On Being OK

Sean Patrick Sanford

Among the unexpected consequences of starting the Center for FaithJustice has been the task of routinely visiting different churches. Over the past few years my wife and I haven’t really been able to call any one parish home.  As someone whose faith-life is deeply affected by participation in a community, this can be rather challenging. Nonetheless, if there is no traveling to be done, we have a couple different parishes that make up our regular “circuit” – largely depending on where we are and plans for the day. Though this particular approach to the liturgical life can be difficult, it also offers the opportunity to witness (and participate in) different examples of Catholic communities at prayer.  “Our churches” include parishes that are rich and poor, urban and suburban, ethnically diverse and homogeneous, and, of course, a wide range of liturgical styles and homiletic proficiencies. Though I look forward to the day when I can ‘settle down’ and once again connect to a particular community, I recognize that each place offers different insights and unique gifts for the spiritual life. What is striking is how often the gifts of a particular place coincide with our needs at a particular time.

The question of healing has been a central concern to my family in recent years. Within the ranks of our extended clan are people coping with a range of ailments and trials, some of which are rather serious. What makes this concern all the more inescapable is the fact that within our family are medical professionals, scientists, and pastoral ministers. Needless to say, each field applies itself, in deeply divergent ways, to the search for healing. This past weekend, we heard the store of Jesus healing the blind man. Next weekend, the Gospel account of the resurrection of Lazarus is not only a tale of healing but of the intimate love Jesus has for his disciples. For anyone who reads, or listens to, the Scripture with any regularity, there can be no doubt – the Good News of Jesus Christ is filled with stories of healing. Yet, it was a recent homily that helped me to reflect on what healing truly means.

The homilist told the story of a parish deacon and his family. Blessed with triplets, one of the children, a daughter, was born with cerebral palsy. Inspired by confidence in the Blessed Mother and, no doubt, numerous accounts of healing, the family traveled to Lourdes hopeful for a miracle, that their daughter could be relieved from her affliction. As the deacon proceeded to immerse his daughter in waters known the world-over for their healing powers, she commented, “I’m okay the way I am daddy.” It is easy to dismiss this little girl’s remark as sentimental or somehow uniformed, but it touched me in a profound way. What is healing? Is it simply the absence of illness or is it something far deeper? Is it merely physical well-being or is healing the quest for a wholeness that transcends the physical, touching on emotion, psyche and spirit? This is not intended to be a ‘warm and fuzzy’ way of glossing over the very real suffering that disease can impose on the life of victims, their family and loved ones. Trust me, I understand such pain and wish to escape as much as the next person. Rather, my questions are rooted in the belief that the need for healing extends well beyond those who are “sick” and too often we fail to see that difference is not brokenness.

Though I have been a pastoral minister for my entire adult life and have studied religion and theology academically for most of the past decade, I have only recently become aware of the deep connections between faith and healing. At the risk of over-simplification, it is fair to say that the primordial roots of both religion and what we call medicine are one-and-the-same. Indeed, some scholars have posited that shamanism, among the most ancient of human religious practices, united the offices of healer and spiritual leader into a single role. In ancient Greek religion it was believed that the god of medicine, Asclepius, appeared to the father of Galen and instructed that his son should become a healer. Galen went on, like Hippocrates before him, to revolutionize the medical field and his legacy continues two thousand years later. For millennia, spiritual leaders were trained in the ‘healing arts’ of their local culture and were called upon to address both personal and communal healing. The example of Jesus is both obvious and profound; if one knew little more than what Jesus did in the Gospel narratives, one would consider him the spiritual-healer par excellence. Even the word minister, most commonly used in faith-settings, has a long history of use in healing contexts (“to minister to”).

However, within the last few hundred years, modernity’s emphasis on empiricism and “secularism” has produced a paradigm shift. The division between faith and healing too often mirrors the false-rhetoric that dichotomizes science and religion, or, “reason” and “belief.” None of which is to deny the remarkable advances of medical science in recent generations. Rather, understanding the deep connections between the spiritual, emotional, psychological and the medical, reveals what is both conspicuous and often missed, that the need for healing has never been, solely, a physical need. Appreciating such connections further illuminates a number of developments in both the medical and religious worlds: research into “cognitive religious experience” at prestigious universities, the rise of health-care ministries in parish settings, pastoral counseling programs, and, perhaps most notably, the rise of the world-wide charismatic movement.

For many Christians in a North American or Western European setting, it is entirely possible to be unfamiliar with the charismatic movement. Yet the emergence of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are among the most dynamic religious phenomena in the world today. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal is certainly the most vibrant development in the Latin American, African and Asian Church (at least in recent memory). Though these religious expressions exist in the U.S., their growth in the developing world is truly remarkable. A number of prominent scholars have identified within these movements two aspects that converts report as missing from their past experience: the centrality of the Holy Spirit, and an emphasis on healing. Even at home, researchers examining trends among Christian adolescents have lamented the rise of a “therapeutic deism” that is less concerned with living as a disciple and more focused on God-as-therapist. Though I am neither charismatic nor an advocate of therapeutic deism, I believe the mobilization against these phenomena reveal the limitations of our religious imagination.

My own spirituality is deeply informed by the sacramental theology and lived traditions of the Church, yet what good is ritual observance if believers do not experience God in their lives? To what extent do we delimit people’s understanding of the power of God – and the nature of healing – if we presume faith and healing to be utterly disconnected? How will we challenge people of faith, not just youth and young adults, to live as disciples if we, in any way, suggest God is not a source of comfort for the afflicted or the wellspring of forgiveness? Each of these question challenges the dominant either/or rhetoric and suggests a both/and dialogue, for not only the Church at home but also for its manifestations in the developing world (for example, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Latin America is often opposed to Liberation theology and its call for justice).

My reflection on the interplay of faith and healing is not limited, however, to the struggles of my family and friends who face physical challenges. Justice, or as we say here at CFJ, faithjustice, is very much about healing. Justice as articulated in the teachings of the Church is ultimately about right relationship. The Trinity, as symbolized in CFJ’s logo, reveals not only the nature of God but is the standard of mutually loving, supportive and forgiving relationships. Injustice is the damage that results from broken relationships. To understand such damage, we must expand our notion of relationship beyond that of our family, friends and associates and recognize the truth revealed in the words of the Our Father. We are all sons and daughters of the Creator. We are, regardless of national boundaries, ethnicity, sexuality or ideology, by virtue of our creation, sisters and brothers. We are, whether we like it or not, in relationship with all of creation. Faithjustice is that to which we are all called: we must be seekers of right relationship, repairers of the breach. Every Christian is called to work for a more just world, regardless of the mindless drivel of TV pundits. We seek a healing that aspires to allow all of God’s children to live healthy, holy, and meaningful, lives. In pursuing such a vocation, we recognize that justice is not about “healing them”, but rather about “healing us.” Injustice, brokenness, abusive relationships, hurt all of us and strip us of the fullness of our humanity.

Of course, we begin this work by seeking healing at many levels: within the communities of our daily lives and in solidarity with those suffering outside of our current sphere of influence. As Bishop Ken Untener reminds us, “…we cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well.”

In so far as faithjustice calls us to right relationship, and to the extent that it has profound ramifications not only for “them” but for all of “us”, it a both/and approach to faithfulness and healing. It seeks the wholeness not only of the faceless ‘Other’ but our own sense of wholeness by recognizing who we are, why we are, and how we are called to live. Faithjustice seeks to foster communities of mutuality and inter-dependence which in turn allow for relationships that foster emotional, psychological and spiritual health. I am convinced that such communities would make us all far “healthier” in more ways than we could know.

Of course there is risk. Loving communities marked by hope do not simply happen. They require effort.  They ask us to engage difficult questions and sacrifice.  Yet they are necessary. Many of us are coming to realize, sometimes through great suffering, that the hubris of self-centeredness cannot continue. Most of us seek escape from feelings of isolation and confusion. There are no easy answers, but it is possible to foster relationships and communities in which we can find a place of healing, where we can look to those we love and know ‘we’re okay the way we are.’

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2 Responses to On Being OK

  1. Michael O'Connor says:

    Sean, enjoyed the whole post, but was particularly struck, too, by the story of the girl at Lourdes and her words, “I’m okay the way I am.” Thanks for sharing.

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