Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Reflections on Healing

The anonymous English 14th Century mystic, who wrote The Book of Privy Counselling, encourages his spiritual charge to

Take the good gracious God just as he is, as plain as a common poultice, and lay him to your sick self, just as you are. Or, if I may put it another way, lift up your sick self, just as you are, and let your desire reach out to touch the good, gracious God, just as he is, for to touch him is eternal health . . . Step up bravely, then, and take this medicine . . . Nothing matters now except that you willingly offer to God that blind awareness of your naked being in joyful love, so that grace can bind you and make you spiritually one with the precious being of God, simply as he is in himself. (p. 153 of the Image Books edition, 1973)

This is a beautiful description of salvation, of healing in its ultimate depth and transcendent meaning. Healing in its deepest sense is this simple resting in God’s love, allowing that love to penetrate our awareness in all the circumstances of our life, however difficult they may be. Acceptance of God’s love for us “just as we are” is the first and last step in the process of transformation we call healing.

Resting in God’s love may be simple, but it is not always easy. There is much that gets in the way of our communion with God, not the least of which is the experience of illness. The sheer pain, boredom, and isolation that often accompany illness can narrow the scope of our world to the point that we become preoccupied, not just with our self, but with this particular ache, this particular loss of function, this particular form of relief. Life constrained by illness, especially chronic disease or a debilitating accident, whatever its nature, can leave little room for other people, much less God.

I think it is important to point out that this experience of constraint, of bondage to illness, is often imposed on the sick person by others far more than by the nature of the illness itself. It is all too common for a newly diagnosed individual, not even yet symptomatic, to find others withdrawing from her in fear or embarrassment. Not knowing what to say or do, we may, despite our best intentions, further undermine the conditions necessary for health.

In any case, illness is fundamentally a rupture of relationship, a skewing of our basic orientation toward reality. Healing, then, is fundamentally about restoring relationships. Thus there is always a spiritual dimension to healing, even, perhaps especially, of physical illness. It is here, I think, that we find the connection in Jewish and Christian traditions between healing and the forgiveness of sin.

The sage writes in Ecclesiasticus,

My child, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly, and cleanse your heart from all sin. Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; don’t not let him leave you, for you need him. Ecclesiasiticus 38:9-10, 12

There is wonderful practical wisdom here, a refusal to accept the body/soul dualism of modern Western medicine. “God’s works will never be finished,” the creative process of medical research rooted in Holy Wisdom is ongoing and has its proper role to play; but we cannot ignore the context of relationship with God and other people in which illness and healing occur.

St. James picks up on this theme, making the relational matrix of healing even more explicit.

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, to that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:14-16

There is an intimate connection here between healing and relationship, under the rubric of confessing and forgiving sin. Now, this is a tricky business, talking about illness and sin in the same breath, so let me try to be clear about what I mean. Illness is not a divine punishment for sin (hence the inclusion of the Book of Job in the canon of Scripture and Jesus’ own clear teaching on the matter). Neither is there a monocausal relationship between sin and illness: I commit X sin and Y illness results.

What the tradition does affirm, is that among the multiple, complex factors that interact in illness and healing, we cannot neglect the emotional, spiritual, and yes, moral factors involved. Sometimes we are complicit in our own illness, either actively or passively. And certainly our society is complicit in much illness, for which we all bear some measure of responsibility: from the toxins we put in our soil and dump in our rivers, to the emissions that destroy the ozone layer, to the addictive patterns of consumption that sustain our economic life. I know plenty of people who have gotten sick from carrying resentment or unrelieved guilt. Again, the soul/body dualism just doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny; our experience tells us otherwise if we are honest with ourselves.

All this is not to “blame the victim,” but rather to place healing in the broadest possible context – the restoration of broken relationships, the healing of the body politic, our inclusion in the Body of Christ. More often than we realize, forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of healing, reconnecting us with God, with others, and with our true self.

In Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom and forgiving sin is always of a piece with healing. Healing is the sign of God’s presence, of the restoration of the bonds of relationship that sustain our well-being. In the announcement of his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ sets healing within a comprehensive vision of release from all the constraints that diminish our humanity and foster estrangement from God and other people. Poverty, slavery, illness, oppression – salvation is release from all of these and more, so that we no longer need be defined by our experience of suffering, resting instead in joyful love with the God who accepts us just as we are.

“God’s work is never finished; and from him health spreads over all the earth,” the sage reminds us. Jesus invites us to join him in the ministry of healing, to become a recipient and an agent of God’s love until health spreads over all the earth. God loves us just as we are. And our bodies, however broken, disfigured, or diseased they may be, are, as Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us, “in the profoundest sense a place where unconstrained love comes to rest.” (On Being a Human Body, Sewanee Theological Review 42:4)

Acceptance of this love, as The Book of Privy Counselling tells us, is the medicine that matters most. Healing begins when we accept that we are the object of God’s deathless love, and allow that acceptance to reorient us to the world and reestablish the bonds of communion with others. The forgiveness that we and others may need to renew that bond is readily available, and our prayers for one another will “raise us up,” restore us to Resurrected life, life in communion with God and each other. Our circumstances will be transformed, and new possibilities for healing will emerge.

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