by Peter Blood

Traditional Western Medicine

The traditional assumption in Western medicine has been that health problems happen to us from the outside—like being stuck by a car or lightning. Either we are “infected” by a microorganism or else we are considered to be the victims of bad luck. This viewpoint tends to de-emphasize personal responsibility for the illness one is facing. It also minimizes the responsibility of the ill individual in the process of healing. Responsibility is placed on the technician (the MD) and on chance. This outlook is materialistic and dualistic, emphasizing a sharp division between body and mind and between individuals and their surroundings. It denies deeper meaning to the entire process of illness and healing and leaves little room for God in the process.

Holistic Medicine

There has been a powerful shift in recent years away from the above viewpoint. It is widely recognized that illnesses are basically things which we (our bodies) do—for sometimes mysterious reasons, but generally for reasons that flow out of the totality of our lives—our lifestyle choices, mental health, family systems, socio-economic environment, life in the spirit, etc. It is not that cancers or heart attacks are done to us or happen (“having” at least implies some degree of dwelling with us)—they are part of what we are at this time and place in our lives. Our language is limiting: it would be more precise to say, “My father is cancering” or even “My family is cancering through my father” or “My country is cancering more than ever before.” A heart attack is really a heart that is partially dying or breaking.

Bernie Siegel, a surgeon who runs support groups for cancer patients who are seeking radical holistic responses to their illness, has written an eloquent exposition of this new/old viewpoint in his book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles. He challenges main-line MD’s for ignoring the evidence of exceptional patients who heal in ways that are difficult to explain in mechanistic medical terms. Illnesses are seen as arising out of dysfunctional patterns in our lives: through self-destructive patterns of eating, working, resting, and exercise; stress; and rigid ways of dealing with emotions and problems. At one point he generalizes to the point of asserting that all illness is ultimately rooted in a failure to give and receive love—and that all healing springs from an increased capacity to live and be loved unconditionally.

It is clearly true that sin and attachment are hard on bodies. Fear of failure leads to obsessive work which creates tension and lifestyle patterns destructive to health. Fear of rejection creates patterns of dependency, denial, and passivity which are also heavily implicated in the development of disease. Attachment restricts awareness cutting off the ability to notice messages that are coming from one’s body (as when the individual fixates on work). It can also lead to narrow fixation on bodily sensations and fears to the detriment of the totality of what is occurring within and around an individual life. Hatred can have even more devastating effects on the health of the person trapped in hating. Siegel’s “extraordinary” patients’ capacity to heal is closely associated with their capacity to begin experiencing faith, hope, and love in ways they were unable to do previously.

Willingness, Materialism, and Mystery

Siegel’s book, however, has a curiously ambivalent attitude towards God in this whole process. He suggests that “miraculous” healings are merely scientific events that we do not as yet understand. He feels that in most cases these are due to the freeing up of natural bodily mechanisms (e.g. the immune and endocrine systems triggered by events in the Central Nervous System). The implication is that every ill person could experience such healings if they only were willing to undertake a radical journey into self-understanding and personal growth. There is a strong emphasis on personal power in this process. Kenneth Pelletier suggests that a key characteristic of patients who achieve long-term remissions is their belief that cure came as a result of their own efforts, rather than from luck or “gift”.

The dangers here are three-fold: First, holistic medicine can be as materialistic and mechanistic as traditional medicine—merely focusing on a wider set of causes. Mystery and any sense of giftedness from God in healing is lost. Second, there is a great danger of ill individuals blaming themselves for having become ill or for failing to heal themselves. Siegel stresses that he is advocating responsibility rather than blame. He tells his patients that they have become ill for honorable reasons¨to help them identify needs which weren’t being met in their lives. In my experience, however, self-blame is difficult to avoid with this outlook. In my father’s encounters with cancer, I have not only tended to blame him in my heart for living a life that brought cancer on and for failing to make the behavioral and spiritual changes that I perceive as necessary for healing to occur—but also blame myself for failing to bring about the requisite changes in his life.

The ultimate danger in this approach—one which undergirds both those above—is willfulness. Willfulness leads to delusions that 1) we are solely responsible for health changes that occur to us because of bad choices we have made—and are therefore ourselves bad and undeserving of God’s love, 2) we are responsible for figuring out intellectually how this happened, and 3) we are responsible for fixing ourselves through changing the behaviors which “caused” the health problems in the first place. The issue is whether we see ourselves as the central players in our own destinies and healing. The greatest danger of willfulness in the area of health is that it tempts us to try to use spiritual growth as a tool to effect our own physical healing.

Willful holistic medicine has striking similarities to the attitude toward health and illness sometimes found in the kind of fundamentalist religious groups that Thayer discusses in his article. Illness is seen as having meaning, but it is often simplistic, e.g. God’s punishment for the sinfulness of the individual believer. In both cases, mystery is lost¨and the sense of the incomprehensibility of God described by Doran.

Towards a Contemplative Medicine

I would like to suggest a different approach to holistic health. This approach is rooted in the effort to offer the totality of our lives—mind, body, and spirit—to God in willing surrender. It is more ambiguous, less intellectually satisfying than other approaches perhaps, but I sense this is a strength rather than a weakness (again, cf. Doran).

1. General Health. Opening one’s heart to God tends to free up feelings of love towards all of creation. This certainly includes love of one’s self. It is reasonable to expect that willingness will lead toward treating one’s body with love and care¨to providing it with health food, rest, relaxation, exercise, and constructive outlets for emotional energy. A tendency toward growing openness and alertness of attention enables an individual to notice and respond to signals from the body when basic emotional or physical needs are being neglected. Anything that restricts awareness (e.g. preoccupation with worries, depression, or tasks) or dulls it (drugs, overeating, exhaustion) will also inhibit the ability to pick up and respond to important signals from one’s self before these lead to deterioration of health. If our bodies are offered up to the Lord, we will seek to be tender and responsible caretakers/stewards of them—as of all of God’s creation put into our keeping. There is no guarantee, of course, that these approaches will ensure optimal health. These are behaviors that tend to flow naturally from the desire to serve a God who loves each of us in all that we are and who cares deeply about every facet of our well-being—regardless of the “outcome” of our faithfulness in this area.

2. Attitude toward Illness. Just as sin can be the occasion of greater self-understanding, humility, and growth towards God, the same can happen with illness. The natural contemplative response to illness is to greet it as an opportunity for hearing the voice of God in the illness—what it means, what it may be calling us to do, the invitation that it is offering us at this moment in our life journey. Illness can be seen as a signal that attachment, sin, or restricted awareness may be at work in my life. The illness is not proof that I have been ignoring God’s will, but it certainly raises the possibility! Other possibilities are mentioned in the concluding section. These issues require prayerful discernment.

3. Attitude toward Healing. Just as I am aware that I cannot possibly figure out separate from God the meaning of this illness, so I recognize that there is no way I can follow through on any changes being asked of me separate from God. It makes sense to pray for help in illness because this is being honest with God about our pain, our fear, our need for help. We can accept support such as laying on of hands for the same reasons. There is no guarantee that hearing the meaning of the illness and heeding it will lead to physical healing. Failure to heal physically is no proof either of God’s malevolence or of our disobedience. There remains a fundamental unavoidable mystery in the fact that I became ill initially rather than another (who might perhaps be more “cut off” from their body or destructive towards it than I was)—and in whether healing occurs or does not. In a fundamental paradoxical sense the illness itself was a gift, and whatever flows from it (physical healing or something utterly different, even death) is also gift. We can hope for physical healing while also being unattached to it and grateful for whatever unfolds for us. If healing does occur, we can greet it as a “real miracle”—or as the miraculous natural way this human body that God created heals.

Body, I hear you. I am “flu-ing”. I will set aside my busy agenda and allow myself to really experience what this is that I am living in this.

God, what are you saying to me in this flu? Is there something I haven’t been hearing? Am I not listening to myself as body well enough? Am I ignoring a feeling which is alive and well in me? Am I carrying in me a resentment towards one of your children I need to resolve? Am I caught up in the delusion that I need to overwork in order to deserve your love?

God, I give unto you the possibility of healing—both the changes I hear you asking me to make in my life and the possible healing of my body in its/Your own time. I know this illness is not any indication of rejection or withdrawal by you or failure/badness on my part. It is just one part of what/who I am at this moment in my life. We’ll see what the next moment brings! (Would it change if I had substituted “cancer” for “flu” in this meditation?)

The Lives of the Saints

I have not read accounts of the lives of a large number of “spiritual masters”, but the readings I have done have suggested a few tentative conclusions about such pilgrims’ own health experiences and attitudes.

  1. The saints nearly always see their illnesses as having meaning. In the early stages of spiritual journey they are often seen as messages from God about a failure to heed His voice in a major life area. In later stages they are seen as a challenge or “Cross”, such as Teresa of Avila describes in #13 and #14 of her “Sixth Dwelling Place“.
  2. They tend to be remarkably free of fear or distraction in the face of illness, physical pain, or death.
  3. They emphasize the need to be thoughtful about one’s body—or at least to avoid clearly self-damaging ascetical exercises.
  4. Obedience to God is clearly seen as more important than personal health and safety. The disciple may be led to missions, service, or costly discipleship under conditions of great hardship which obviously may not maximize good health!
  5. In many but by no means all cases, a saint seems to be provided with extraordinary “protection” of body under the conditions mentioned above—such as George Fox’s amazing ability to endure physical hardship of sleeping outdoors, beating and foul imprisonment—or the ability of people like Mother Theresa to live and work under very unhealthful and diseased conditions without becoming ill.
  6. It is clear that there is no direct correlation between health and spiritual progress. Many very tender spirits among early Friends perished in prison when other Friends did not. John Woolman died from smallpox when many others around him did not contract the disease or perish. ‘

Many individuals have lived lives of great faithfulness and been plagued by terrible health. Were these “sickly” saints suffering from physical self-abuse borne of dualistic ideas about spirit and body or excessive asceticism? Were they too open to the suffering and agonies of this world—so their hearts and bodies could not handle the spiritual burden they carried for others? Did they undertake inward journeys that were stressful in themselves and hence destructive of their bodies’ health? Were their illnesses the unique method that God chose at that moment to invite them into closer communion with Him?

In the end, I think we cannot answer these questions. This remains mystery—mystery of what we are in this world and what we are given. Offering our bodies willingly up to God is no more guarantee of good health or healing from illness than offering our service or peace work up to God will guarantee that the hungry will be fed or that war will cease. Instead, as May says, willingness toward God means willingness to go where God leads us—whether this means radical changes in our lifestyle and health behaviors, or unto seemingly senseless illness and death. This takes radical trust in the benevolence and omnipotence of God.

Peter Blood has a ministry of Quaker adult religious education and spiritual formation under the care of Mt Toby Friends Meeting in New England YM.

Peter adds: This article was written in 1987 as a paper for the two year certificate course in spiritual direction that I took at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. My father was struggling with prostate cancer as I wrote this paper and died a year after it was written. The paper was “graded” (commented on) by Gerald May, the [late] author of the book, Will and Spirit, from which many of the ideas in this paper were drawn. I will be happy to pass along Gerry’s comments on the paper to anyone who is interested. Gerry was a Christian psychiatrist who was on the faculty of Shalem at the time. He is brother to the well-known psychiatrist, Rollo May. He died of cancer in 2005. © 2006 Peter Blood.