Column: Where is community when illness strikes?

Cara Schulz —  April 22, 2016 — 40 Comments

Modern Paganism has matured to where we now have rituals and specialists to help us deal with many of life’s changes and challenges from a religious standpoint. The happy events were first. We have clergy ready to help us get married or handfasted; midwives to assist us in giving birth, and perform naming ceremonies for babies. We also have rituals and spiritual specialists for the tough times. There are ceremonies used for divorce; and we have specific funeral rites. We also have prison and military chaplains, and a growing number of death midwives to help ease us from this world to the next.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

However, one area is still lacking. How do Pagans navigate through a life threatening or terminal illness? Where are the specialists to help with that? Where are the ceremonies? We do have rituals to send healing energy to a person in need, and those are always greatly appreciated. Just this week, The Wild Hunt featured an article about the emerging Pagan hospital chaplains. Their presence alone would certainly be a sincere comfort in many situations.

We are headed in the right direction. However, as a Pagan facing a life-threatening illness, I can personally tell you that. as a community, we’re not there yet. Let me first share my experience, and then I’ll contrast that with what happens with patients from mainstream religions.

On January 4 I woke up after a colonoscopy to a very somber-faced doctor. He said, “I don’t have good news for you. I have really bad news, in fact. I found a tumor and it was so large I couldn’t complete the procedure.”

I felt my husband take my hand. The surgeon paused and then went on: “We need to be aggressive about getting you to a surgeon. Immediately. I’m sending you out for some scans today.”

He said more, but I don’t remember what. I can only recall the look in my husband’s eyes as he heard the news with me. He was stricken, strong, determined, and trying to hide how frantic he felt.

I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, and that is when my whirlwind started: tests, blood draws, meetings with doctors and surgeons. It’s difficult to explain what that time is like unless you’ve experienced something similar. Time warps. A month seems like both a day and a year. Your decision making and ability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes is heavily impaired. Yet at the same time you find yourself lost in thought for hours.

You also have the stress of telling loved ones, and it hits harder each time you say the words, “I have cancer.”

When I told my parents, my mother was plainly in shock. My father couldn’t even look at me; he was so sad. I was ripping the hearts right out of their bodies. I was ripping my own heart out, too.

When this happens, you are vulnerable, and emotionally and spiritually weak. While your family will attempt to help, they are also going to be in shock. Everyone involved needs support. 

What happened to me next is very different for Pagans versus someone within a mainstream religion. In most mainstream religious communities, the moment word leaks out about the diagnosis a well oiled machine swings into action. A clergy person calls or visits to not only check on your spiritual well-being, but also on the family’s needs. The community Prayer Circle is alerted, and weekly prayers begin. Your name is brought before the congregation, where additional prayers are offered.

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Colon charm used in offering. [Courtesy Photo]

If you are unable to attend your house of worship, the clergy person brings the service to you. A calendar is drawn up, and volunteers bring meals to your house; your lawn is mowed; your kids are shuttled to volleyball practice; your dishes and toilets are scrubbed. Everyone knows what to do, and they will do this for months without even being asked. The patient can focus on survival, and their family can focus on their loved one.

Now let me relate my experience.

On my the first visit with the surgeon, he asked me if I’d like to talk to a clergy person. I didn’t know what to say. I desperately wished that were possible. I also wished there was some place to pray and leave offerings. Where were the people flying into action? Where were the people leading a team to help me and my family through this ordeal?

I told a few close friends, of different faiths. I had Lutherans in Nebraska and Pagans across the U.S. praying for me. David Salisbury’s coven in Washington D.C. did some seriously magical shit to pull the cancer out of my body. Catholics lit candles and Methodists knit me a blanket. Atheists in Colorado and Arizona kept me in their thoughts. These are just a few examples, all of which touched me to my very soul.

Yet I realized that if I wanted the comfort of the rituals of my faith, Hellenic polytheism, I’d have to figure it out for myself at a time when I had the least capacity to do so. I needed to get a handle on what to do spiritually beyond the simple prayers and offerings at my home altar. When I could get out of bed, I strengthened my household boundaries, and I pulled from my memory what Hellenics did when they became seriously ill back in a time when our religion flourished.

I put out a call on Facebook to my co-religionists in Greece, asking if someone could please make an offering to a temple of Asklepios on my behalf. My plan was simple. I’d send them the offering and they would just need to leave it at the temple with a note that I’d send along. Gwendolyn Reece was able to connect me to a friend of hers, who was able to deliver my offering.

Then, I began preparing. Ancient Greeks would leave replicas of the body part that they needed healing as an offering at the temple. I found an Etsy artisan who made a small silver replica of the intestinal tract. Although it was meant to be hung on a necklace, I thought it perfect as an offering. I contacted the seller to make ensure that the charm could be sent to Greece in time. I included this note, “Asklepios, I have made many offerings to you in the past and will do so for years to come. I’m having surgery to remove the cancer and part of my colon and I ask you to guide the hands of my surgeon. Please accept this offering. Cara Schulz, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.”

The Etsy seller contacted me with the following note:

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With that done, I began to take care of the pragmatic things, because making sure your household is in order is important to Hellenics. I updated my Medical Directive. I put people’s’ names on some of my belongings so they could have them if I died. I designated my son to handle my social media accounts. And I wrote my own obituary for The Wild Hunt because there was no way I wanted anyone to write that I lost my battle with cancer.  

At this point, My cat Willow, who had long been ill with lymphoma and FIV, took a turn for the worse. She had survived a year longer than expected under our meticulous care. One day, my husband noticed that she was looking sad and tired so we took her into the vet. The news stunned us. “It appears she has developed colon cancer,” said the vet.

I started laughing and crying at the same time. I couldn’t believe it. Colon cancer.

There’s a thought, in some hearth religions, that beloved pets and family members will draw in a disease to spare another member of the family. A kind of expiation. In the Christian sense, expiation means an atonement for wrong doing. But in Hellenism, it’s a way to get rid of miasma or the ill fortune brought on by a bad spirit.

Over the past few years, we had moved around a bit, never able to truly set up our household boundaries as we should have. Could a bad spirit have entered our home and allowed the cancer to grow in my body? Was Willow trying to make up for that by sacrificing herself so I would live? All I knew, at that moment, was that my soul simply couldn’t bear the weight it felt. I held Willow as we drove her home and whispered “I’m so sorry” into her fur.

It was not mid-January. I’d had two failed procedures that left me weaker than before. I was down below 100 pounds and in constant pain. For over a month, I had consumed only clear liquids, and the stress was causing me to lose all mental focus. I needed an operation to remove the tumor and a section of my colon. The surgeon didn’t want to perform the surgery because of my condition. However, if he didn’t, I wouldn’t survive.

[Courtesy photo]

[Courtesy photo]


As my surgery drew near, I prayed silently alone. I held tightly to the coin bearing the face of Asklepios sent by my friend Lamyka, a Hawaiian Pagan. My family was with me around the clock, and I needed them there. However, there was still a gulf because I could not have a comfortable discussion of faith.

One night a nurse came into my room to do her usual checks. She noticed that I was crying, that I was scared and in pain. I was tired of throwing up and weak from hunger. The nurse, like the doctor, asked me if I wanted to talk to clergy person. I explained that there was no clergy there for me. Then I explained a bit about my religion and, since she had some knowledge of the classics, she understood the importance of making offerings. She asked if I’d feel better if, when she got off duty, she took some of my flowers and put them on the statue of the Mayo brothers.

It was a perfect idea. The Mayo brothers founded the world famous Mayo clinic, where I was being treated. They are almost considered demi-gods in the medical profession. We may not have a temple to Asklepios here in the United States, but that statue of the Mayo brothers comes close. The nurse said that they often find flowers or notes on the statue, either asking for healing or giving thanks for a successful procedure.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

During that time, I received an email that my offering in Greece had been made. Gwendolyn’s friend had left the package there, unopened, and said a prayer for me. I also received a note from Gwendolyn herself saying that she had libated a bottle of wine from Crete and had a candle going for me on her altar. Other friends, Pagan and Christian and Jewish and Atheist, were all praying for me or wishing me well.

On the day of surgery, I taped the coin of Asklepios to the underside of my arm, asking the surgical assistant that it not be removed. He didn’t want to do it. But I explained that it was a religious thing and that I knew that my surgery was very risky. So he added more tape and agreed to leave it there. I also wrote the surgeon a note across my chest that read: “Good luck, Doc.” A little levity can’t hurt, right?

The surgery was a success and, after a few days, I went home. I couldn’t make it down to the family altar in our basement so my husband, an Atheist, brought my incense burner up to the bedroom. He had even gone out to buy the best incense he could find to give thanks for my surgery. It was so touching that he understood the importance of giving thanks immediately when I got home. I didn’t even have to ask him. He was the one who lit the incense and said how happy he was to have me at home, safe. Willow didn’t like the hospital smell, but eventually curled up with me.

[Courtesy photo]

[Courtesy photo]


I had complications. I had ER visits. My husband struggled to meet all of his obligations – to work, to me, to our ailing cat Willow – and at the same time eat something other than fast food at odd hours.

I wound up with another 6 day hospital stay, and we just had to let the housekeeping go. But once I was back home, it was clear that I was on the mend from all the complications. Then Willow died. She held on just long enough to see me through. I have never felt so sad or so guilty in my entire life as when I held her little limp paw. Willow died so I could have the best chance at life. All I could do for her was to write an epitaph, a short poem for the dead popular in ancient Greece.

We are as sad at your passing,
Little Girl,
as we were happy to have you in our lives.

You had a kind heart.
Caring for us when we were sick
and comforting us when we cried,
wrapping your little white arms around our wrists.

Now our tears fall
and there is no comfort to be had.
No soft fur to stroke or gentle purr.
You’re simply gone though you fought to stay.

It’s not right that your reward
for sixteen years of love and devotion
is to be ashes in a vase.

After surgery comes healing. I am working to get to the exercise classes for chemo patients so Apollon can bless me with strength. I spend time in the sun for Helios to give me his energy. And I rest within the boundaries and protection of my home, struggling to wash the sheets, to have clean underwear, and to eat real food. Everything takes me 4 times longer than it once did. I often have to stop in the middle because moving can cause me to vomit.

Now, my husband is back working full time. It’s pretty rare for him to come home and have a real dinner. It’s rare that we even have the makings for a real dinner.

I am also enjoying the thrills of chemotherapy. Lots of chemo, with delightful side effects like nausea and painful blisters on my hands, feet, and in my mouth. This all means prayers and offerings to Hygia asking that she help the chemo clear out any leftover cancer cells before they attack my other organs and to please lessen the side effects.

Friends living near Hot Springs, South Dakota have placed offerings at the statue of Hygia there. Hot Springs was a place of recovery for Civil War veterans due to the healing waters that bubble up from its many springs. There is still a large VA medical center there, along with healing pools and springs from which you can drink. As soon as it is possible, I will plan my own trip to Hot Springs so I can make offerings in person and take in its waters.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

I’m hoping the waters can offset a horrible omen. On my first day of chemo, I went to take my pills, and the very first one fell out of my hand and landed on the floor. I stood there staring at it. In my religion, food or other items that fall through the air and hit the floor have passed through the realm of the living and are now with Hekate in Hades. To ingest something that has fallen on the floor is to literally eat death. I threw that pill away and took the other three. But the feeling of dread hasn’t left me. Was that an omen that chemo won’t work and my cancer will come back? Is it already back? How am I to deal with this? What should I do? Who can I turn to with these questions?

In this entire process, which will continue for a long time, I’ve had to muddle through, dig, guess, and make do with all the spiritual aspects of navigating a serious illness. People of all faiths have to do this. But Pagans, in particular, are at a disadvantage. When we are at our weakest, and most vulnerable, we have be our own anthropologist, clergy, and spiritual advocate. We lack the mundane services that the more mainstream religions enjoy.

There aren’t, for the most part, Pagan clergy and congregations that step in to help during times of serious, chronic, or terminal illness. There wasn’t a Pagan Chaplain or clergy visiting me to hold my hand the night before surgery; to pray out loud with me; to visit me during the long hours when I was at home alone, recovering and just happy to be alive . There wasn’t someone there while I openly wept over the death of the future I once had.

We don’t have any established systems to make offerings at significant places, or to even know where those places would even be. There is no community of co-religionists, as there would be in a church, to bring my exhausted husband meals after driving the two hours back and forth to the hospital while still trying to work a full time job and care for our cat.

It’s not just clergy or concentrated numbers of local Pagans that we lack. It’s a lack of cohesion. Mainstream churches, mosques, and synagogues are a true local-based community with a high degree of cohesion. Even small congregations, with an active clergy person, are able to mobilize and support members in need within hours. In talking with other cancer patients, several said they had casseroles delivered to their door before family could arrive. One related how their church arranged for their children to stay overnight with friends before she and her husband were even done at the colonoscopy center, in order that the parents could have a night to pull themselves together. That church has less than 25 members.

Yet, as a community, we are getting there. I was able to find people to make offerings for me. When I asked, people immediately stepped up to help. I’m pretty sure on the day I had surgery, there were enough candles lit that you could have seen them from the International Space Station. Boxes of snacks and treats, cards, restaurant gift cards, books, things to help with nausea and talismans have poured into my mailbox. And, when I have asked the tough spiritual questions, my friends have answered. Most often the answer was, “I love you.”

So yes, we are getting there. But we’re not there yet.  

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.