“Bring your owl wings,” Maureen had said to me on the phone. “I’ll bring Eagle. We will need both.”
Katerina had called Maureen earlier that morning to ask if we could come over to her house as she sensed death was hovering close by.
I had met Maureen six months before when she attended one of our weeklong retreats. She had been living with lymphoma for several years by then and thought the retreat could help her learn to live with uncertainty. She brought her eagle wings on retreat to offer a smudge to anyone who might be interested, explaining that in her Aboriginal tradition a smudge is a cleansing ritual for healing the mind, body and spirit, and as the smoke from the burning sage rises, difficult feelings and emotions are lifted away.
Each evening after the close of the group session, Maureen invited people to gather outside under the night sky. She lit her sage stick with a match and once the red embers glowed she wafted the smoke over each person’s body, front and back, with a wing in each hand, as though she was carefully dusting away troubles. After everyone was smudged Maureen recited a prayer to the Creator. Perhaps because she was an Elder, she seemed to convey an immediate and direct connection with her Beloved. Love shone from her eyes as she looked upwards and it caressed her soft voice as she spoke.
She prayed that everyone at the retreat be granted the healing they wished for, and be kept safe from harm. She asked that people in hospitals and prisons would be remembered, as well as children and the old people who suffered. She prayed for those who were hungry and those who lived in fear for their lives, and for the four-legged creatures, and those with wings, those that swim, and those that crawl. Grandmother Moon, Father Sky and Mother Earth were asked to help with the healing prayers and then Maureen said thank you for the clean water, and the clean air, and for the kindness of one person to another. She closed with gratitude to the Creator for the miracle of life.
Katerina attended the smudge ceremony with Maureen every evening. She found the ritual deeply comforting as it connected her to a larger world, one to which she felt an integral part. The Stage IV cancer diagnosis, just after her 45th birthday, had come as a huge shock and her hope was that the retreat would help her to find peace. Being a longtime Christian she hadn't expected to connect with a new spiritual tradition, but over the retreat week the two women became close friends in the discovery of their mutual faith.
A year or so before that retreat, I had stopped in on a road trip to visit my friend Katie in Mount Shasta. There I met a friend of hers who told me an owl story. About three years before, Micah had been driving at night on a quiet road when she came upon a dead barn owl in the middle of the road. She stopped her car at the side of the road and carefully lifted the owl off the road and wrapped it in a blanket. She took the bird home intending to bury it but before she did so, she was advised by an aboriginal friend to remove the owl’s wings. Micah was told they would be a gift to be used by someone for healing. She would know the person when they appeared to her, at some time in the future.
When I arrived at breakfast the following morning there were two barn owl wings on the table with a note. These wings are for you Janie with blessings for the healing they will bring to many. I had no idea how I would use the owl wings until I met Maureen and told her the story.
“The bird chooses us,” Maureen told me. “The eagle chose me, and the owl chose you. In our tradition the owl is a symbol for death and rebirth, and I will teach you how to use these wings with people who are dying.
I thought Katerina would be in bed when we arrived at the small, cozy apartment, but she was up and dressed on the couch, fully present for the ceremony. Her tired eyes were warm and deeply bright as she and her partner welcomed Maureen and I into their home.
Maureen lit the smudge stick and offered it to each of us. Once each person was smudged, she indicated to me to pick up the owl wings. She stood behind Katerina’s chair, and I stood facing her, in front. We raised the four wings touching the tips together to create a winged tent over Katerina’s head.
Maureen spoke, “Katerina, Eagle and Owl are here today to take you home whenever your spirit is ready to leave.” Tears ran down Katerina’s cheeks as Maureen and I brushed down the length of her body with the wings. Puffs of air, like the wind, wafted outwards from the motion and Maureen spoke again. “You are safe Katerina, you are deeply loved. Imagine you are being softly held under the feathered wings of these two magnificent birds, and when it’s your time, your spirit will take you home.”
Maureen ended the ceremony with a prayer to the Creator to take good care of Katerina and her family, and all the many friends who loved her. She thanked the spirit of the owl and the eagle for their healing presence.
Katerina died peacefully two days later with her family at her side. I sensed my journey with the owl medicine had only just begun.