Illness & Faith & COVID

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In the weeks following my cancer diagnosis (just barely pre-COVID) I distracted myself from worry by thinking about the modern intellectual/emotional connections between illness and faith. That proved too elusive for me to easily identify, or commit to. I believed it was my Christian duty to avoid despair, and I was ever mindful of that. But as countless believers before me have undoubtedly done, I found myself repeating the words of that parent from St Mark’s gospel, over and over and over: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

If my time really was almost up, medically speaking, was it ultimately pointless to pray for a miracle? If a prayer for deliverance was pointless, were other prayers likewise? I could not accept that. But these thoughts needled me in my weakness nonetheless.

Once COVID hit, however, I saw that our modern world is still populated by people who default to the timeless truth that prayer has value. Social media, when I looked at it to distract myself, seemed to me to be laced and graced with many prayers of petition and gratitude regarding this pandemic. I found great encouragement in that. And my own experiences after my cancer diagnosis, I was to learn, would reveal to me a spiritual aspect of modern medical care that I had never contemplated before.

At least three of the original women myrrhbearers (Saints Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna) apparently first came to Christ seeking relief from failing health. We’re told (Luke 8:1-3) that as Jesus traveled through his ministry, He was accompanied by women who he had healed of infirmities. These three women, in particular, were among those who were healed by Him and later provided for Jesus and his disciples “out of their means.” Since St. Luke was a physician, he most likely heard and perhaps catalogued details of many miraculous healings, by both Jesus and the apostles. Yet St. Luke is specific only about the “seven demons” that had “come out” of Mary Magdalene, leaving us to wonder what had befallen all of the others before their cures.

But does that matter any more?

Modern health care in first world countries does not deal with demons. Our bodies are instead clinically tended to in a high tech, scientific, and evidence-based world. Robotic surgery, diagnostic imagery, radioactive surgical seeds, pluripotent cells and gene therapies, nanotechnologies, artificial skin – these and other inventions offer tantalizing glimpses of modalities to come that will no doubt be even more spectacular and wondrous than those we currently benefit from and their contrast to ancient medicine will become all the more striking. Superlative health care in the modern mind is a vision in gleaming white and chrome – always sanitized, pristine, and rational.

Such a deep contrast to the medicine available to the myrrhbearers. Knowledge of infection, sanitation, wound care, and contagion was available in ancient times, but rudimentary at best. Yes, the diagnosticians of the time could recognize fever, leprosy, and some other diseases, and had developed a body of knowledge concerning wound care, but we’ve all read Gospel stories of persons afflicted with inexplicable conditions. The woman with the flow of blood, for example. She was so desperate (and so brave) that she shattered prevailing social boundaries in the sure belief that only a divine response could save her. She had already suffered deeply from healing ministrations and “spent all she had on doctors” (Mark 5:26). Human ingenuity had not yet accumulated the knowledge that over the centuries has led to the discoveries and technologies we moderns take for granted.  But her hope led her to her faith, and her faith led her to Jesus Christ.

Did the simplicity of the health care in the myrrhbearers’ times make it easier for them and their contemporaries to draw upon faith, and by doing so more easily recognize their healer as their divine Master? At that time, when there appeared to be no earthly answer to the maladies that had befallen them, what else but divine intervention could have been the answer to their fervent desire for restored health?

That dynamic between illness, faith and hope is exactly what proved elusive to me when I tried to translate it to current times.  On receiving a fearful diagnosis, I tended to my medical affairs and my spiritual affairs as if they were two entirely divorced realities, two halves of a split personality.  I suspect that my reaction was not unique among those of us who struggle to reach higher spiritual levels.

But recently, as I prepared for surgery, an unexpected call rang on my cell from one of my hospital’s chaplains. COVID had already hit on a global perspective, personal encounters were already limited, and telemedicine was taking center stage. The hospital was one that I knew would provide world class medical care flawlessly (and it did). And in filling out endless forms online, I had somewhere checked a box listing my faith as Christian. Yet I was surprised that a hospital chaplain called me.

I think my surprise reflects my concept of my own times: a modern conceptual divide between science and spirit, if you will.

Up until that call, I had regarded any hospital not named “Saint Something” as a thoroughly secular universe. There, prayers would not be broadcast on the hospital PA system to open and close each day (as Catholic hospitals, in my experience, do – so beautifully). There, it would be uncommon, in fact it would be somewhat shocking, if a community volunteer or member of a religious order hesitantly peeked into a patient’s room at a “secular hospital” offering to pray with or for the patient, even though Chaplains are often available for the asking at many hospitals. Chapels and chaplains, I thought, had survived the general scrubbing of things “religious” from the public square in recent decades only as anachronisms, as cultural relics. I’d become weary of reading about all of those faceless “Nones” (who, I’m told repeatedly by media sources, surround me). So it was only in hindsight that I realized that I had no expectation that my faith and spirit would be recognized or supported in my clinical journey through this hospital’s patient care pipeline.

I’m so glad I was so wrong.

When this call came through, a surprising result occurred. In my mind, World Class Hospital had just reached out to me, through this chaplain, specifically to acknowledge to me that as the high functioning medical institution that it is, this hospital accepted as scientific, salient, and clinical fact the proposition that all human beings are spiritual beings.  Was my impression well founded?

It was. As my treatment options were explored with my healthcare team, I realized that world class, modern medicine has already begun to make a patient’s faith and spirit focal points of the most modern of healing protocols.

The hospital would not have provided a chaplain for me if doing so was not a cost effective, proven resource to employ in the improvement of my medical condition.  If the benefits of that service didn’t yield statistically affirmed results, surely it would have been discontinued.

Similarly, meditation and mindfulness are now commonly taught, encouraged, and facilitated for patients by their treating medical institutions. The spiritual benefits that derive from being present among calm, natural beauty are fostered by the on-campus flower and “zen” gardens that have been installed at many modern healthcare centers.

Even atheists, I believe, can acknowledge that a certain something defines themselves and every other person they know as unique and unrepeatable  – a soul, if they can accept the term – and that the soul should be nurtured.  Therefore an institutional acknowledgement that all patients are spiritual beings demonstrates a faith/health connection that all modern patients should recognize as entirely scientific and beneficial.

The chaplain who called me was lovely.  Central casting, in a way: a considerate, calm voice. Quick to size up where I might be on my personal spiritual journey. Encouraging and empathetic. Yet professional.  The fact that circumstances had conspired so that a stranger reached out to me to invite me to murmur with her ancient prayers for healing and mercy over the phone reminded me that I am always in God’s care. And made me, I confess, teary at the very thought.

Why did I write this blog post?

It is my hope that as we and our loved ones persevere in this COVID battle, we will be gentle enough with ourselves to let go of modern concepts of a division between our bodily health and our spiritual health. The two are inextricably entwined. They always have been, always will be. God made the first human body, and then breathed a soul into it (Genesis 2:7); Adam was incomplete and nameless before that moment.

If we are of necessity sending a loved one off alone to a hospital or a healthcare facility to battle COVID, we can remind our beloved that the ubiquitous, faceless “they” (in other words, the doctors, researchers, nurses, hospital administrators, and other relevant experts into whose world the patient must enter) don’t just think, they know, that meditation and prayer assists in healing.

Therefore, let’s remind anyone isolated through this disease – without the presence of family and friends – that as patients they are neither helpless nor alone. They are actually an integral part of their own care team because they can function as such in an important, healing way that no one else can possibly do but them.  Because they are in control of their own minds and hearts, they can choose to pray. And as they pray, their faith and hope can help them heal. World class hospitals say so.

 

Our Best Response to COVID? Mimic Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrhbearers

“Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week.” I’ve always valued the special character of a Sunday. Time to worship, rest, recoup, visit, chill. It doesn’t happen often, but this week the Sundays bookmarking its start and finish have each been dedicated to a feast day honoring the Myrrhbearers.

MaryMagdaleneSusannaandJoanna by Mary McKenzie Nativity Project
Mary Magdalene with Joanna and Susanna (The Succession of Mary Magdalene)  Triptych, First Panel, Janet McKenzie

Last Sunday Eastern rite Christians who follow Western calculations for the Paschal cycle celebrated Myrrhbearers Sunday, often also called the Sunday of the Ointment Bearing Women. And today, Orthodox Christians celebrate the very same feast day (the week’s “delay” being attributable to Eastern calculations for the annual celebration of the Paschal season). Since I am an Orthodox Christian married to an Eastern Rite Catholic priest, I’ve enjoyed two opportunities to celebrate in real time this year a day that honors the Myrrhbearers.

It’s been a joy. And a relief.

Throughout the world Christians of all denominations spent this week confined to our homes, unable to worship in our accustomed ways. We longed to be physically present in our churches, in our spiritual communities, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, a Trinitarian community. At our deepest level, we need to belong to a community. In Christian traditions with Eucharistic liturgies, that longing is intensified by the desire to again share the mystical supper with the brothers and sisters of our own communities.

Staying away feels like true deprivation. Solitary pastors fill our screens, celebrating services in empty churches, and it feels forlorn and wrong. In fact, it is wrong, from a spiritual perspective. We’re viewers, no longer participants. And our occupation with earthly concerns distracts us from that reality. Community worship restores our solitary souls to the dynamic of communion in which they were meant to exist. So there was no better place to focus this week’s meditations on the Myrrhbearers than St. Mary Magdalene, who can teach us moderns quite a bit about faith and absence.

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Maria Magdalena, Alfred Stevens, 1877

Mary Magdalene has fascinated the imaginations of artists throughout the ages, because much lore surrounds her story. Miscast popularly as a women of loose morals, as a sinner, as the unnamed woman who wept at Christ’s feet and wiped her tears from them with her hair, Mary Magdalene is a compelling dramatic figure – from a human perspective. But if she was once that troubled woman – and that’s a big if (and a topic for another day)– she was so, so much more.  She was a leader, a strong woman, an independent thinker. Brave. Loving.  But most telling for us in COVID times, she prepared herself at Christ’s death for his coming absence, and continued to believe in Him as Lord and God.

Consider in chronological order the scriptural passages in which her name appears, and the import of her place among the disciples and the esteem with which she must have been regarded will become apparent. It can be easy to forget that Mary Magdalene was honored by God to be the very first disciple, in fact the very first believer in Christ – man or woman – to whom the risen Christ appeared, and she was among the small group of women given the privilege of announcing the Good News of the Resurrection to the Apostles and other disciples hidden in the Upper Room.

Here’s a quick rundown of Scriptural references to this Saint:

  • Mary Magdalene suffered an illness/condition (referred to as “seven demons”) that only God could cure.
  • She is almost invariably the first named of the woman disciples in any scriptural list, and always included in such lists, which attests to her prominence and leadership among the women. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the Gospels – more than any Apostle or other disciple.
  • Her suffering led to her faith in Jesus as Lord and God, and her faith led to her participation in Jesus’ ministry. She provided financial support for Jesus and his disciples as they travelled through Galilee and other regions.
  • She was apparently always close by to the Lord. All four Gospels, while focusing on different details of the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection, place Saint Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Near the foot of the cross, she and other women disciples “watched from a distance”, and she stood vigil nearby with Jesus’ mother and her sister. It was only when evening approached that Joseph of Arimathea appeared.
  • She was present and watched as Joseph of Arimathea took down Christ’s body, laid it in a tomb, and had the stone rolled in front or the entrance.  She remained at the tomb when Joseph departed.
  • At dawn on Easter Sunday, she went to the tomb. Varying accounts (presumably reflecting the she made more than one visit to the tomb that morning) say she went alone, or with “the other Mary”, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and with other unnamed women disciples. We refer to these women as the Myrrhbearers.
  • She returned to the tomb after having discovered that the stone had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was not there, and running to tell the Apostles.  Simon Peter and another (whom Jesus loved) returned to the tomb with her, but didn’t understand that Christ had risen.
  • She lingered at the tomb after the Apostles left and, all alone, had her famous encounter with an angel, and then with the risen Lord.  She had cried over the loss of the divine body – she never gave up caring for Him. When He spoke her name she knew who spoke, immediately. “No lo me tangere” – do not touch me, Jesus said, and “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  And she did so. Along with Joanna and other unnamed women, she told the Eleven and others of the encounter with two angels who announced the Resurrection – but the men considered the news “idle tales” (KJV).

What does this outline reveal to us? Mary Magdalene had an unwavering faith. She proved it, returning to the tomb alone to ponder all that had happened, to try to make sense of it, to be at the center of the controversy – she couldn’t stay away. As we don’t want to stay away today. We don’t want to shelter in place. We want things to return to “normal.” We want to pray the way we always have. We want to be comfortable.

But once the risen Christ called her name, Mary Magdalene began the journey we all face today – to learn to speak to the risen Lord despite his physical absence. She did that armed with a monumental faith in His divinity.  And my realization that she did so made this “Myrrhbearers Week” so worthwhile. While I don’t pretend to myself that I have the faith Mary Magdalene had, I realize that I can nevertheless follow her example by drawing upon the depth of faith I do have, to try to draw nearer to God through my own efforts.

Modern Christians have many ways of deepening their spirituality. There is so much good advice available to us through our pastors, scholars, authors, musicians, and our Christian brothers and sisters.  Additionally, there are well settled Christian traditions that we may discover, or rediscover. I’ve spent some time this week thinking about two of them.

Pious Eastern Christians attempt to pray habitually, with automaticity, a particular prayer in an effort to draw near and stay near to God. The “Jesus Prayer” is meant to help us internalize our relationship to God with each utterance, and so to make Him present with us always –

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Much has been written about the practice of repeating this prayer from a “top of mind” perspective throughout the day – and this coming week, while many of us have time on our hands, is a good time try to explore some of the commentary, and try it.

Some Western Christians have a different practice of prayer meant to overcome the pangs of separation from God that they feel when the Eucharist is not available to them.  It’s called a “Spiritual Communion”, and if prayed with sincerity can draw us nearer to God and suppress our preoccupation with the worship we are “missing”.  Roman Catholic Christians pray it this way:

“My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”

The concept of a spiritual communion with God – of any kind – is in reality a life-saver.  Saving our eternal life. None of us, COVID or not, can rest at night with the knowledge that the day just ended wasn’t our last.  For me, the fruit of Myrrhbearers Week 2020 is going to be one less book, one less Netflix, quite a few less Facebook surfs, and many more repetitions of the Jesus Prayer.