“Serious illness interrupts life,
bringing ordinary life to a halt with the force of a natural disaster,
reshaping life into unrecognizably new forms,
where nothing is the same again.
Catapulting those affected into soul crisis,
illness surfaces existential questions such as, ‘
What did we come to do…to learn…to heal?’ ”
—Jean Shinoda Bolen
Rev. Barb Harris
The experience of serious illness is often the life journey distilled to its essence. Facing mortality offers unique opportunities: “We enter one of the great teachable moments of our lives… It is in the contemplation of our mortality that we often begin truly to live from our deepest consciousness.” (Lerner, in Schlitz, 2005)
In its present state of illness, the system of modern medicine finds itself face-to-face with Shinoda Bolen’s existential question: “What are we here to do… to learn?” To recover from its illness, medicine must do what is also required for the recovery of an individual who is experiencing illness, as outlined by Shinoda Bolen: Modern medicine must deepen its relationships, reconnect to its own soul and regain its own sense of spirituality.
The pathway to healing leads most often through the realm of spirituality and religion (Sorajjakool, 2006). In the early practice of medicine, it was customary for medicine to be delivered with a prayer. The healing power of prayer was recognized as integral to the healing power of the medicine itself.
“The legends and spells used by ancient Egyptians could be said to be representative of any spell used by primitive culture. From the texts of Egypt, it can be seen that religion was closely involved with medicine. In Egypt physicians actually had to become priests in order to be qualified. Many of their treatments involved oral and manual rites; that is, they gave the treatment to the patient and also a spell (or prayer) to help the treatment work.” (Hunderfund, 1987, p. 13)
Imagine a medical system that gets back to who and what it was originally meant to be: a place for healers focused on healing…that coaxes patients toward health, supporting them in becoming who they really are during every medical encounter—whether it is a first visit or the last moment of one’s life.
The concept of individuals in relationship with the divine is ancient. Shinoda Bolen says, “In our bones we have a sense of the sacred, of a relationship to a power greater than ourselves that is archetypal and prehistorical.”
Spirituality can be defined as “meaning-making,” or the drive toward meaning (Sorajjakool, 2006). Rabbinic Pastor Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn, a Jewish chaplain whom I know through seminary studies, has described her role with patients as being one of “meaning-making”—as in “holding the space” with another so that “meaning is tended” or allowed to emerge anew.
Spirituality has also been defined as a yearning and “the quest to make sense of our reality… There is a sense in which we long to know our place in the universe” (Sorajjakool). Some may ask, “How can my life be meaningful when I am dying?” “How can there be purpose when I suffer constantly from excruciating pain?” (Sorajjakool)
When a person is brought face to face with a critical diagnosis, spirituality is often activated, and ultimately may need to be reconfigured when one’s sense of reality and belief system no longer fits—as in the case of a person praying for cancer to go away and it does not. A “fix-it” paradigm offers no relief in such situations. Sometimes pain and death cannot be fixed.
According to Sorajjakool, healthy people are those who learn to make a transition from initial resistance to acceptance, learning to integrate their pain and suffering: “There is no life without death, no health without sickness, no pleasure without pain. In many ways life is a journey toward acceptance.”
Restoring spirituality and recognizing a sense of life’s sacredness can help medicine to find its way. For, in the end, life itself is a journey toward wholeness. It is Mystery, not science, that restores the soul (Remen, 2001).
Ultimately, healing medicine will begin providing care that promotes health and healing for everyone—truly honoring who the client is, from the initial contact to the final medical encounter.
1. Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D. Close to the Bone. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2007.
2. Hunderfund, Richard. Magic, Myths and Medicine. Belmont, CA: Star Publishing Company, Inc., 1987.
3. Lerner, Michael. “Surviving the Great Dying.” In: Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Healing. Marilyn Schlitz and Tina Amorak with Marc Micozzi, 2005.
4. Remen, Rachel Naomi, M.D. The Will to Live and Other Mysteries (2 CDs). Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2001.
5. Sorajjakool, Siroj. When Sickness Heals: The Place of Religious Belief in Healthcare. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2006.