Monday, November 21, 2011

Spirituality and Healing

I don't think that there are any breast cancer healing stories in the Bible.

No explicit ones in the Gospels, anyway.  There is the woman who has been bleeding for years; there are women reputed to have engaged in various sexual misadventures.  The woman "caught in" ("framed for"?) adultery; the woman at the well and her six partners.  That's  about what we get from the four evangelists where women's bodies are concerned 

There is no woman who suffers from disease in that most intriguing area of human anatomy, the one designed for beauty, for intimate pleasure, and for the nourishment of children.  The one that reflects so completely the multi-prismatic wholeness of the human life, both body and spirit.


Last week, the local paper ran a multi-part series on cardiac care at The Cleveland Clinic.  Profiles of doctors and patients, descriptions of procedures.

Under normal circumstances, I would have absorbed every word with great interest.  I did my summer chaplaincy internship there, I observed a heart surgery there, and I spent a lot of time with patients on the units which the articles describe.

Given my actual circumstances, however, I quickly skimmed the pages most days. I could have missed something major.  I hope that I did.  Because what I did not see was any reference at all to the spiritual aspect of heart disease.  No mention of chaplains or of families' own pastors, priests, rabbis, or imams.  No discussion of the spiritual side of health.  No one claiming victory for God or decrying God's absence.  No one praying.

My husband rolled his eyes.  "The series  was an advertisement for the Clinic surgeons," he said. "I don't think that's what the writers thought they were doing," I responded. "But they did leave something out."


I've had two surgeries at University Hospitals in the past several weeks.  I did not encounter a hospital chaplain either time. The only out-loud praying was done by my friend (and Presby pastor) Maggie in the pre-op area on Friday morning.  As the OR team made its final preparations and told me that the anesthesia was about to take effect (I forgo the pre-op meds, so I was wide awake and alert), my last coherent thought was that the room and its activities were something of a shrine and an offering to science.  You would never guess that our lives might be in the hands of someone more loving, more creative, and more powerful than our physicians.


Two years ago, after Christmas, my first spiritual director sent me the outline of a talk he had given on the Holy Spirit's overshadowing of Mary, on the Spirit's gift to her of the freedom within which she was enabled to recognize and respond to God's accompanying presence.

Not a breast cancer healing story.  But maybe a breast and heart strengthening story?

That's what I was imagining and praying with right before my surgery. And I was supported, magnificently, by the picture in my mind's eye of the dozens of  candles lit and prayers being spoken for me literally across this entire country.  I loved thinking about the terrain of Idaho, the dark waters of Lake Superior, the waves of both oceans, the interiors of chapels and churches and synagogues, the morning masses and evening Shabbat services.  I loved imaging the faces of my friends, each taking a moment to support my encounter with the Holy.


I  don't want to be the least bit dismissive of my medical care.  Maggie reminded us in her pre-surgery prayer of the tremendous learning and skill represented by that hospital, and it's important to remember that if God is in all things, as Ignatius teaches us, then God is in all things medical, whether we like them or not.

But I do think that the most important proceedings of the day had no insurance codes ascribed to them.  No co-pays, no deductibles, no consent forms, no picture IDs ~ and the only preferred provider almost completely unrecognized.


  1. Wow! This post should be required reading for many. Certainly those in the surgical arena of the healthcare field. And pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams.

  2. Carol, after I posted it, I immediately thought of your FIL. I wish we were in the same city so I could inch my way down to his room to pray with him. With you all from afar.

  3. Bookmarked. I'm thinking about all of this (and have, in fact, been thinking about it for a long time).

    I suppose it's of little help to the patient, but I know from talking to friends who are physicians that the spirituality of what takes place in hospitals is very much on their minds. And I was glad to see how many health care professionals attended Wright State's Medicine-Spirituality conference the year I went.

    Can we keep talking about this? Because I think it really matters.

  4. Oh, yes, let's do.

    I have been framing a post about what might be a response. Maybe 2 posts. But my mind is moving slowly and filled with typos.

  5. Robin, i'm grateful that people far and wide were/are holding you in prayer, and that the prayers are holding you in loce and compassion that is palpable for prayers continue.

  6. I agree with Carol, that this is one of your better posts, even if the fog of the anaesthetic has not worn off completely. Pls add me to the list of those who pray for you also. It is a mystery to me how in the breaking of bread or for that matter, our bodies, that we show forth the grace and presence of Christ but it happens. 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:5.