Blessing: or, A River Runs Through It

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Blessing comes from outside us: we can ask for blessing, or bestow it on another, but we cannot seize it for ourselves.

Benita Walton was a reconstructive surgeon who saw many cases of breast cancer in her practice. The women she treated were reeling not just from the physical insult of malignancy and surgery, but also from fear and isolation. They had trouble finding post-operative care that would bring emotional and spiritual healing. One survivor remarked, “I kept receiving letters from my hospital informing me of the support groups I could join… I envisioned dark rooms, gray folding chairs, and women crying. I didn’t want that.”

© Trevor Rickard.In her free time, Dr. Walton was a dedicated fly fisher. She realized that the gentle rhythmic motion of fly casting was similar to the therapeutic exercises prescribed to a woman recovering from breast surgery. Furthermore, she knew the mental and spiritual benefits of being amidst nature, on a trout stream. An idea gradually formed: What if breast cancer survivors could attend a wilderness retreat and join a support network centered around fly fishing?

Dr. Walton’s brainchild is Casting for Recovery, established in 1996, now providing three-day retreats at 44 sites in 30 different states. The retreats combine top-quality education and counseling services, with abundant time spent on the water, receiving instruction in the nuanced craft of fly fishing. There is no cost to the participants except travel to and from the retreat. The program is volunteer-led, and many volunteers are themselves cancer survivors and CFR alumnae. In this way it is self-sustaining and self-renewing. 

Testimonials of the program’s benefits have poured forth:

“I thought, That’s how I want to live my recovery. I could learn a skill—fly fishing—that I could enjoy the rest of my life, and I could pass on that skill to my children.”
“I’ve made so many friends who have helped show me the path through and beyond cancer.”

Our colleague Joe Mann introduced Gary Gunderson’s “Leading Causes of Life” in a post last week. Blessing plays a specific role in Gunderson’s scheme, related to Hope and Connection. Christians intuitively know that blessing means an experience of God’s grace, a reminder to be thankful. Gunderson and co-author Larry Pray emphasize that blessing comes from outside us: we can ask for blessing, or bestow it on another, but we cannot seize it for ourselves. Blessing occurs when we wade into the river of life flowing from our ancestors toward our descendents. Blessing is powerful and unpredictable. Often we don’t know its origin, and we can’t know all of its future reverberations, its ripple effects.

Casting for Recovery taps into the tradition of fly fishing, a centuries-old means of communing with wild creatures and coaxing a living from nature. The program teaches a skill and empowers women to teach that skill to others. It connects disparate groups of people: survivors, their family members, professional caregivers, and passionate evangelists of fly fishing. It generates new relationships, new opportunities for healing and sharing, that could never be planned out. It is characterized by hospitality, kindness, and humor. CFR clearly meets the definition of Blessing.

The story of CFR reminds me another blessing. I sing in the choir at my church. In our slightly off-key way, our choir contributes to the church’s ongoing worship life, while carrying forward the legacy of Faure and Handel, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.

A woman in our alto section named Dot suffered a stroke last summer. She had a hospital stay and spent a few weeks in a rehab center to help her begin to recover her speech and mobility.

Our choir director made a point to encourage Dot to return to rehearsal as quickly as possible. Choral singing turns out to be strongly beneficial to a stroke patient, for improving speech and other cognitive abilities. And Dot, like all of us from time to time, can trust in the safety of the singing group to cover for a flubbed syllable or a sour note.

Dot can be found in the choir loft every Sunday, singing her heart out and doing well in every way, being blessed and being a blessing to others.

Shalom y'all,

John James, M.A.
Research Coordinator
Clergy Health Initiative

(Quotes are taken from the article “Reel Healing” by Bruce Ingram, published in the April 2010 issue of Wildlife in North Carolina.)

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