The Things That Heal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

Hygieia: Greek Goddess of Health

This morning I continue exploring our February ministry theme, resilience, by reflecting on the role spirituality plays in healing: healing from illness—physical illness, mental illness; healing from addiction; healing from childhood traumas, from abuse, from rape, from neglect; healing from being the victim of a crime; healing in the wake of the death of a loved one; healing from broken relationships; healing from stressful life circumstances—overwork, exhaustion, job loss, financial struggles, caring for a family member or friend with a chronic illness, distress and anxiety in response to world events—terrorism, global warming, war. I’m sure you can add to the list. Nobody leaves this life without having to heal from something. Nobody leaves this life without suffering in response to something. For me this is an integral facet of the human condition, an inevitable feature of the human experience. Yes, some people need more healing than others, and some suffer more than others, and sometimes the unequal distribution of need and suffering seems immensely unfair. But nobody escapes this fate entirely. So many things can and do happen to our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls that unravel us, pull us apart, break us into pieces, leave us living in fragments. How does spirituality help us bind the pieces of ourselves back together? How does it aid in healing? How does it strengthen our resilience?

I want to first critique a common assumption about the role of spirituality in healing, essentially that one’s capacity to heal is determined by the strength of their belief, by the power of their faith in God. Most often this assumption is grounded in the deeper assumption that Biblical stories are literally true. For example, in the book of Mark, Chapter 10, a blind man comes to Jesus pleading, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight.[1] It could have happened. It could be literally true. And if one believes it is literally true, it is understandable they might conclude strong faith is essential to healing. I don’t reject this idea entirely. I know many people who are convinced that their faith played a significant role in their healing. And certainly strong faith in God can bring a person through very difficult times. But there’s a pernicious ‘other side’ to this assumption. What happens when the person of strong faith doesn’t heal? Does that mean their faith still isn’t strong enough, that they don’t believe correctly, that they aren’t praying right, that they’ve sinned, that God doesn’t find them worthy of healing? Sometimes people say God must have a reason and we aren’t meant to know. But that’s a theological cop out. The reality is, some illnesses have no cure. Some circumstances are beyond help. Sometimes our brokenness is larger than all the resources we have to address it. To fault the strength of one’s faith in such situations is unhelpful and unfair—sometimes it comes across as downright mean. The role of spirituality in healing is far more multifaceted than simply having correct belief.[2]

Taking this critique further, one of the challenges I encounter as a minister entering a hospital to provide pastoral care to one of our members or friends is that people I meet there—doctors, nurses, other staff, and occasionally patients and their families who I meet inadvertently—will sometimes apply this common assumption about faith and healing to me. When they realize I’m a minister, they assume I am Christian. I’m not. They assume I am a traditional theist who worships some version of God the Father. I’m not. They assume I intend to pray to God the Father with my parishioner, which happens, but very rarely. They assume I hope to buttress my parishioner’s faith in God the Father in order to aid in healing—also very rare. I don’t expect people to know how a Unitarian Universalist minister approaches pastoral care—or even what a Unitarian Universalist is—so it makes sense that these assumptions get attached to me. I try to be gracious. If someone pulls me aside and says “pray with me, father,” I pray with them. And those can be very powerful moments for me. But these assumptions don’t begin to describe how I approach my role in healing, and they don’t relate to the ways I witness spirituality aiding in the healing process for Unitarian Universalists who, we know, come in many theological varieties: atheist, theist, humanist, agnostic, Buddhist, mystic, pagan, Jewish, Christian and endless combinations, mixtures and mongrels. Given this diversity, the ways spirituality can aid the healing process are endless—no two situations are exactly alike. But over the years I’ve discerned five liberal commandments for spirituality and healing that emerge out of my journeys with you—Unitarian Universalists—as you seek healing in your lives.

First, get out of the body’s way. Healing begins with confidence in the body’s capacity to repair itself, to return from or adapt to physical and mental illness. Specialized white blood cells fight harmful microbes. Blood clots to heal wounds. Skin and bones fuse back together after breaking. We learn how to live well with anxiety. I recall those times as a child watching cuts scab over and slowly disappear, watching bumps slowly dwindle in size and disappear, watching big, ugly bruises slowly fade and disappear. I remember some cuts and breaks that needed a doctor’s attention, that needed antibiotics, stitches, bandages, splints, casts—they took longer to heal, and the healing often left a scar, but with the proper care and attention, the body’s healing capacities would take over. In fact, much of what the doctor did was simply ensure that the body’s healing capacities could function at their highest level. Even to my childish eye those capacities were remarkable.

Recently my youngest, Max, had four baby teeth removed—his first experience with anesthesia. He was understandably nervous before the procedure. My role as a parent, besides signing the consent forms and paying the bills, was to comfort him. “You’re going to be OK. You’ll be back to normal in no time.” In saying these things, I’m not just mouthing platitudes. I say them because I have confidence in the body’s capacity to heal. I have confidence that with a day of rest, patience, chicken soup, apple sauce, ice cream, extra TV and video games, extra attention and care from his family, his body will heal from the minor trauma of the surgery.

There is a life force, a will to live, an innate power to mend, a natural tendency toward repair. We encounter it not only in ourselves but throughout nature—starfish regenerate lost arms; deer regenerate lost antlers; eco-systems repair damage after earthquakes and oil spills. Trusting in this power may not restore sight to the blind or resurrect the dead, but it will help us remember what we can do to get of the body’s way so it can follow its natural processes of mending, repair and adaptation.

Second, approach healing from a place of openness. This is hard to do, especially when one is in pain. Pain makes us rigid, brittle and single-minded. It closes us off. But human beings heal in many ways, and because healing is not always a given, we need to search for what works. Indeed, some treatments emerge out of years of study and have firm scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. Some treatments are completely irrational, make no logical sense, and have no scientific grounding. Sometimes they result in healing, sometimes they don’t. I want us to be open to as many opportunities for healing as we can find—from the most scientifically grounded to the most implausible, even ludicrous. I put more faith in the former, but I never rule out the latter, and I combine them wherever and whenever possible. Even though we know healing doesn’t always happen, I want us to cultivate an attitude that healing is always a possibility. When it comes to healing, I want us to live with the prayerful sentiment we sang earlier: “Open my heart to all that I seek.”[3] Cast a wide net!         

Go to your doctor. Go to a second doctor, even a third. Follow their advice, except in those moments when it doesn’t feel right in in the depths of your soul—but even then, check with a loved one or a good friend to make sure you’re not in denial. But don’t stop there. Sit still. Sit still some more. Meditate. Pray. And if you do pray, and if you do invoke a holy name, I advise you first to get rid of any god, goddess or higher power who is distant and judgmental, frightening and inscrutable, and who doesn’t love you. Find a god, goddess or higher power who loves you deeply, who longs for you to heal as much as you long to heal. Pray to them with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul. But don’t stop there. Talk about your illness, your brokenness, your dis-ease to people who will listen attentively and support you. Express all your feelings about what is happening to you; express your anger, your rage, your sadness. But also express your joys, the blessings that remain in your life, the things for which you are grateful. Express your hope. Eat well, if you can. Sleep well, if you can. Give and receive lots of hugs. Spend time with pets and other animals. Speak the truth. Remember what matters most to you and spend time contemplating it. Let it bring meaning and purpose to your life in your time of trial. Create. Sing, dance, write, paint, take photographs. And in conversation with your doctor, indulge liberally in alternative therapies: yoga, reiki, the laying on of hands, music therapy—the  retuning of your frequencies—faith healing, exorcism, homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedies, old folk remedies, family healing traditions, chicken soup, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, especially if they are culturally relevant to you; Ayurvedic medicine, especially if it is culturally relevant to you—I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. If you have the slightest inclination that it might aid in your healing process—that it might bring your life back into balance, that it might recreate some lost harmony—and it isn’t contraindicated with some other therapy you’re receiving, then try it.

Third, be willing to fight for healing. When necessary, be direct, be assertive, be aggressive. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about discerning who we are, what we’re passionate about, what our purpose is. We talk about being our truest, most authentic selves. On many occasions I’ve watched people struggling to heal, and everything they know about themselves just disappears. They listen to everyone but themselves, and there’s no fight in them. And on many occasions I’ve witnessed just the opposite: People struggling to heal suddenly realize they’re not healing because the healthcare system isn’t responding to them, isn’t seeing them, isn’t caring for them. And when this dawns on them, and they become angry about it, suddenly they gain wonderful, powerful clarity about who they are, about the value and sacredness of their own life, and they find their voice.  And they start fighting. It’s your body, it’s your health, it’s your life: fight for what you need. And if you don’t feel strong enough to fight on your own, look for allies and advocates.

Fourth, discern root causes. Sometimes healing doesn’t come. A cold lingers for weeks; a back aches with no respite; sleep never seems to arrive or doesn’t last; a wound refuses to close; the wrong cells start dividing, start spreading—words and names don’t come as easily to mind as they used to; nerves go numb; physical strength wanes; emotions come more forcefully than they should, and don’t quite match the moment; memory fades; meds lose efficacy; relationships fray. We lose confidence. Why am I not getting better? Why am I not healing? Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on the symptom, and not its root.

For a simple example, I have pain in my lower back due to arthritis and deteriorating disks. Usually I can help my body manage the pain trough stretching, exercise and taking the occasional ibuprofen. But sometimes the pain persists despite these treatments. I’ve learned that this persistent, untouchable pain almost always correlates with high levels of stress in other parts of my life. The symptom is in my back, but the intervention I need is emotional and spiritual. So often the reason our body’s natural healing tendencies don’t work is not because they are broken, but because they are blocked by stress, fear, grief, anxiety; or they are stunted by a larger culture whose guiding values and practices conflict constantly and relentlessly with the values and practices we hold most dear; or they are weakened because something essential is missing from our lives—healthy relationships, community, safety, peace, meaning, purpose. Sometimes all these things are happening at once and it’s difficult to know why healing isn’t occurring. Often we know the what but not the why. I know arthritis and deteriorating disks cause back pain. But I don’t always know why the pain persists or why it is more intense than usual. I have to stop and examine why I’m experiencing stress and what is weighing on me. I have to discern the root.

Finally, when healing fails, seek wholeness. Healing may not always be possible, but wholeness is our birthright. In her meditation, “Mending,” Nancy Shaffer asks, “How shall we mend you, sweet Soul? / With these, I think, gently, / we can begin: we will mend you / with a rocking chair, some raisins; / a cat, a field of lavender beginning /now to bloom. We will mend you with songs / remembered entirely the first time ever they are heard. / We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul—with what you’ve taught / from the very beginning.” She’s not referring to physical healing. She’s referring to returning to a state of balance and harmony, an original state, a primordial state, a womb state. “With what you’ve taught /from the very beginning.” She’s referring to wholeness.

Sometimes our best efforts at healing, and the best efforts of our physicians, simply aren’t enough. What I’ve come to trust is that even in such situations, even when the prognosis is grim, we can still attain wholeness. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we realize that we’ve repaired long-broken relationships. We realized that we’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged us. And we’ve accepted forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. Sometimes, through the course of our attempts to heal, we suddenly realize that we’re deeply in touch with our passions, that we’re affirming and celebrating the things that matter most. Even when the body’s natural tendencies toward healing no longer work, we can still be the people of integrity and purpose we long to be. And with that realization comes an experience of completeness, of fulfillment, of enduring, abiding peace. It can happen at any age. That’s wholeness. When healing fails, may wholeness come.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Mark 10: 51-52.

[2] For an excellent and far more nuanced discussion of this longstanding assumption of the role of spirituality in healing, see Bowler, Katie, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: Some Christians Believe God Rewards the Faithful, So Why Did I Get Stage 4 Cancer?” New York Times, Sunday Review, February 14, 2016. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0.

[3] Flurry, Henry S., “Open My Heart” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1013.