How is Your Health? March 2001

Bad Health - Good news?

Paul Murray

What is the relationship between health and holiness? Paul Murray, who teaches spirituality at the Angelicum in Rome, shows how the tradition has understood the suffering that undermines health. 'What matters ultimately, whether we find ourselves in good physical health or bad, is the discovery, in faith, that Christ is now living his life within us.'

I was sick once for three and a half years. At first, the doctors thought I was suffering from lymphatic cancer. They were wrong. But, at the age of 29, I underwent an exploratory operation, and spent a considerable length of time in hospital, in a cancer ward. One of the patients in the ward, a young priest also named Paul, died when I was there. I was in the bed next to his, and I’ll never forget how he was able, especially towards the end, to confront the reality of his death with both faith and courage. But, throughout those last days and nights, Fr Paul endured what I can only call enormous pain, an intense suffering that was both physical and mental. His last moments were, however, peaceful. He passed away quietly just as I was reading the following few phrases from St John’s Gospel, phrases which are included in the prayers for the dying: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You have faith in God. Have faith also in me.’

Fear! My own deepest anxiety at this time, what gripped my heart on occasion, and especially at night, with the cold hand of fear, was not the dread of death. Instead, it was something far more simple, far more immediate. I found myself haunted by the fear that, as a result of the almost continual tiredness I felt, I would never again be back to my old self, never again, perhaps, be able to relax enough to enjoy, for example, the company of family and friends. And, directly linked with this thought, was the fear of becoming, and perhaps for the rest of my life, a sort of displaced self, a permanently sick person, a mere object of people’s kindness and consideration. Of course, the thought of death and dying did frighten me somewhat. But what I found most disturbing, at this time, was the dark, immediate spectre of a diminished life. I wanted so badly to be well again. Health, the thought of robust good health — something I had for years taken for granted — began now to appear to me as one of life’s greatest gifts, something almost miraculous.

St Thérèse of Lisieux

During my stay in hospital, I came by chance upon a copy of the autobiography of St Thérèse of Lisieux. At the end of the book, in an Epilogue, I read how, just days before her death, Thérèse, much weakened by illness, confessed to one of her sisters that she had suddenly become afraid of death. Alarmed, she began to ask herself the question: ‘What is this mysterious separation of the soul from the body?’ It was the first time, apparently, the young Carmelite had faced the question head-on, and experienced in depth the fear which it brought. But Thérèse was not defeated by this fear. With characteristic spirit, she remarked to her sister: ‘I abandoned myself immediately to God.’1 Two years earlier, in a short text Thérèse described as an ‘Offering of Myself’, she wrote: ‘I thank you, O my God, for all the graces You have granted me, especially the grace of making me pass through the crucible of suffering … I hope in heaven to resemble You and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of Your passion.’2

Reading this passage in my hospital bed, I have to confess to feeling, at first, almost as much bewildered as inspired. Wanting so badly to have my health restored, I was struck at once by the seeming gap that existed between my attitude and that of the Carmelite. Was I mistaken and was Thérèse correct? Can sickness somehow bring us closer to God? And was it wrong for me, therefore, as a Christian, to be desiring health? Am I expected somehow to believe that bad health is good news?

It is by no means an easy task to unravel the relationship between health and holiness. But one thing at least is clear: without some basic wisdom or knowledge concerning the body, it is impossible to attain to good health, and impossible likewise to attain to any form of authentic Christian holiness. Becoming holy is indeed a spiritual task, but it is not something that is opposed to being physically healthy. We are entirely mistaken, therefore, if we imagine that, while the world is preoccupied with the body and the other concrete realities of life, the Church or the Christian religion is concerned only with the soul. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the case. ‘Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh’, Pope John Paul II reminds us, ‘the body entered theology through the main door’!3

Jesus and health

‘I am the Lord who heals you.’ This simple, saving statement from Exodus 15:26, Karl Barth describes as ‘the divine Magna Carta in all matters of health and related questions’.4 But it is not in the Old Testament but in the New that God’s power to heal finds its most telling and most remarkable expression. All four Gospels regard the healing activity of Jesus to be of central importance in his ministry. But, whereas great attention has been given by theologians and exegetes to Jesus the Teacher, relatively little attention has been given to Jesus the Healer. And there is another factor as well. Simple physical healing, or care for the body, has never been judged, by Christian thinkers, to be as important as the healing or saving of the soul. So, at times, it has been almost ignored.

A major casualty of this situation, within the Catholic tradition, has been the sacrament of healing itself. Christ’s desire to heal and bless the sick, or to touch, through the ministry of the Church, those in any kind of physical distress, became in practice somewhat obscured. The sacrament — the Anointing of the Sick — changed its name to Extreme Unction. And, gradually, at least on a popular level, it came to be regarded simply as a final blessing given to those about to die. More recently, however, the ritual of the sacrament of healing, renewed after Vatican II, makes it abundantly clear that ‘a return to physical health’ may well follow the reception of the sacrament, but only if such healing will be ‘beneficial to the sick person’s salvation’. Furthermore, the ritual notes: ‘This sacrament provides the sick person with the grace of the Holy Spirit by which the whole person is brought to health.’

One clear aim of the reformed rite is to help us to place and understand human sickness within the context of the whole mystery of salvation. Without this understanding, sickness or bad health can come to be regarded in a completely distorted manner, and be seen even as a manifest sign of God’s displeasure, or as punishment for sin. But Jesus, more than once in the Gospel, explicitly rejects the idea that misfortune, suffered by an individual, represents punishment for sins committed in the past. Jesus, the man of Good Friday, has much to teach us about suffering. But he doesn’t come into the world, and say to us: ‘This is what I want you to do. I want you to suffer’! No — when Jesus comes, he finds people already suffering distress of one kind or another, and his first instinct is to help and to heal. ‘And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people’ (Matt 4:23).

The cult of health today

Nowadays, in most of the major bookshops, and on the Internet, there are available for sale innumerable books and magazines with titles such as Spirituality and Health, or Health of Soul and Body, or Profiling Your Spiritual Self for Improved Health and Life Satisfaction. What we are witnessing here is nothing less than the emergence of a remarkable new cult of health, a near-obsessive concern, among our contemporaries, with both physical and spiritual well-being. But, while there is a generous focus on personal self-development and life satisfaction, there is little or no concern shown, by this movement, for the wider issues of health in our society today, no notable response, for example, to the sickness and disease endured by countless thousands of people as a result of poverty and poor living standards.

The truth is that if we insist on placing at the very centre of our spirituality the pursuit of personal health, if we equate being in a state of health with being human, then we will be inclined to recoil at once from those people whom we know to be sick. Our own attitude itself will become unhealthy and morbid. ‘The modern cult of health’, writes Jürgen Moltmann, ‘produces precisely what it wants to overcome: fear of illness. Instead of overcoming illness and infirmity, it projects a state of well-being which excludes the sick, the handicapped, and the old who are close to death.’5

Probably the best-known prophet of the modern cult of health is Friedrich Nietzsche. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he exclaims with characteristic passion and verve: ‘Hearken, my brethren, to the voice of the healthy body!’6 The phrase sounds innocent enough, even wonderful. But so completely taken is Nietzsche by the cult of the body, and by the idea that the healthy among us should enjoy life-satisfaction, he becomes at times distinctly crazed and morbid in his enthusiasm. ‘The healthy’, he writes, in The Genealogy of Morals, published in 1887, ‘should be segregated from the sick, guarded even from the sight of the sick, that they may not confound themselves with the sick.’7 In the same year in which this sentence was composed, in the month of December, Nietzsche spent a few nights in a hotel in Paris. And, in that same hotel, and at the same time, by an extraordinary coincidence, a young fourteen-year-old French girl also came to stay. She was on her way back from a visit to Rome. Her name was Thérèse Martin, later to be known, of course, as St Thérèse of Lisieux.8

I began this short reflection on health and sickness by quoting some of the words of Thérèse. Her words — in particular her teaching concerning the mystery of suffering — stand in direct contrast to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Indeed so marked is this contrast, it provokes us — even compels us — to explore now for ourselves, but in greater depth perhaps than before, the question of what really constitutes health.

Health of the soul

The definition of health put forward by the World Health Organisation makes no reference of any kind to spiritual well-being. ‘Health’, we are told, ‘is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.’ Here, the absence of any reference to religion or to religious development is not, I suspect, accidental. Although it may be hard to believe, it was not until 1994 that the American Psychiatric Association, for example, finally and officially recognised, as a normal and healthy dimension of life, the ‘religious or spiritual dimension’. Fortunately, in recent years, almost the entire medical field has come round to recognising the vital link that exists between health and spirituality. But when, in their books on spirituality today, authors speak of the health of the soul or of care for the soul, there is a tendency to give attention only to one or two aspects of the soul’s needs, and to ignore or repress what, for centuries, had been clearly recognised by both saints and mystics as our most profound human need, our deepest spiritual hunger. Thus, at the very beginning of his Confessions, St Augustine exclaims: ‘Our hearts are made for you, O God, and we are restless until we rest in you.’

Augustine’s words, the prayer that rises here from the depths of his soul, find almost no echo in many of the books produced today on health and life satisfaction. These works never seem to address, for example, the reality of the human heart’s longing for union with God. A new kind of spirituality is much talked about, but with, it would seem, little understanding of the gift of faith. As a result, the great mystery of God’s transcendence is often ignored, and what we are offered instead is what Martin Buber has called ‘the religion of mere physic immanence’.

The therapy based on this new ‘religion’, even as it heals certain wounds in the heart and in the psyche, will, sooner or later, be tempted to tame or to repress the wondrous, necessary pain of the soul’s longing for God, a ‘pain’ that is, of course, life and health itself. This fact may go some way to explain the astonishing statement made by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke when, after only a few sessions in therapy, he decided not to continue. ‘It was clear’, he observed, ‘that they would exorcise my demons for me, but I was afraid my angels would depart with them’!

Health and holiness

In every human community, and indeed at every phase of human history, doctors and therapists have had extremely important and necessary work to do, in relation both to the body and to the mind. ‘Give doctors the honour they deserve’, we read in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, ‘for it was the Lord who gave them their task; their wisdom comes from above’ (38:1-2). But, apart from the task of becoming healthy, what can we say about the work or the task or the grace of becoming holy? Earlier I have suggested that, although holiness is a spiritual task, it is not something which is at odds with the pursuit of physical health. And that statement still holds true. Nevertheless, holiness should never be thought of simply as a method for healthy living, a kind of programme which we ourselves can somehow manipulate and control. God is the source of holiness, and God in his actions, and in his designs, is literally uncontrollable. God’s grace does not, of course, offend our nature. But the healing or the transformation which his grace would effect within us, is something so profound, and so mysterious, it cannot for a moment be equated, for example, with any of the self-help programmes for healthy living so often advertised today in the popular manuals and magazines of spirituality. So what, then, are we to say? Can we find anywhere, within the tradition, suitable words or images to describe this process, or is it something entirely ineffable?

As it happens, the sense of risk and adventure which seems to accompany the graced life — the life of prayer and holiness — is evoked by one particularly striking image from the Old Testament, an image which has, for centuries, been seized upon by Christian contemplatives, in order to describe the mystery of their encounter with God. It is the image of the struggle between Jacob and the angel of God’s presence. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa, notes how ‘after Jacob said, I have seen God face to face, he limped on one foot because the angel had touched the sinew of his thigh’.9 Jacob does not, of course, lose contact with the earth, but his limp betrays the enormous pressure, on a mere mortal, of God’s supernatural love. Jacob is, we can say, wounded by love, but he is still alive and present in both worlds. For, as Aquinas explains, quoting Gregory the Great: ‘Once we have known the great attractiveness of God [in contemplation] one foot remains sound in us while the other limps.’10

This image of a soul wounded by love is, for the Christian spiritual tradition, almost the most important image of a healthy soul. St John of the Cross, for example, in an astonishing phrase, declares: ‘The more wounded the lover, the healthier he is’!11 In similar vein, the modern Spanish poet Antonio Machado laments tearing out from his heart the piercing ‘thorn’ of love: ‘In my heart I had / The thorn of a passion. / I succeeded in pulling it out one day. / Now I no longer feel my heart /…Oh sharp, golden thorn, / Would that I might feel you / Thrust deep in my heart again!’12

The thorn of human misery

Saints and mystics have often spoken of the wound that heals, the piercing ‘wound of love’ experienced in contemplation. But far more important, I think, is what they have to say, in their writings, about the common wound or thorn of human misery — the hard, unmystical fact of human pain. St Paul, for example, when he speaks of ‘the thorn’ in his flesh, is not referring to some sort of mystical phenomenon. What was harassing Paul repeatedly, and attacking his very person, was almost certainly something physical in character, and its effect on him was both debilitating and humiliating. ‘Three times’, he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me’ (2 Cor 12:8). Significant here is the fact that St Paul, afflicted with a devastating weakness or illness, turns instinctively to prayer, and asks — pleads with God — not once but three times for help or healing.

Paul’s response may not strike us as being particularly heroic. But, as an initial response, it is both very normal and very Christian. Here, for example, is a comparable statement from a prayer composed by St Catherine of Siena shortly before her death, at the age of thirty-three. Catherine’s prayer — her brief, poignant appeal to God — is a prayer for health: ‘[S]hould it please your Goodness to make me stay yet longer in this vessel, then do you, best of doctors, heal and care for it, for it is all shattered.’

But prayer, however profound and sincere, does not always achieve a cure. Healing, if it takes place, is more often a healing of the soul than of the body. And even St Paul’s urgent plea to be relieved of the thorn in his flesh was not answered. But why?

The mystery of affliction

One remarkable response to this question can be found in the Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena. God the Father, addressing directly the issue of the thorn in the flesh of St Paul, says to Catherine: ‘Could I and can I not make it otherwise for Paul and the others in whom I leave this or that sort of pricking?’ And he answers ‘yes’ to his own question. ‘Then’, he continues, ‘why does my providence do this?’ Suffering, or weakness, the Father goes on to explain, allows those who are in some way afflicted to acquire humility and self-knowledge, and also something else as well. It makes them, the Father says, ‘compassionate instead of cruel towards their neighbours so that they will sympathise with them in their labours. For those who suffer themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than are those who have not suffered.’

Although the thorn in St Paul’s side is not removed, Paul hears the Lord saying to him: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9). St Paul, in his weakness and humiliation, knows the power of Christ’s love. His pain, his anguish, remains, but somehow it is transformed by Christ’s passion and death into a blessing both for himself and for others. That ‘blessing’ may or may not take a form that will eventually be recognised or known in this life, as in the example noted above concerning Paul in St Catherine’s Dialogue. But the blessing itself, though obscure to us now, and without any obvious verification, is no less real. In Paul, as in all those who suffer, Christ prolongs the mystery of his redeeming love. And so, whatever the form human weakness or illness takes, those who are suffering now are not alone in their anguish. Because of the cross, their sufferings, their wounds, open their lives up to a meaning, a purpose, no one could ever have imagined. ‘The marks that I bear in my body’, St Paul declares, ‘are those of Christ Jesus’ (Gal 6:17).

In prison and in hospital

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a prisoner on death-row in Pretoria, South Africa. When I was there, I was shown a letter from another prisoner, also on death-row, called Malcolm. His letter was written just days before his execution. In it Malcolm addresses, with an astonishing directness and wisdom, the meaning of the ‘marks’ or the wounds of suffering which, to a greater or lesser degree, all human beings are made to bear. Malcolm wrote: All of us who have lain crucified on beds of pain, remember that an hour will come when we will be taken down from our cross, and the Saviour shall look upon our hands and feet and side to find the imprints of his wounds which will be our passport to eternal joy. Like I am, every man is on a cross. Some ask to be taken down like the thief on the left. Others, like me, ask to be taken up like the thief on the right.

Malcolm was not choosing pain or suffering for its own sake. There was a cross in his life, a ‘stigmata’, which was unavoidable, and Malcolm accepted it with living faith and hope, confident that, because of the love of Christ, this cross would somehow bring him closer to God. Malcolm’s words recall to mind here words already quoted from St Thérèse’s prayer concerning ‘the crucible of suffering’. Thérèse’s words — like so many of the words of the New Testament — pose a direct challenge to our ordinary ways of thinking and feeling. But perhaps, at this stage in our reflections, we can begin to understand and to accept something of the sharp paradox and the full gospel purpose of Thérèse’s vision. For, properly understood, her words betray no negative cult of suffering nor any kind of punitive imagining against the flesh. Like the condemned prisoner, Malcolm, Thérèse’s attention is not fixed on pain, but is fixed rather on the great mystery of Christ’s life within her. ‘I hope to resemble You and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of Your passion.’

I spoke earlier of the young priest, Fr Paul, who died in the hospital when I was there. A few days before he died, we were together in the ward reading Evening Prayer. At a certain point, however, Fr Paul could not continue with the prayer, so great was his pain. His face became completely pale. He closed his eyes, and he was unable to speak for about twenty minutes. When he opened his eyes again I could see that the pain was still there, perhaps worse than ever. But he looked at me very steadily, and he said: ‘Paul, I know the peace that Christ gives.’ Just those words, and nothing more.

Although I so badly wanted health and healing for myself in those days (and given the same situation again, I suspect I would not be feeling much different) these words of Fr Paul alerted me to a perspective on health that began, even then, to change my attitude a little. Here was a young man, whose body was literally wasting away before my eyes. Fr Paul’s health was gone, the health that is of his body. But how to explain the inner health of his spirit, the buoyancy and health of soul, so clearly manifest to me at that moment?

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