The Life of a Healer

By Rebecca Begnaud


Author's Note: This essay was originally written in Cajun French for Professor Debbie Clifton at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as part of a foreign language competence exam. At the request of the editor, it has been translated into English for publication. I would like to thank Debbie Clifton for her insight, wisdom and guidance as both a professor and as a healer in the Native American tradition. She saw the importance of this paper as an opportunity to study language and to honor sacred tradition. Much has been written about traiteurs, but not by them.

The life of a healer is interesting and difficult. It is a life that comes sometimes without choices. When the gift presents itself, you say yes or no. It is the gift that chooses you and not the other way around. Whether you say yes or no, life continues, but if you say yes, the door to spiritual service opens. In the Cajun culture, healers are known by the name traiteurs. I was told there is no feminine version of the word traiteur in the French language. Historically, in standard French, professions were assigned the masculine form because only men held professional positions.1 In this paper I will use traiteur throughout, although I am a woman and the rules of standard French would call for the feminine form (traiteuse) here.

On October 2, 1989, the Feast of the Guardian Angels in the Roman Catholic Church, I was operated on for cancer and had my right breast removed. The metastatic tumor had five of sixteen, or six of fifteen, positive lymph nodes. During my hospital stay, Sister Hilda Mallet, from pastoral care, visited me. She told me I should look into doing healing work. I told myself there must be something wrong with her since I couldn't walk on water. But because I was sick, I decided to shut my mouth and not say anything. Then I started to think about my grandfather. His name was Maurice Pellessier, but I called him Gropop and he was a traiteur. I remembered once when I was about ten years old and was sick with a sunstroke. I thought my mama would fuss at me because I went outside without a hat. She just said she was going to call my grandfather who would come and treat me. I didn't know if he would treat me good, treat me bad, or buy me a treat.

I didn't know Gropop was a traiteur, that he had the gift, until that day when I didn't feel good with a headache and fever. He walked into my bedroom. Mom had put some water in a basin. Gropop passed his hands in the water and then he passed his hands in my hair while he said prayers in French. He spoke softly under his breath, and I couldn't understand him. After he left my room the headache passed (left) and the fever did too. I felt better, and I was ready to go play outside. There are those who say you have to believe for the treatments to work. I was no believer in traiteurs, because I didn't know anything about them until after my grandfather treated me. Traiteurs treat cows and any animal that needs healing. What does a cow or a pig know about beliefs or church? Then I thought if Gropop could do this healing work, why not me?

Rebecca Begnaud. Photo by Lorrae Lantier.

I am writing on this subject not for me, but to honor the gift and all who want to help others. The power comes from God or source. I am simply the instrument, the channel or the tool. My "job" is to hold the space for the work to be done by the Holy Spirit. The first method of healing that I learned was the Reiki, the same method as the nun who had visited me in the hospital. The word Reiki means universal life force and is taught by a master. My Reiki master was a Cajun lady who lived in Lafayette. When I gave my business card about my healing work to a volunteer from the hospital, she asked me if Reiki came from God. That made me angry. She knew I was Catholic and we had worked together for a long time; all of a sudden she had become scared of me. When that woman questioned me, I questioned myself. Without a doubt I doubted myself. I came to realize Reiki, as a method of healing was in addition to that which I had received in church. It didn't remove anything, and it wasn't more important. It was the beginning of the recognition and the development of a gift that was part of my culture and my faith. It was the same thing, but I didn't know it. I was afraid to be proud, yet at the same time I was sure it was good for me and for others. I had the understanding that God, the word most often used for that which will never be understood, is more than Catholic or Buddhist or Muslim or animist or simply a force. In my heart there was no battle; God is all that exists. But in those days I couldn't explain to others and I didn't want to; it was too much. When something is sacred there is no need to say anything. It is not a secret, but it is not shared unless it is respected. I didn't know my grandfather was a traiteur, but the people like my mother, that needed one, did. You see, in those days, when I was a child in Scott, Louisiana, we knew everyone, including what they did for a living and even in which pew they sat in church. Today we have lost this kind of knowing, but then visiting was an essential part of community life. We have also lost our connection with the earth, the animals and the crops. So as my professor suggested, I wrote about healing in my culture. She instructed me to write about traiteurs, not as a researcher, but from my own experience and training. The gift of healing is not lost; it is inside all of us. Those who discover it will offer it to others.

Reiki is taught in three levels. I took the second level of Reiki with the same Reiki master. Marie, my youngest child, came with me, and received a certificate of Reiki. She was in the second grade, and used her gift with her friends who had headaches. By this time, I had finished my chemotherapy treatments and was cancer free. Then I was prepared to help others, which, my son said, did me much good. Often he would send me his "broken" friends. They would tell my son that their recovery time was cut in half. One of his friends wanted to learn Reiki, so I invited a different Reiki master to come to my house, and six young people learned or were attuned to Reiki. With Reiki you are supposed to receive something in exchange for your energy work. Although traiteurs are not supposed to be paid, they would always find a gift like some meat, a pie, eggs or vegetables on their doorsteps. These anonymous offerings were grown on farms or made by hand. Today people leave money, but I don't ask. The people come or call when they are in need. I am not rich and I am not poor either. Since 1989 I have always had food, clothing, a place to rest my head, and a car—so maybe I am rich.

There is a fee to learn the practice of Reiki. After the second level of Reiki, I wanted to take the third. The price for Reiki III is a few thousand dollars. I didn't have thousands of dollars at that time. I had three children, was divorced, had just finished chemotherapy, and owed over ten thousand dollars in medical bills, but I was not discouraged. My neighbor told me I should look in Alternatives, a free weekly paper from New Orleans. I did as she said. There I found a woman who offered me the third lesson of Reiki for much less. I am not sure of the exact price, but it was less than $400. She encouraged me to take Healing Touch, another modality of energy work created and taught by nurses. It is an eclectic collection of techniques from various sources such as Native Americans, reverends, psychologists and nurses. These techniques are taught without ceremony or ritual. Neither church nor a tradition of passing down from master to student is needed. No initiation necessary. Healing Touch was good because I studied with medical professionals who were practicing healing just like the traiteurs in my culture.

Since I have been doing this work, there are times when I have asked for the person I treated to write a poem or do something for someone else. If the person wanted to give me money, I didn't refuse it, but I did not put a price on the gift. My time was freely given as part of a gift. Money wasn't the point, especially if they didn't have any. Being paid could occur in a number of ways: money, barter, or having them do something for others. The first time I received money I was scared and didn't know what to do, but I learned. While in a bookstore in Baton Rouge with my friend, she handed me a book written by healers on healing. A woman there we had never met asked me if I was a healer. I said yes. Then she asked me how much I charged. I said I didn't believe I should ask for money. "There are some people who will not go for free and everyone needs your gift," she responded. She continued by asking why I didn't want to accept money. "What is the matter with you?" When I heard that I started to cry. I knew what she said was true; money isn't bad. If people want to pay me I can accept the money, or I can give it to someone else if I so choose. There is no reason to refuse. My friend said to me in French when we got in the car, "She read you your catechism." Yes, this means she laid down the law for me to see. We giggled as I dried the tears. Lessons come but they are not always easy. You see, you think, you feel, and then you learn or not. I received clarity about my inner struggle with money as I respect the traiteur tradition and live in the modern world. Once, at the hospital where I had my surgeries, there was a meeting of healers. One lady asked me if I was a traiteur. I said no, but my grandfather had been one and he died before being able to pass the gift to anyone. She asked me if I wanted the prayer. She told me she could give it anyone who was younger than she was. The tradition says the gift must be passed from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man who is younger. But even though she was a woman, I said yes. The words of the prayer that she gave to me were written on a slip of paper, peronte sur peronte. Because I spoke French, I knew these words were not correct. But I couldn't tell a woman who had just given me a prayer passed down for generations that it didn't make sense. I said nothing other than "thank you." It was an honor to have been chosen by this lady to receive the gift that I didn't have the chance to receive from my Gropop.

About three years later, I received a letter from Frans Amelinckx, one of my professors at the university. Dr Amelinckx sent me the prayers of a traiteur, Mr. Nestor Guidry. On these prayers he had put a sticky note which read, "Have fun with this." Have fun with this! I was mad again. How could I have fun with that? I wasn't supposed to have them because they didn't come directly from a traiteur. I didn't know what to do. But I looked at the prayers and I saw one that said, "Je suis parent and je suis parenté, " almost like the words of the prayer I had been given. It wasn't "peronté sur peronté" ; no, it is that we are all related. "Je suis parenté" means "I am related." That is the prayer of the American Indians when they speak of all their relations. It can be understood through quantum physics, which explains the manner in which we're all connected. Those who live with this spirit of connectedness make decisions which bring advantages for all. Those who live in connection consider the children, the environment, and all that will be here after we are gone. We miss nothing when we consider others and include future generations in daily choices. There is enough. There is no need to be afraid. It is easy to live in faith if you understand "enough."

The Cajuns, my grandfather, the people around here lived like family. Nobody starved to death because the community was for all, black and white, sharecroppers and rich, big families and single families. Even orphans had a place to go because the doors were always open. The community itself was generous, so I think this culture was the perfect place for the gift to continue. Instead of only one person who treated, every village had a few. If you had a headache or sunstroke you'd go see my grandfather, who lived in the country near Scott. If you were in pain because you sprained your ankle, you would go see Mrs. Doris who lived in town. Mr. Kidder in Carencro treated for other ailments. Mr. Aubé from Meaux was another who treated. These traiteurs have all died. I do hope that they passed their gifts to someone in their family or that the gift is realized by their descendents. But things have changed. I believe if your parent or grandparent treated, you can do it, too. Think of all the other gifts that run in families like playing music, sewing, carpentry work, cooking. Even though the parent or grandparent is no longer alive, the gift lives in the family. I've spoken with young people who have tried to remember what they had seen done during a treatment. Like the traiteur in their family, they did that which they could remember and the healing was done. They were proud. It is the intention that counts. The words and gestures are just symbols.

The more often you say the prayer or do the energy work, the easier it goes. When I began to treat others, I remember, I would become very hot. I would perspire until I could have removed my clothing. After some time that feeling of heat passed. Sometimes I would feel a slight sensation in my body. One time I felt something in my knee. I asked the person if he had a problem with his knee and he told me yes. Then I understood that what I was feeling was the injury or illness of the other. That also has passed. The healer doesn't need to know the sickness by name or by sensing it either. God/ love or the energy is smarter than a person. There is no place for ego in the life of a traiteur/healer. I have friends who have the gift of vision. They can see that which transpires beyond the physical during a treatment. I gained confidence in my work the first time I invited one of these friends who could "see" to come to my office during a treatment (with the permission of the person receiving the treatment). She saw a man giving a sign for angels to join us. She described perfectly the father of the person being treated. He was my friend when he was alive, and now she saw him in spirit, guiding the angels. I believe he would have called in angels to help his daughter. I am sure the angels came when he called them in, but I saw nothing. I have never seen an angel or anyone in spirit, but I trust in their presence. I know I do not work alone. If I were to see an angel or someone in spirit, I would talk with them. Maybe people would say that I am crazy. That might not be good for me.

You see, I have a diagnosis of another illness, mental illness. It has helped me do anything, especially healing work. I am not fazed when accused of being crazy for doing healing work, or anything else I might do. It is not because mental illness gives me courage; I don't give a damn what people think. The name of the illness is bipolar affective disorder. You feel depressed and then happy without being able to stop going between high and low. The highs and lows have nothing to do with the events of your life. I take medicine for this and for cancer every day. You see, traiteurs also have health problems just everybody else. Because of their own illnesses, healers can more readily be there for others.

Surviving illness brings understanding that only comes from personal experience. It brings instant rapport and puts others at ease. People are more readily able to share with one who has had a common experience. In some other cultures, people with mental illness are treated as though they are sacred because they are closer to the gods. I felt comforted when I realized that, and had a better understanding of my own life. I began to have more respect for myself, no matter what others thought, and I released any anger toward my society. There is no respect shown for the mentally ill, who are treated as less than others. In the Native American tradition, there are rites of initiation to become a shaman that bring out qualities of mental illness. If you come out of it, you are a shaman; if not, you are taken care of for the rest of your life. Mental patients who received visits from Mary or Jesus did not share this with the psychiatrists. Care comes from institutions without consideration of culture or spiritual gifts. Cancer came back thirteen years after the first time, and mental illness with it. I doubted myself again. Why did it return? I had taken all the chemotherapy recommended. I had seen my doctors regularly since then. I also had helped others in hospitals, both mentally and the physically. I worked with Hospice and saw people in my home. I felt happy. I could not see what I had done for the illnesses to return. I requested prayers from my Christian, Jewish, and Native American friends, and energy workers as well. I received different kinds of energy/healing work. My friends helped me, and I was well after this and the radiation treatments. I had much support. We can't always understand why! It made no sense to look for something to blame or to find fault in myself. I had to accept what I had in order to deal with it. It is funny how sometimes things in life can't be understood, and then it all becomes very clear. I was supposed to be a woman, I was supposed to be born a Cajun, I was supposed to be baptized Catholic, I was supposed to have those illnesses because I was supposed to become a traiteur.


1. Editor's Note: The Dictionary of Louisiana French as Spoken in Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities, edited by Albert Valdman, Kevin J. Rotret, and a number of other scholars, lists a feminine version, traiteuse, based on vernacular use in some French Louisiana parishes, though this may be a relatively recent usage (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

Rebecca Begnaud is a traiteur in south Louisiana. This article was first published in the 2012 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.