Coyote Medicine

“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.

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Would You Just Try It For Lent?

As I write this, the president will reportedly announce his decision on DACA in the next 24 hours. If he continues to be true to form the decision will be a cruel one.

Justice and compassion for the children of DACA is personal for me. I know firsthand of the sacrifices and hardships they and their parents have made in order to have a new life here. I know firsthand of the contribution the immigrant community—whether documented or not—has made to the culture and community of both Los Angeles, the city where I’ve lived for 44 years and Denver, CO, the city where I was raised.

In the fall, winter, and spring of 1982-83, I suffered through an almost year long bout with suicidal depression. I was unemployed (and, at that time, probably unemployable) and low on funds. This was barely a year after my experience at the Camaldolese monastery where I had experienced the love and intimacy of God more deeply than I ever had before. I had plummeted from the ecstasy of that experience into the darkest time of my life. Many days I barely got out of bed.

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Holy Curiosity

In the almost ten months since I have begun posting weekly blogs, I’ve become aware that if there is a unifying theme to them—I say “if”—I believe it is freedom. I’ve been reflecting on what experiences in my lifetime have inspired my impulse to freedom. I track its inception back to my four year liberal arts education at Regis College (now University) in Denver and to two teachers, in particular. These two teachers, more than any others, encouraged—even insisted—that their students think outside the box.

The invaluable Merriam Webster dictionary app on my iPhone defines liberal arts as: The studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

The old joke about a liberal arts diploma was that it and a nickel would buy you a cup of coffee.

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I’m Being Called To Be What???

In February of 1979 I became acutely aware of the fact that I see things differently, that not everyone— maybe not anyone—sees the way I see. I don’t remember when I began to see the sacred in secular symbols. It always seemed normal to me and it didn’t occur to me for a very long time that not everyone saw things this way.

This way of seeing likely developed in high school and college where the Jesuits taught us “to seek the presence of God in all things,” a core spiritual practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

I don’t remember committing to this practice consciously. Then in 1979 I attended the Advocate Experience, an intensive coming out workshop for LGBT community. A friend of mine recently referred to the encounter I had there as a “Baptism of Fire.”

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Do You Want To Risk Sending Your Parents To Hell For All Eternity?

Throughout my life I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers beginning in fourth grade with Sister Jane Mary, who, to my mother’s dismay, insisted all of her students have library cards and use them. Every other Friday afternoon the good Sister marched her class to the corner of the school playground where the blue bookmobile was parked. I loved checking out new books. The problem is that I almost always forgot to return the old ones. Overdue notices with two cents a day fines turned up regularly in the mailbox. My mother would mutter under her breath when she opened mail from the Denver Public Library and berate the good sister (never to her face) about how irresponsible it was to trust a nine-year-old with library card. “This is your last warning,” she would warn me, “from now on the fines are coming out of your allowance. If I get any more overdue notices, I’m tearing up your library card.” She never did.

I still have and regularly use my library card.

From the beginning it has been a gateway to freedom and the exploration of new and previously unimagined worlds and ideas. Reading, attending movies and being taken by my parents to see live touring companies of Broadway shows like Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific (before I was in my teens) all contributed to the creation of an inner world far more exotic (and as a child and adolescent far more fulfilling) than my outer one.

My father introduced me to adult literature when he recommended Herman Wouk’s World War Two novel The Caine Mutiny while I was still in grade school. I devoured it. Wouk’s next book, Marjorie Morningstar, was published my freshman year in high school. I was eager to read it although I had no idea what it was about. My mother, who did know what it was about, insisted I get permission from one of the Jesuit priests who taught at the high school. I took the book to Father Lander, the school librarian and told him my mother insisted I get permission before I read it.

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My Godmother Harriett Stumbles Upon My Soul’s Code

A couple of years before my mother died in 1995 (a few months short of her 81st birthday) she had an epiphany and called my oldest sister, Mary:

“Did you watch Oprah Winfrey today?”

“I missed it,” Mary replied.

“Mary,” my mother confided, “I think my family might have been dysfunctional.”

Mary has never said as much, but I imagine she bit down on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood. “Oh,” Mary said. Mary does noncommittal and non-confrontational better than anyone I’ve ever known.

As soon as Mary hung up with my mother, she called me and our two younger sisters to alert us to our mother’s a-ha moment. “Just take it in,” Mary advised.

All four of us had long since come to this conclusion about Mother’s family and thought it close to miraculous that she escaped with as few scars as she did.

Had my mother had this revelation some 40 years earlier, my life might have been quite different; but she didn’t.

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The Day We Buried My Father

My mother and I were waiting for my sister Deborah in the backseat of a mortuary limousine in front of my parents’ condo when a manifestly bow-legged man walked passed us. My mother started to cry.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Every time, that man walked past our building, your father would say, “Oh what manner of man is this who wears his balls in parenthesis.”

The limousine driver chortled, accidentally hit the accelerator, and, for a moment, it looked like we were going to rear end the parked car in front of us.

My mother’s crying became sobbing. “I’ll never hear your father say that again,” she gulped between sobs, “I miss him so. What am I going to do?”

Deborah got into the backseat and asked, “What’s the matter?”

I shook my head and mouthed, “Don’t ask.”

“Are we all here and ready to go?” the driver asked solemnly, his composure restored and his professional mourner’s mask back in place.

My parents’ marriage was not just a marriage; it was a life-long love affair.

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What is Mine To Do?

 

Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr is among the most challenging of contemporary spiritual teachers and a long-time favorite of mine. I have at least a dozen of his books on my bookshelves and a drawer filled with his recordings. His CD series, Great Themes of Paul, transformed every bias I had held about St. Paul and, seeing Paul from Richard’s perspective, have come to love and revere him.

For a while I was a Rohr groupie and showed up at every lecture, class or conference he gave in Southern California and I attended several weekend conferences that the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) presented in Albuquerque.

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Both Angels Do The Will of God

In early August of 2000, I arrived in Paris to visit my friends Terry and his mother, Alice.

I wasn’t a stranger to Paris. I’d first visited the city in 1961 with sixteen fellow college students as part of a whirlwind tour of 10 countries in three weeks with 16 other students.  It was classic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” Our guide/chaperone, Father Maginnis, S. J., was an opera-loving, epicurean Jesuit priest who was plagued with food poisoning seemingly every time he ate at a high-rated Michelin restaurant, while those of us who ate street food did just fine. Ill or not, Father Maginnis was determined to fill us with respect and awe for the culture of Europe even if killed him and it almost did.

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The Most Beautiful Funeral I’ve Ever Seen

My friend, Joseph Kramer is a visionary and one of the most courageous people I know. Joseph studied for several years to be a Jesuit priest. Then he had his “aha” experience.

One of Joseph’s Jesuit housemates at the Jesuit Theologate in Berkeley, CA took massage training at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, CA.. Upon his return, he offered to practice what he’d learned on his Jesuit housemates, including Joseph, who at the time was a scholar who lived largely in his head. During the course of the massage, Joseph, in my telling, experienced, for the first time, full incarnation, full embodiment—body, mind and soul perfectly aligned. (Joseph doesn’t dispute this.)

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Everything is a Gift

Another fragment of the mirror ball.

In the early 1980’s I thought I’d found “the one”: Donald, a handsome “almost-former” Jesuit who had left—or taken a break from his preparations for the priesthood—a year or so prior to his ordination. I had never before met a seminarian who, when out of his cassock, dressed like one of the Village People. Needless to say I was smitten. I choreographed a romantic weekend for us in Big Sur, California.

When I say “choreographed”, I mean choreographed.

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Mirror Ball

“In the rabbinic tradition, they talk about scripture having seventy faces. So when you read it, you keep turning it like a gem, letting the light refract through the various faces in and unexpected ways.

“You keep turning the gem turning the gem, seeing something new each time.” 

From What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell

 

 

Before I read Rob Bell’s book, a birthday gift from my wise, dear friend, Lorena (a wonderful book, by the way—funny, challenging, inspiring and insightful), I had begun to think of these essays as the mirror fragments of a disco ball. When the light reflects on one of the fragments, it illuminates a memory of a friend or teacher or family member and I write about it. Each mirror fragment is a piece of the whole of my life. It’s impossible to see the whole at once. The pulsing light that reflects the mirror ball changes rhythm with each new song. Some fragments are illuminated frequently; some are only rarely kissed by the light. The mirror fragments are not illuminated in a linear way, but in a seemingly random way; “seemingly” is the key word, in my soul I know there is nothing random about the illumination of the fragments.

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Mystery School: An Overview

In 1997, as word of my cancer diagnosis spread, the phrases, meant to be encouraging, that I heard most frequently were “You’ve got to fight this” or “you can beat the ‘Big C’”. (Thank you, John Wayne.) The problem is that I did not have then nor do I now have now more than trace amounts of warrior energy. But I tried. I tried really strict eating regimens, even macrobiotic (although not for long), and came to the conclusion that if this is how I was going to eat for the rest of my life, I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to live.

I spared myself the suffering that comes with the question “Why me?” I’d gone through a different version of the question during the worst years of the AIDs epidemic when I found myself asking, “Why not me?” The best answer I could come up with is that God would never give me a disease that has an unexplained weight loss. I kept that conclusion a secret until I let it slip at a dinner with a couple of HIV-infected friends and they howled with laughter at the gallows humor.

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The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

In the entry hall of my home, in a place of honor, is a lovely, framed, hand-tinted photograph of my paternal great-aunt, Jeanetta (Jean) Hermione Shea. I found it rolled up and bound with a rubber band in the bottom drawer of her dresser when I flew to San Francisco to settle her affairs and clear out her apartment after her death at the age of 99 on Thursday May 28, 1997, the day before my 56th birthday. Written on the back of the rolled-up photograph, lightly, in pencil, were the words, “high school graduation.”  The portrait blesses my home.

Jean died while I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her, which I had been doing every other week for months since she had been moved from her apartment to a hospice. We had said our goodbyes—several times, in fact. At the end of each visit, I would remind her that I loved her and knew that she loved me and that I would return to visit again in a couple of weeks. I also told her that if she felt like leaving before I returned, that was okay, too.

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Communion through a candy bar!

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet Act I, Scene 5

One of the rich rewards of my work as a spiritual director is the discovery of how many of my directees have an on-going, rich and intimate connection with the communion of saints and the communion of ancestors.

Over the years of doing this work, I’ve lost all doubt about the truth of these events and experiences of communion these directees share with me.

I’ve wanted to write about Communion for a while and then today happened.

I was at Staples picking up office supplies and as I waited in the check-out line which is filled with displays of chips and candy, I saw a Toblerone bar and instantly I was filled with the presence of the late Phillip Blake, S. J. who, in June of 1982, guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Communion through a candy bar!

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