Coming Out as a Shaman at Your Presbyterian Memorial Service by Elizabeth Cunningham


One morning my husband comes to my office to give me an important phone message. “Jo wants you to come and talk to her about her funeral.”

Johanne RenbeckMy friend Jo, an artist and poet, is dying of an aggressive form of cancer that is infiltrating her brain. At home in hospice care, she has already lost the use of her left side and has been told she may lose her mind and speech soon.  So I go right over to her house where she is enthroned (a tall, regal woman) in her hospital bed in the middle of her living room. All her visitors have the pleasure of being surrounded by her paintings, magical and alive, like all her work from sculpture to book arts (have you ever worn a book? Jo has!) to poetry–some of her most powerful work was composed in the hospital.

Jo has a wealth of friends helping in this hard time. I am one of a team she calls her ESTs (Emergency Spiritual Technicians–she jokes that she will make us badges). Jo and I have celebrated ritual together for years at The Center at High Valley where a figure Jo created of the goddess cum saint Brigid presides over an ever-changing community altar. With her husband, Jo has also been an occasional—and occasionally obstreperous—member of the Presbyterian Church.  As an interfaith minister, I playfully called dibs on being her pastor while she was in the hospital.  Now it is no joke.

“You know, Jo,” I say, “of course we will have a memorial for you at High Valley, but you’re going to have to have one at the Presbyterian Church, too. That’s the only place big enough for everyone who knows you to gather, and the only place some of them would be comfortable. “  (Jo has a wide range of friends that span the political and religious spectrum.)

“I suppose so,” she agrees; then she adds. “I left the church, because that is not the story I live in. I want you to tell them, tell them what I believe. And I want them to sing your “Amazing Grace.’”  (I had written earth-centered lyrics years ago.) “Will you have a meeting with the minister? Tell him what I want? “

I do have a lovely meeting with the minister, who is touched that Jo will allow herself to have a Presbyterian service. He cherishes the memory of their theological duels. It becomes clear that we will not be co-officiating, but he agrees to printing the alternative words to “Amazing Grace” in the bulletin and gives me carte blanche to say what I like (or what Jo likes) in a eulogy, even to use of the “S” word.

At Jo’s memorial service, ten days after her death, the Presbyterian Church is packed to the gills. It is a beautiful old building with plain glass windows. What stays with me most clearly is the steep granite ledge right outside the altar windows, lending its power and beauty to the sanctuary. Then it is my turn to speak. The rock is behind me as I face the huge grieving crowd. It occurs to me: I am about to out Jo as a shaman. I can feel her smile. Here is the conclusion of the eulogy.

I want to speak of Jo’s art as a core element of her spiritual quest. Jo was a seer. She saw keenly the visible, natural world around her, and she also saw the invisible world, the spirit at the heart all things. And she succeeded in bringing both to immanent and transcendent life in her work. She inhabited many stories from old Norse to ancient Egyptian myths and she brought them to new and multidimensional life … In her last months, Jo identified openly as a shaman. There are many technical definitions of that word. I will give my own as it pertains to Jo. She was someone who could go between the worlds, inner and outer, visible and invisible, waking and dreaming, the world of deep human connections and the intricate connections of the natural world, of all life.

The minister speaks last. I readily admit he upstages everyone, comparing Jo’s fierceness to John Calvin’s and imagining their spirits meeting in what he called “the wildness.”  (A refreshing term for the afterlife!)

Two weeks later we hold Jo’s memorial at High Valley, everyone participating in creating an altar for Jo “under the shielding of Brigid” (a phrase from one of Jo’s favorite chants.) There are windows behind this altar, too, that look out on the water, a fitting complement to the rock.  I am sorry the minister cannot be with us as he as he’d hoped. But it is Holy Saturday and he is getting ready for Easter. We sit in a circle, some on chairs, some on the floor, people leaning against each other. A few Presbyterians have joined us.  Everyone speaks as moved. The tissue box is passed around and around. At the end we, too, sing “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the earth,
the dirt between my toes,
the sun pours down upon my crown,
the mighty river flows.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
of bird song in the trees,
the air is dense with fragrant scents
soft floating on the breeze.

Amazing Grace the ocean swells,
the waves break on the shore,
the moonlight rides upon the tides,
oh, who could ask for more.

Now we’ve been here four million years
sustained at her sweet breast,
let’s sing her praise for all our days,
then in her womb we’ll rest.

 -copyright by Elizabeth Cunningham, 1995. (Feel free to sing at any occasion. For permission to reprint, contact me through my website.)

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. An ordained interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she celebrates the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com and www.highvalley.org

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Categories: General, Goddess Movement

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26 replies

  1. Lovely…how sweet the sound! Thank you for telling Jo’s story–or this one little slice of it!

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  2. Absolutely beautiful. Your love and grace and the pastor’s love and grace for Jo totally shines out of this piece! What a send-off, and how wonderful that some of the Presbyterian crowd turned up for her memorial in High Valley. I will definitely borrow your words for Amazing Grace. My brother has terminal cancer also, and he would appreciate the earthiness of the lyrics, as someone who’s not religious, but enjoys stories from the spirit world. Blessings. xx

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  3. Thank you for this post I really enjoyed it, what a lovely story.

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  4. Elizabeth, this is one of the most beautiful real life stories I have heard. Thank you for sharing. And huge thank you for the lyrics to Amazing Graze. I will definitely learn it. I love many pagan versions of Christian hymns, songs and Carols :-)

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  5. What beautiful words you wrote to an amazing heart-swelling hymn!

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  6. Wonderful and moving. Thank you.

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  7. What a beautiful post and such a blessing for those of us who didn’t know Jo, but are now able to be touched by her life through what you have written. Finding ways to bridge the different facets of our spiritual lives and bring together friends and family who may be part of one but not another of those facets, especially at significant moments in our lives, is so important. Your post is a beautiful example of how to do that spectacularly well.

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  8. Thank you all. Jo was and is a magnificent soul. I am glad to be able to share a little of her story. Do check out her website. (Click on Jo in the first paragraph.) I will be editing a collection of her poems. Other friends will bring out some of her artist’s books.

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  9. What a beautiful tribute to a friend and the lyrics you wrote are gorgeous! I have to sing them so I can feel them more. I am already touched by reading them.

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  10. Lovely, my friend. All your friends, here on the planet and anywhere else they may be, are fortunate to know you and the work you do. Jo was (or still is) especially favored by your presence in her life. Love the chant, too. Brava!

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  11. I added the picture of Jo’s work.

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  12. So lovely and such a good telling of her soul, thank you. And thank you for the new words for Amazing Grace–stunning and wonderful.

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  13. Deeply touches my own struggles with ailing friends, thank you so much for sharing your journey.

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  14. Beautiful in many ways! Love the new Amazing Grace. Perfect!

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  15. Lovely. How lucky you are to have had such a friend. And your hymn is perfect. I shall definitely be singing it.

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  16. What a beautiful tribute to a life well lived.

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  17. Thank you so much for your witness, everyone!

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  18. Thank you for your wonderful earth mother loving words to an old hymn. So perfect for a shaman’s funeral.

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  19. Elizabeth, I didn’t know Jo but your words and hymn broughts tears to my eyes. I would love to see more of Jo’s work, I am on a quest to include aspects of Shamanistic practice into my art. Is there somewhere I can find her images. Thankyou.

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  20. Hi Elizabeth —

    I just returned from the ASWM conference, and your name and your work came up several times. Someday our paths will cross, I mean physically, not just on the web.

    I just went to see Jo’s work on her website and it’s truly amazing. If she were still alive, I would order a dragon book. Wow!

    I’ve been singing an “Amazing Grace” for two decades that is similar to yours. It’s by Barbara Tipton, also a UU:

    Amazing Earth!
    Our island home
    A jewel hung in space.
    Your lands and seas
    You soft, sweet breeze
    Are bearers of God’s grace (I sing it as “Goddess’ grace”).

    Our Mother has a beauteous face
    Her smile is like the sun
    Green grows her hair
    In forests where
    Birds sing as wild deer run.

    The mighty eagle; gentle dove,
    The mountain, grain of sand,
    The ocean and the raindrop know
    What we must understand.

    We share one home,
    This precious Earth
    With creatures great and small
    Humanity must learn to see
    That justice is for all.

    Amazing Earth!
    Our island home
    A jewel hung in space.
    Your lands and seas
    You soft, sweet breeze
    Are bearers of God’s grace.

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  21. The concept of coming out as a shaman stirs something in me.

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