisters, I would accept her invitation and wade in - albeit briefly - just to share in the invigorating joy of waters full of life.

To me, she was a messenger that said life isn't just for just walking the camino, but for living and being part of the camino. Annamerie reminded me that we don't just talk the talk, or even just walk the walk, but that we also live the life. Walking with her filled my days with joy and gratitude.

All three taught me lessons along the Camino. And like the dense person that I can be, I didn't realize it can work the other way too. I now realize that I too could sometimes act as a messenger, an angel, to others, if I let myself be present in the journey.

I took a rest day in Burgos because my blisters were so painful. After that rest day, I continued onward, feeling much less pain. And for some reason, on a day I was feeling healthy, I saw a grove of trees next to a sign that said "Fuente" (water fountain). I had lots of water, wasn't tired, and was only an hour away from my destination. But for some reason, I felt called to stop. To sit. To soak be a part of this rural setting under these trees. I had no reason to stop, but I turned down that path to stop. So I walked into the grove and sat at the tables. I chatted with other pilgrims and learned the well was empty. Soon, a woman from Italy stopped by looking for water at the well. She became concerned when she learned that the well was dry.

I offered her my water since I had plenty and was near my final stop. She filled her bottle and drank most of it so I topped it off for her. In talking, she found out I started in Lourdes and she expressed her interest in visiting it one day. I offered her some of the Lourdes water. And that's when she did the unexpected. She burst into tears, hugging me for a couple minutes, sobbing. Silvia drank the Lourdes water and asked to be anointed by it. In the next week, I would come across her several more times, including walking with her for a whole day surrounded by glorious, bountiful flowers. Stephen got to meet her in Leon on his first day of his Camino, as she translated the pilgrim's blessing from Spanish to English for the basilica priest.

That day I met her, that evening, I pondered why she cried. I didn't have a clue at the time. It took several more encounters with her to understand that she was exhausted, thirsty, and spiritually challenged. She had come onto the Camino looking for a spiritual experience but she was coming away tired and longing for inspiration, for the mystical. It took me a while to figure out what was really happening. In fact, I needed my spiritual advisor to help me figure out why I was confused. Here I was, thinking I was merely offering her water, but when I got called to that well, I was guided to the well, prodded to be present. I was sent to help her, share the water, share some rest and a smile. With the woman at the well, thirsting for water and something deeper than a well, I offered her a gift and a message that she needed to hear. To be her angel.

So I walked with three angels. And with a woman at the well, I eventually realized that I was the voice and flesh by which angels had come to her. Life can be that way in so many ways. We walk with people who we may immediately recognize as important messengers to us, telling us to wake up and smell the roses, to find ourselves, to be inspired. And maybe without us knowing it, we too may be that angel messenger to others.

Most often, we're too close to our own stories to realize what's happening. We forget that we should walk intentionally, always awake, always open to the new. Sometimes it takes a prolonged journey to realize that you're always on a pilgrimage and should be ever present to those who may be there to help you and guide you. May your heart be always open to so that you can hear and see and touch the angels walking by your side.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Estamos Caminando por la Ciudad de los Ángeles

We are walking through the city of angels. Yes, you can take that to mean that I'm a resident of Los Angeles, and I walk through it. I walk between great buildings, through children-packed parks, among camps of homeless, and beside an untamed ocean. This city is crisscrossed with fault lines: not just geological ones, but political and economic as well.

But when I say that we are walking through the city of angels, I'm also talking about the angels in our midst. I might not be referring to actual angels as recognized by formal theology, but to angels in effect, in spirit, in love.

I've really enjoyed my new participation in a couple of ministries this past year. Perhaps they're not new in general - as I've done stuff with other programs since high school - but new specifically. And I realize that angels had something to do with me finding these places of love.

First I started attending Laundry Love in East Hollywood. The Laundry Love initiative consists of regular opportunities to come alongside people who are struggling financially by assisting them with their laundry. Laundry Love partners with local laundromats in cleaning clothes and linens of low-income or no-income families and individuals. During select days and times, laundry is free. Just bring your clothes. Quarters, soap, and dryer sheets are provided. There are no income requirements, and everyone is welcome.

I've also started to participate with The Gathering, a community of Asian-American congregants throughout the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, who wish to share our perspectives on our faith and practices with each other. I spoke on a panel discussing "identity" earlier this spring and am now assisting in organizing a musical event on Oct 13 at St John's Cathedral and featuring musicians in the diocese.

Both have opened my eyes to the multitude of angels that live and breathe and walk around me. You may have noticed that I in prior blog postings have talked about the being awakened periodically to discovering that someone in front of me is acting as a messenger of God. They're opening my eyes, unstopping my ears, and clearing my throat. I become aware of God's grace. I am reminded of God's love. And I feel connected to God ever more closely.

That's what an angel does. The angels that people think of in classical paintings - the cherubims - are chubby pink babies for the most part. But in those places in Scripture where angels are mentioned, the angel is almost always a messenger from God or from the Archangel Michael. They don't show up to be cute.

No, they usually are there to say "Wake up" and "God is here".

These two ministries, like the others that I participate in, poke me, prod me, blare a trumpet at me - anything to catch my distracted attention. In today's world, it's more than a little easy to be distracted after all. I'm undoubtedly as guilty of that as anyone else, if not more so given my job in technology.

Instead, I'm reminded how much we depend on each other to help each other. I'm reminded that regardless of what we look like, we are all welcome to Christ's table. I'm reminded that whether we talk with other, sing with each other, or sit in silence with each other, we are in community together and that we're in this thing as one.

I feel lucky that the wonderful members of Holy Spirit in Silver Lake reminded me of their Laundry Love ministry. I came for prayer and I walked out with my eyes opened. And when I started to attend, I so appreciate it when I can recognize people at the laundromat; I'm not great with names but I'm good with faces and that's a useful place to start. And I'm surprised and happy when they recognize me, too. It means that irrespective of where we are on our journeys, we know we've crossed paths here and that we share something together.

These times at Laundry Love complement all the time Stephen and I have spent with Union Station Homeless Services. We appreciate that society has to both help the emergency nutritional and safety needs of those who lack basic resources but also to help them move past the crisis and into sustainable employment and programs. It's hard to get a job or keep a job if your soiled laundry discourages employers from hiring you. But the reality is too many people have to choose between feeding their families and washing their clothes.

And, I feel so very connected when I'm interacting with The Gathering. I don't often participate in Asian ethnic events. I used to do that as a child and it wasn't something that I enjoyed. Mind you, Filipino families are quite large and, with almost 5 dozen first cousins and 17 nieces and nephews, there's more than enough cultural interaction just hanging out with each other. As I grew older, I enjoyed discovering other cultures. I didn't spend as much time exploring my actual roots, which are Filipino, which is sort of Asian, sort of Pacific Islander, and in some ways sort of Latino. And oh so very Roman Catholic.

So Rev. Peter Huang and the Gathering, by reaching out to me, have opened my eyes to ways I can connect with others in the church who want to experience their faith while acknowledging and celebrating our cultural heritage. It's something I've been wanting and it surprised me that it somehow appeared to happen.

I had heard of both Laundry Love and Episcopal Asian Ministries before, but I think angels are insistent. They're there to make sure you're awake and hearing the message sent to you. We each have our journeys and we'll always have times alone and times in community on the path. But the angels. The angels will tap you on the shoulder and say "If you would just listen, I think there's something you want to hear."

And I think back to the first of three angels that I met on my 600 mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 2016. ( He told me "You'll be fine". He told me I was safe. And I felt safe. And that's what I needed to hear so that I wouldn't feel alone, so that I wouldn't be afraid.

So keep an open heart to those you encounter on the road. You may not recognize the angels in our midst, but they've got something you need to hear.