The Way of Sacred Illness

Michael Ortiz Hill

James Baldwin wrote that to be truly alive is to make love with what you most fear. My lover has arrived in the form of a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The Bantu tradition that I practice medicine relies on sacred illness to initiate its shamans, known as ngangas. The ancestors visit certain illnesses on those called to heal. MS is certainly such an illness because it beckons toward a deeper understanding of healing. When I told Mandaza Kandemwa (the nganga who initiated me into tribal medicine) about my diagnosis, he listened as a dear friend would and then said, “Well, you have your heart and your voice. You can do without your legs. Nothing now should get in the way of spirit coming through you as a healer.” Bless his lack of pity. It was true. Though my legs seemed then to be fading beneath me, I’ve never been so unimpeded.

My apprenticeship with multiple sclerosis began very slowly, retrospect being the only angle from which one might even see its beginnings. I was in Africa in 1996 with my wife Deena Metzger, introducing her to the Bantu people who had initiated and received me as a medicine man. We were in the stony waterlands of Mashvingo, southern Zimbabwe, and Deena was initiating Mandaza into the mysteries of the Hebrew letters, when I noted a garden variety of white male arrogance rising up in me. After all, I was “the expert,” much a part of the tribal world and quite well read on Bantu anthropology. How much I wanted to interfere, be master of ceremonies. So I pulled away to a small pool of water to curl up in and prayed in the traditional way of the ngoma of the water spirits. I yielded to the field of spirits that were carrying the poetry of the moment quite without my advice.

It was then that the snail parasite schistosoma slid through the skin and apparently laid eggs in the lattice of my peripheral nervous system. That night a fever, strange but transient, two weeks later, numb from the waist down. And so I walked eight years with this numbness. Eighty percent of peripheral neuropathies are undiagnosable, I was told. With reluctance, accustomed to a young man’s oblivious vigor, I settled into the perpetual reminder of the frailty of the flesh. I believe it made me a better nurse, a better nganga, a more compassionate human being. All this started changing a few months ago when I lost the full use of my legs. It was then that my apprenticeship with the sacred illness, soon to be named multiple sclerosis, truly began. How fortunate I am that MS insinuated itself into my body at a moment of surrender, and has kept such perfect faith with the teaching of surrender, and surrender, and yet again, surrender. And then there are the gifts that come in the wake of surrender.

Surrender? What do I mean by surrender? Anagarika Sujata says that there is dishonesty in any mind that insists reality occur in a specific way. MS says that healing requires a strange alliance with what I am facing, and so the way of surrender has demanded an uncompromising honesty. Not a passive acceptance, but a very active meeting.
My first serious rendezvous with the spirit of the illness was last August, when I walked to the cave on the Big Sur coast where I’d been blessed to spend two years during my twenties and thirties in solitude and prayer. It took me ten hours to walk what had been a one hour hike. In my two weeks alone I surrendered my legs not knowing if they’d return or even if I’d be able to make my way out of the ravine. Later I surrendered my life. Undiagnosed as yet, I didn’t know if that time had come. Finally, there was surrendering the fetish of certainty, knowing that God is the one who shapes what is before me. Such has been my spiritual practice during this time and through it I have begun to taste freedom.


Surrendering my legs, perplexed that I would be asked to do so, but with whom do I argue? Surrendering my life was a different matter, that truculent fantasy that my life and my death are possessions of mine, God be dammed. Deena is twenty years my senior, and it’s been many years of renewing the vow that I’d see her to the other side, a betrayal of her and God’s betrayal of both of us should fate decide otherwise. But yes the tearful moment five minutes before the New Year’s kiss, insisting that she continue should I go first.

The third lesson from the illness was surrendering the fetish of certainty. A few months ago I was delivered vividly between worlds. I was between lives, one life dead and gone and the next unborn, that place the Tibetans call bardo. Flailing in rage, indulging in an orgiastic fit of self-pity, and Deena, bless her, said, “You have to let go the how you think and talk abut these things.” The space of the bardo echoed with “let go, let go, let go” as if to harangue. I knew that spiritually I seem to be called to let go of most everything, or perhaps merely any shard of certainty.

Ah, the Fool card of the Tarot! My father gave me my first Tarot deck before he died, and I’ve long used it to understand my fate. Did I not see the Fool as a photograph of my soul, satchel at the end of a stick, dog nipping at my heels? Did I not always yearn to dance at the edge of the abyss? And yet quite denying now years of my public and private rhetoric that could well be the fiction of having a self, I’m seduced by the fetish of certainty – that fetish that I’ve always scoffed at with contempt. The Fool at last has the last laugh. Affectionate though he was towards the young man’s flamboyance, now he places the older man’s meditation cushion at the edge of the uncertainty that has become his life and says, “Sit still.”

How little I’ve understood the Fool. A little psychosis, a bit of entertainment, half-time in the rites of surrender. I’m left with the question, stripped bare – what is the authentic and ensouled truth of the story I am in?

Certainly I’d lie if I didn’t say that part of the truth has been hell, nailed to a diagnosis, compelled by the pornography of prognosis. Yet within the nightmare I see Mildred smiling. Mildred was my first patient. I spent four years at her bedside, learning to meditate, learning to be a nurse. One night I came to work (her home) and she asked how I was. (I read her lips and also pressed air through an ambu bag through her tracheotomy and vocal cords for a word or two.)

“Oh, I feel a little sad,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Life just seems sad to me sometimes.”
“I rarely feel sad,” she said.
“That surprises me, Mildred. Some people might think you’d be bitter,” I said.
Mildred had been diagnosed with MS in the 1950’s. “Bitter? Oh no. I just don’t let things bother me.”

And so I finally “saw” her. she was virtually bathed in love. As am I. And she
radiated light. I spent those years suctioning, medicating, bathing and giving a bedpan over to an angel.

And so the continuing truth of initiation: the affliction itself has drawn me as a healer into a circle of healers, some alive, some spirits. This circle itself is the place of healing, the place of initiation. Healing and initiation are one and the same, the weave of many hands.

The circle of the living.

My community of friends singing, praying, drumming on my behalf as my legs began giving away, as I staggered with my walking stick. The medicine of a prayerful community: the next day I put my stick down only to use it, as Deena said, because the time had come for me to lean on the ancestors.

Dr. Lobsang Dhondup practiced Tibetan medicine for five years in Mongolia, is now in a clinic in San Diego. He met me with silence as he spent ten minutes taking my pulses in both my arms, his eyes closed in deep focus. Then he looked up and said, “You have MS don’t you?” Lobsang collaborated with neurologists at UCSB regarding MS.
My pulses, he told me, showed chronic inflammation, and he prescribed herbs and a rigorous diet to calm my inflamed self. Initially I resisted. No chili! No sugar, wheat, alcohol, mangos! No etc! This diet messed seriously with my inner Mexican.

Because of Lobsang and his kind Buddhist demeanor, I’ve ceased to see MS as an enemy. The diet behooves me to regard it as the Guest, that it be at ease. My meditation is how to be hospitable to this one who has so much to teach me. Again, surrender.

Dr. Bill Gray is a homeopath who knows the poetry of symptoms. In homeopathy there is compassion in the activity of diagnosis, so that my symptoms in their strange peculiarity sing, call and response with the possible remedies: gold, sulfur, falcon’s blood. Bill, like myself, is a refugee from allopathy, a Stanford trained MD, taken almost thirty years by another paradigm. “Laws of cure!” he marvels. “Symptoms as the body’s native wisdom about healing.” This seems close to the understanding in African medicine that with sacred illness one is healed by the spirit of the disease itself.

Multiple sclerosis has drawn me as a healer into this circle of healers, some that I have named, others that I’m just beginning to know. Again, healing and initiation is the medicine of community, the weave of the many hands. MS itself is the subtlest and most deft of healers, a true and vivid spirit ally, the one who knows the intimate cellular truth, undisguised, undeniable and utterly transparent. Among the living and the spirits this Guest turns a face that is not without beauty. Who am I to argue that fate has delivered me here by accident, has called me towards the dance with this one so real in its intelligence, so relentless in its wisdom?