“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live one’s life in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” -Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard
Shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1997, I was introduced to Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s work by my therapist, Jim Fain, who had recently heard Lewis speak at the annual Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe, NM. Jim suggested that I get a copy of Lewis’s book, Coyote Medicine, that it might be helpful in discerning the most appropriate response to the cancer diagnosis.
I was inspired and reassured by the book, especially by Lewis’s insistence that healing necessitates the integration of spiritual practice, complementary medicine, and allopathic medicine. He also stressed the importance of story in the work of healing. One of the first pieces of intuitive guidance I had received after my diagnosis was that “if I could keep my story interesting, God would let me live.”
I made arrangements to spend the first week in January, 1998, a quiet time at work, at the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh where Lewis was Medical Director.
I arrived in Pittsburgh in the midst of a blizzard and below freezing temperatures. The storm had delayed Lewis’ return but he had given his staff instructions for an immersive week-long nine-to-five healing intensive which included a physical, acupuncture, meditation classes, shiatsu massage, sessions with a nutritionist, sessions with a psychiatrist who practiced hypnotherapy, and with a woman who practiced energy medicine and was a psychotherapist.
Lewis returned a day later. I had not yet begun my training as a spiritual director when I first worked with Lewis. In retrospect, I have come to realize that my training began with Lewis. He is one of the best teachers and models of spiritual direction I have ever had.
The first night Lewis was back, he asked me to walk with him to a nearby shopping area. “I thought we could do a little ceremony,” he said casually. “The airline lost my medicine bag; I need to pick up a few supplies.” We stopped at a New Age bookstore where Lewis picked up some sage and sweet grass. Then we visited a cigar store where Lewis spent several minutes sniffing cigars. “Archie likes cigars,” Lewis said. “I always try to find some he hasn’t smoked before. If he likes the cigar, he’ll sometimes show up at the ceremony.” I knew from reading Coyote Medicine that Archie was Lewis’s grandfather and that he had taught Lewis what Native Americans call the “Old Ways.” I also knew that Archie was dead.
As we walked back to the small apartment the hospital had arranged for me, Lewis asked me questions about the cancer. His manner was gentle and direct. After a while he said, “Sometimes cancer is a signal to change or die.” I chuckled. “What’s funny?” he asked. “My physician, Jim Blechman, agrees with you. He told me the same thing the week I was diagnosed.” I take things like this as a sign, a confirmation of my intuition. I do so now even more than I did then when I was just starting out.
Once we were in the apartment Lewis directed me to place any sacred objects I had brought with me in a space he had cleared on the floor in the center of the room.
Because I travel so much I was in the habit of bringing a few sacred objects with me when I’m away from home—flat easily packable things. I brought a postcard from the Tate Museum in London which depicted Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; a postcard of Our Lady of Good Health from the National Basilica in Washington, D.C.; two greeting cards featuring icons by Robert Lenz—one called Christ of the Desert, the other called Compassion Mandala, and an eagle feather, sacred to Native Americans, which had been a gift from my friend, Joseph Kramer. Since my Aunt Jeanetta’s death I had been in the habit of carrying the crucifix from her rosary in my pocket. When I reached in my pocket to place it with the other sacred objects, it was gone.
Lewis opened the windows of my little apartment even though it was four degrees outside, windy and snowing. “The spirits have to be free to come and go,” he told me. “Also, it could get smoky in here if we don’t.” This was typical of Lewis’s manner, comfortably embracing the supernatural and the practical in the same sentence. He turned out the lights and invited me to sit across from him on the floor. He placed bits of sage and sweet grass in a shell and lit them. He told me we were going to invoke the spirits and invited me to go first. I invoked the three persons of the Trinity and Mary. Lewis invoked the spirits of the seven directions—north, east, south, west, above, below and center—and the Great Spirit. Next we invoked the spirits of the ancestors; Lewis lit a cigar and invoked, among others, his grandfather, Archie. “Archie likes cigars, maybe he’ll come.” Among the ancestors I invoked was my Aunt Jeanetta who had watched over me since the day I was diagnosed. Almost immediately an inner voice told me that Jeanetta had brought me this far; now other guides and protectors would take over. It was clear to me that the loss of her crucifix symbolized that. I never found it.
When the invocations were completed, Lewis instructed me to pray. I began to pray silently. “Pray out loud,” Lewis commanded. I prayed for healing from cancer. I prayed for my friend Donald who was losing his battle with AIDs. I prayed for guidance about retiring from show business. I prayed for my vocation. I prayed for my family and friends. I prayed for guidance about selling my house and simplifying my life style. I rattled on and on as if I were reciting a grocery list. (I learned this method of prayer from my mother.) Occasionally, Lewis puffed on the cigar.
When I finally finished, Lewis spoke, only he didn’t sound like Lewis. He sounded like an amused, patient, slightly weary old man. “You have many words. And your prayers are very difficult—and long. But we can help you. You must go sit in the desert for two weeks before the green grass grows. For one day, speak all of the words you know until you have no more words.” (I tried to imagine what it would be like to have no more words.) “Then shut up. Be still and wait for the desert to pay attention to you. Pray for smaller things. Pray to be healthy next Christmas.”
When the ceremony was finished, Lewis said (in his normal voice), “Archie likes you. He doesn’t understand much about gay people but he respects you.”
I was somewhat unnerved by the ceremony, by the shift in Lewis’ voice and demeanor, and by the advice. I had never liked the desert and I had no idea when the green grass grew or how I was going to be able to take two weeks off to sit in the desert. I expressed these concerns to Lewis. “I know A Yaqui Indian who lives in the desert. He can help you. I’ll give you his number in the morning.”
I asked why I should pray to be healthy next Christmas instead of praying for a complete healing. He explained that in his tradition it is considered presumptuous to pray for such big things. “The spirits have to answer lots of prayers, not just yours. Next Christmas you can pray to be healthy the following Christmas.” And so I have—should I make it until December of this year, it will be twenty Christmases.
Lewis packed his backpack, said goodnight, and left me alone to ponder the evening’s events. I realized I was freezing. As I was closing the windows, the old man’s voice said, “Don’t worry, your spirit has already been to the desert to check it out. You will be safe there.” I turned around but no one was there. I had walked through the Looking Glass into a new reality.
The next day I had a session with the psychotherapist, a self-described “conventional middle-aged married Jewish lady who wants grandchildren.” She asked me to describe my feelings about the cancer. I told her that cancer had been a great teacher and a challenging gift. “Do you think you still need the cancer?” she asked. I told her that I didn’t think so and I was perfectly willing to be healed. As the session ended she said she would see me that evening at the sweat lodge. “What sweat lodge?” I asked. “Didn’t anyone tell you? Go talk to Lewis. He’s scheduled a sweat lodge in your honor. My husband and I are postponing our travel plans for a day so we can be here to support you.” As I left her office Archie’s voice admonished me: “When you are ready to obey the spirit and go to the desert without having cancer, then you won’t need the cancer anymore.”
I went to Lewis’s office to get the phone number of the Yaqui Indian and to find out about the sweat lodge. “We had it penciled in,” Lewis said matter-of-factly, “but I didn’t want to tell you until I met you and knew it was the right thing for you. You want to come with me to a meditation class for asthmatics?”
That night we drove, in the snow, to a suburb outside of Pittsburgh. The sweat lodge was set up on the grounds of a large colonial style house. About fifteen people were there. I recognized three staff members, plus Lynne, a lovely woman being treated for breast cancer, with whom I’d struck up a conversation earlier in the afternoon. There were also three women from the asthma meditation class. One of them was named Rima. I remember her name because it’s the name of the heroine of Green Mansions, a novel I had loved as a teenager. Rima was played in the movie by Audrey Hepburn. The Rima in the meditation class bore no resemblance to the ethereal Ms. Hepburn. She had, in fact, a very heavy, earthbound energy and a dour countenance that put me off. All of my instincts said, “Stay away from her.”
Stones were being heated in a large fire in front of the lodge and the fire was causing the still falling snow to melt into icy puddles between the fire and the lodge. An altar mound was situated near the fire. I placed the same objects from the previous night’s ritual on the altar.
We were instructed to strip to our underwear and get into the lodge as fast as we could. The floor of the lodge was covered with blankets and towels. I was directed to the place of honor in the West opposite the opening flap. I did not know that this was the hottest place in the lodge.
When we were all seated, the fire-tender brought in seven large hot rocks and put them into the pit which had been dug in the center of the lodge. He closed the flap of the lodge. It was pitch black except for the slight red glow coming from the rocks. Lewis drew a ladle of water from a bucket and poured it on the stones. Steam rose up from the stones quickly heating the lodge. Lewis sang a Lakota prayer, invoked the directions and invited the spirits to come in.
A sweat lodge is traditionally in four rounds with a break between each of the rounds. The flap is opened to let in cool air, then the fire-tender brings in fresh hot rocks, the flap is closed, the medicine man pours water on the rocks and a new round begins. In the first round, the leader, or medicine man, invokes the directions and invites the spirits; he instructs the participants to do the same. Then each participant, beginning with the one on the right of the flap offers prayers of thanksgiving. In the second round participants pray for and send good energy to other people. In the third round participants say prayers of petition for themselves. In the last round, participants pray for the world, sing songs, tell jokes, and celebrate. Generally the leader begins each round with a sung or chanted prayer.
In the first round someone evoked the name of Rachel. As her name was spoken I felt a small tap on my chest as if a small bird had fluttered against it. (I found out later that the lodge had been built at the request of Rachel, a young patient who had been treated at the center and later died.)
In the third round, one man prayed for relief from severe depression and a woman prayed for recovery from asthma. Lynne prayed for successful treatment of breast cancer. As they prayed, it occurred to me that I had experienced both severe depression and debilitating asthma but I did not presently have either; similarly I realized that I was experiencing cancer rather than having it—that cancer is an experience rather than a possession. I need not be defined by it. I suddenly felt very light, as if I was floating. When it was my turn to pray, I remembered Archie’s admonition and kept my prayers short asking only to be healthy again next Christmas and for support in going to the desert.
I recognized Lewis’s chuckle in the dark.
In the fourth round, the woman on my right whispered that there was beautiful white smoke rising up around me. It was pitch black and I could see nothing. However, I immediately felt hands on my head blessing me and easing me back into a semi-reclining position. I felt hands on my heart. “The Madonna really loves you”, the woman said. “I love the Madonna,” I replied. “No she really loves you. She’s supporting your back right now.” Then the woman on my left began to sing “Ave Maria”, in a sweet, pure voice. In a sweat lodge! As she sang, a voice whispered, “Give Lynne your postcard of the Madonna of Healing.” That was easy enough; I had additional postcards of the Madonna at home.
A few moments later, the voice said, “Give Rima your eagle feather.” (I had coveted the eagle feather. Joseph knew that and surprised me by gifting me with it. I treasured it. I kept it in a place of honor on my altar beneath a resurrection crucifix.) “Give Rima your eagle feather,” the voice repeated. “Do I have to,” I thought. “Give Rima your eagle feather,” the voice insisted. “When you can obey the spirit without having cancer, you won’t need the cancer anymore.” I agreed to surrender the feather.
When the ceremony was over and we had dried off and dressed, I picked up the postcard of Our Lady of Good Health and handed it to Lynne. “I was told to give you this.”
I returned to the altar and picked up my eagle feather and reluctantly walked over to Rima who was standing off by herself, her energy no less off-putting than it had been at the asthma meditation class. “Excuse me,” I said, “the spirits told me to give you this. It’s an eagle feather. It was given to me by one of my dearest friends. It’s the most sacred . . .” Rima interrupted me. “I know what it is. I’ve been praying to receive my eagle feather for seventeen years.” She looked at me like she couldn’t believe what was happening. I could hardly believe it myself. “Thank you,” she said. She was fighting back tears. She walked away in a daze.
As our car was pulling out of the driveway, Rima tapped on my window; her face seemed very soft. “I don’t even know your name,” she said to me. She saw Lewis seated behind me: “Lewis, he gave me my eagle feather. He gave me my eagle feather.” On our way back to town, Lewis told me that Rima was a long-time patient of his with serious medical problems. I never saw Lynne or Rima again.
On the way back to town, Lewis was paged; an AIDs patient had a collapsed lung and he needed to be dropped off at the ICU. I was wiped out from the ceremony. I could not imagine how Lewis had the energy to go to work in the ICU. He acted as if it was all in a day’s work. As he got out of the car, Lewis asked us to pray for him and his patient.
I have met a lot of good people, virtuous people. I had never before met a holy man.
Lewis is a holy man (not to be confused—ever!—with a pious man), a healer and a master teacher. He is sometimes perceived as eccentric, maybe even slightly mad, by those who have made logic and reason their higher power.
Lewis is not mad; he may be the sanest person I’ve ever met. He is also playful and irreverent: a trickster—in the tradition of the Coyote, the spirit animal that has claimed Lewis as his own. He beautifully embodies Cardinal Suhard’s call to be a “living mystery.”
I have no doubt that I’m living and healthy 20 years after a diagnosis of aggressive cancer due in large part to Lewis’s faith, friendship and guidance.
Lewis’s website: http://www.mehl-madrona.com/
Before I left Pittsburgh I made arrangements to go to the desert for two weeks “before the green grass grows.” The appropriate dates coincided with the busiest time of my work year. My life was taking a new direction I could not possibly have imagined, let alone been willing to embrace, less than a year earlier.
“Portals to other worlds open in the darkness—worlds most modern people are too sophisticated or too frightened to imagine. Science prospers in the light of libraries and laboratories, but when the doors close and light is extinguished, science is gone and ancient magic reigns.” -Lewis Mehl-Madrona
“For a Native American, a healing is a spiritual journey. As most people intuitively grasp (except maybe doctors, who are trained to disbelieve the idea), what is happening in the mind and in the spirit. People can get well. But before a person can do so, he or she must undergo a transformation—of lifestyles, emotions, and spirit—besides making the necessary shift in the body.” -Lewis Mehl-Madrona
“I believe rational explanations are destroying medicine today as well as our society at large. To be healed we need to believe in the possibility of healing, and in a greater world, and in powers greater than our own. We should not trivialize spiritual experiences, saying, ‘It’s just this, it’s only that.’ It is a grave and sometimes fatal mistake to insist that every experience have an explanation that avoids the spirit. We cannot live without spirit. It is arrogant and in a sense dishonest—dishonest because scientific thinkers are not so much trying to explain as to explain away the miraculous.” -Lewis Mehl-Madrona
“Remember, the greatest gift you have been given is freedom, and your greatest freedom is in choosing your own thoughts, words, and actions.” -Marilyn Youngblood (one of Lewis’s teachers)