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Four-time Cancer Survivor, Santuario Walker, and Cancer Chaplain

"How in the Heavens did I become a Santuario Walker from Homewood?" In other words..."My Destiny with Dirt!"

Dear Father Julio:

It seems like only yesterday I was seated in the very first pew with my wife Cathy listening to you preach the Gospel of the Resurrection last Easter asking all of the faithful "Who in life is chosen to share this good news?" All I recall is the lyrics to the hymn, "Is it I Lord?" And then you graciously met with me on Easter Tuesday after you read my "Being Called Into Cancer Retreat."

Well Father It has become my destiny to perpetually make pilgrimage(s) not only for my own many cancer journeys but also especially for my calling to lead other desperate and depressed fellow cancer survivors to in someway and someday help them to find spirituality within their dusty cancer pilgrimage too.

Let me begin to give my testimony that also has to do with a sweet little girl suffering from cancer named Elizabeth. She was only five years old and I met her while working with children with cancer at the University of Chicago during my first battle with sarcoma cancer. Elizabeth also had a sarcoma in her arm and she happened to live in my next suburb over from Homewood. I called her mom, Doreen, to see how she was doing and she told me, "Okay Dr. B she’s out playing with her twin brother and sister…Elizabeth seems fine, they are fighting, but you know what… she has run out of HOLY DIRT!"

My simple but loud response to Doreen was, "Holy what? Holy Dirt! What in heaven’s name is Holy Dirt?" "Larry someone gave it to me from church like you gave me a Saint Therese metal…the lady said it was from Mexico and if you rubbed it on it had healing powers." "Doreen I in all my life I have never ever heard of it! Are you sure it is from Mexico?" "Larry, no I got it wrong I think it was …New Mexico from a place called Chimayo!" "Doreen we have been planning a trip to New England and the road atlas is right on the table let me take a look…I can’t believe it. It is half way between Taos and Santa Fe. We’ve been southwest a number of times and we love Santa Fe… I do not know why I am saying this but without asking my wife Cathy…I am going to change directions make a detour so to speak from northeast to southwest from New England to New Mexico. Please tell little Elizabeth that Dr. Rainbow is going to go and get her some Holy Dirt!" And that was my initiation rite of passage to travel the road of faith the Santa Fe Trail to experience not only Holy Dirt but also all of the sense of the sacred that is the Santuario De Chimayo.

The funniest thing about this trip was though my wife Cathy is brilliant she does not have an inner compass for direction nor even sense the way to get to places even if it is the dentist we have been going to for over thirty-five years at the same address. Cathy didn’t figure out we were not going northeast but southwest till she saw signs for Branson, Missouri.

When we finally arrived I thought we were in Mexico in a tiny plaza with a few shops and adobe chapel. I wanted to immediately grab onto the holiness but became quite skeptical when I saw many signs around the parking area…"Please take all valuables with you" and simply stated "Be Careful!" Later that day my inquiring mind wanted to know if it was safe here and was told by many they had problems in the past but now with many national news stories the holy dirt had driven the crime creatures away. Once I let this anxiety flow out of my head I was open to experience the moment. So as I climbed down from my van and hobbled with cane in hand supporting my disabled and gnarled once cancer filled leg I felt a tremor beneath my feet. I directed Cathy to go through the portal gateway with a small adobe wall around it and enter a small courtyard leading to the wooden doors of the Sanctuario. As I stood in this entry way of this little courtyard of the heart and once my feet were covered with the dust the tremor ended. With caution Cathy and I humbly yet eagerly passed through the portal and sensed the sacred stir beneath our feet.

As we walked into the vestibule of the chapel we were greeted by Padre Casmiro Roca. Three of my favorite Father Roca stories include first when I told him of my many cancer experiences how he too would see it an honor to share in this great suffering of cancer. "Dr. Baran, so many, many souls come here to the Sanctuario for healing or understanding their cancer I wish too to share in this suffering." He also told me the time Cardinal Bernardin came with two priests to pray for his cancer. "After he prayed in front of the cross so devotedly he got up and asked me where the burrito stand in the plaza was for he said, ‘Enough praying Fr. Roca, I am hungry, let’s go eat burritos!’" And third this same visit with this story Heidi my daughter accompanied me on this pilgrimage for she was still searching for her one true love. I told Father …"Father my daughter has had her heart broken by so many boys not men. She needs a good man to be her husband!" Heidi was ready to kill me when Father placed his hand on her shoulder and said, "Heidi I bless you that you will have a good Catholic man come into your life!" And as he blessed her little did she know that Brian the cheese head Wisconsin Catholic, a dead ringer look alike of Greenbay Packers fame Brett Favre was right down the road in her life’s pilgrimage too.

Getting back to my first encounter stepping into the chapel past Fr. Roca’s office and vestibule area I knew I needed to light a candle and so did Cathy. I looked around at this simple wood and adobe, small yet majestic, humble yet holy chapel. Here in this Sanctuario the faith these adobe walls and wood have witnessed. We eventually sat down in a worn out pew and took in the antiquity and holiness of all of the Spanish wooden altarpieces around the chapel, known as reredos, panels of sacred paintings. I then finally placed my eyes upon the old rugged crucifix, the miraculous cross, with the Man of Sorrow suffering upon the splintery beams. I then noticed everyone not leaving the chapel the way they entered but rather to the left of the sanctuary altar that in most churches would be called the sacristy the place the priest and altar servers prepare for and end the mass. This was the way to find the Holy Dirt.

I told Cathy to come and we bowed before the cross and went through another simple yet little door in this sacramental covered sacristy. There were pictures, paintings, statuary, rosaries of each and every saint known to heaven. The pilgrims can lift the statues or pictures to see photos and written petitions, thank you notes for blessings given or remembrances noted for the thousands of pilgrims who with there presence blessed these hallow grounds too.

As you entered this area called the anteroom immediately to ones right was another smaller portal entry to El Pocito, the little well, to bend down and go into in order to get to this small sacred place of the Holy Dirt. As Cathy went in first I followed yet it was hard to maneuver since my left leg does not bend. BONK ! I bumped my head in the excitement but made it under and in. I first watched a man and a woman kneel and reach down into a hole in the cement stucco floor, the little well and cover their hands in the holy dirt and then bless themselves. They then placed some in a plastic bag and reverently smiled and left. Then it was our turn. I didn’t know how or why but I was going to get down there and get dirty and I did. I lowered myself with my bum disabled leg with the help of my wife and prayed a prayer of being within the will of God something I constantly did and still do during all of my walk with cancer. I was wearing shorts as usual and covered my disfigured leg in the dirt by rubbing it into the scars. No one knows I never ever liked touching my leg I only look at it from afar. It is my cross of cancer but this time I was touching it a real small miracle for me. Cathy had a tear or two in her eyes as she helped me up and then she got down to bless her self and took some in a plastic bag from her purse.

Later after my anointing with the dirt and lunch I needed time and sat alone in the plaza and gazed at the chapel towers and doves as Cathy went into the gift shops. I knew that I was home and that I was healed in my long quest for a return to a happy heart and it happened here. Healing of body that’s another matter that I constantly give over to God and what I like to call a hope in healing. It seems to have worked for me a hope in healing for I am hurting but happy. In this, my testimony, the reader must also understand, Father, that my healing continued since my very first pilgrimage in 1998 through my three other cancer operations in 2002, 2004, and 2005. God’s will, grace and favor have followed me hurting though happy. Hurting from the pains of my disabled leg and the lymphedema the constant swelling the need to have the leg elevated as I have done for the last twelve years and the lack of the bending property. It has never bent since the damage from removal of most leg muscles and the massive radiation many years ago. But that is my cross to bear. The various chest pains from the three lung operations to remove cancerous nodules that metastasize from the leg to the two lungs a common thing sarcoma cancers do. But I have learned true happiness living, breathing and being within the will of God my rule of life. So to my life reflects as the Sactuario shrine radiates true serenity true peace that passes all understanding.

I have one last story I forgot to mention that weaves together my favorite Father Roca story that has to do with finishing and reading my notes from writing the cancer retreat down at the Sanctuario, "Being Called into Cancer". This all happened at a preliminary meeting while waiting to see my Thoracic Surgeon, Doctor Mark Ferguson, during my pre-operative visit at the University of Chicago Hospital prior to my last cancer operation of my lungs. I sense people and especially sense the fear and anxiety of fellow cancer patients. So many, many times I have sat in a hospital clinic waiting area for a consultation, treatment or a test when one enters the perpetual out of time waiting to see the doctor moment that never seems to come around nor close to the scheduled time on your specially arranged appointment time. So many times fellow cancer folk let their fear and anxiety from cancer verbalize their feelings of being upset that appointments are not on time. I do not get it but accept it as a time of grace and a time of prayer, or a time I try to uplift the spirit of someone scared to death over their cancer diagnosis. I waited a long time in the lobby then a very long time in the actual clinic room. I knew I had another cancer surgical procedure to review so I felt it to be in God’s time. I happened to have my notes and texts of the four prayers for guardedness, woundedness, groundedness and wholeness that I had recently wrote that I needed to review actually from the previous Lent all alone at dawn in the plaza meditating as I viewed the Santuario. It is funny I wasn’t doing this editing to be holy rather I needed to be doing this so I could transcribe this to my laptop for I write with a very illegible style that even after a short period of time I can’t decipher. I was just finishing editing the last prayer when I shut the journal and laid my glasses on the booklet as my doctor walked into the room. "Dr. Baran, Larry what were you reading?" "Dr. Ferguson, Mark something I wrote: Prayers for a cancer retreat when I was down in a place called the Santuario de Chimayo with Holy Dirt known to help heal the heart and soul." My head was in this meeting of cutting me open once again and trust me a lung surgery is a painful recovery experience and this was to be my third. My head was not in the spirit of the Santuario in all due respect. But then I will never ever forget Dr. Ferguson’s response…"Larry I know Chimayo…. I was there last summer with my family." "No way, Mark, that is impossible...the Holy dirt place…you were really there!" "We were in Colorado Springs and friend’s told my family that we should go and see Chimayo if we were going to Taos. And we did." "Mark, I wrote some significant cancer prayers down there for a cancer retreat I hope to share with fellow cancer survivors in the future and I was editing my terrible illegible handwriting so I can go home and transcribe it onto my laptop. Mark what did you think of the Holy Dirt and the sense of the sacred?" "Dr. Baran, I do not want to challenge your belief system but it was only dirt, Larry…dusty red dirt!" "Dr. Ferguson, you now remind me of a very special Catholic priest from Chimayo who greets everyone at the Sanctuario named Father Roca the Santuario Gatekeeper…Mark did you possibly meet him? Mark you are going to love this one. On my last visit this is exactly what Father Roca said to me…‘Dr. Baran, Larry they come, they come for dirt, our holy dirt, but they do not see us replenishing the dirt with plastic bucket in the hole each morning…It is dirt, simple dirt…it is such a strong symbol of faith that each man, woman and child can hold onto. Holy Dirt is sacred for mankind makes it sacred for it is truly part of God’s creation.’ Dr. Mark Ferguson you and Father Roca speaking the same tongue with such faith!" As Dr. Mark shook his head and laughed he said…"See you Monday, Larry, and don’t forget to bring some holy dirt with you!"

So as you see, Father Julio, I not only do not talk nor write in "sound bites" nor does length of a letter mean much to me but it is about sharing my heart. I am happy to say that I have shared my cancer retreat with a Catholic Prayer Group and a secular "Why Me?" Breast cancer group whom all loved it. I have three priests allowing me to present under their auspices within the next three months. I am very excited knowing that this is my calling into cancer trying to help cancer survivors make a spiritual connection to their call into cancer too.

My prayer and hope to anyone reading this testimony is they too are blessed from the sense of the sacred earth, the tierra bendita, the holy dirt. Truly the miracle of this dirt is that by taking ones hand and heart and touching this dust we are as the priest chants on Ash Wednesday …"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and unto dust we shall return"…The secret of the Sanctuario de Chimayo is not in the dirt but the holiness is in one’s heart touching the dirt and in that moment in time letting the heart of Christ transfigure, transform, and transition into our final fear of each and every soul on this planet earth that we call our island home …by touching the holy dirt, Father Julio, we are touching our mortality and if we dare to even go deeper down and scoop more dust we can touch the core of our faith our hope and of our resurrection. "I am the resurrection, I am life. He who believes in me will never die but have everlasting life!"

Heart to Heart and Holy Dirt to Holy Dust we are all connected!

Dr. Larry Baran

F.Y.I. I would be honored to share my retreat through the Internet with any interested cancer pilgrims and their friends and families. Please contact me through

February 24, 2007

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame University

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