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"In this powerful vision of health and illness, the sick individual is not seen as merely a victim of his or her own sins, but rather is the bearer of our collective failings, and can therefore become our teacher, if we would only listen to what their illness has to tell us."

Reflections on the Spiritual Dimension of Illness

by Daniel Wolpert

©2006 Daniel Wolpert, all rights reserved

“I think we’ve just poisoned the earth.”

This comment came to me from a friend who had just learned that her husband, barely 50, has cancer. She has a lot of experience with this illness, being the oldest of four children whose spouses all have cancer.

Her story isn’t unusual anymore. Not a week goes by when I don’t learn of another relatively young person who has this potentially fatal illness. Every week at church the list of these walking wounded grows longer, and our prayers of healing go out into the world.

But something else goes out too, a question. What is going on here? Why? And this is the question that my friend’s comment attempts to answer. We want an explanation. We want to understand. This desire for knowledge that will orient us within our world, that will relieve some of our existential anxiety, is as old as humankind. Seeking wisdom is a Biblical mandate because as a people moving towards an open future, we desire to move in a direction of healing, wholeness, and goodness – the direction of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Looking out into our world, we see that autoimmune diseases, cancer, and mental illness are becoming more prevalent, are occupying more of our time attention and resources. What does this new reality tell us about ourselves, about what God is doing with us, and about what new understandings we need to acquire?

In order to grasp the spiritual dimension of these illnesses; we need to realize that we have an individualistic view of sickness. Thus when we get sick we often ask, ‘what did I do to get this illness?’ However, the Biblical world tends to see things in collective terms (as one quick example of the Biblical emphasis on the collective, the NRSV translation uses ‘people’ 2800 times, ‘person’ 330 times, and ‘individual’ 5 times). When the Assyrians come and destroy someone’s home in Israel, the Bible is less concerned about that person’s behavior, but rather asks, ‘what did the people do to deserve this?’

We struggle to make the shift from the individual view to the collective view. The communal perspective grates on our sense of fairness. In the collective understanding, innocent people suffer for the sins of others and this strikes us as unfair. We are much more comfortable with the idea that if we are suffering, we did something to deserve it or cause it. We must have eaten the wrong thing, or not exercised enough, or lived too near a source of pollution, or not had enough faith.

But the Biblical view of ‘fairness’ is different. In a collective understanding of the world, we are all in this reality together, we are a body and if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. The communal view contains a much more profound understanding of the reality of our world, for it knows that we share a much deeper intimacy than we often care to admit.

In the 20th century a Christian mystic named Rudolph Steiner articulated an understanding of illness that incorporated this collective vision of reality and the immediate working of God’s judgment (For a good overview of Steiner’s work, along with a very thorough bibliography, see ‘The Essential Steiner’ Robert McDermott ed). Steiner’s work is complex and highly detailed, but simply put, he saw that if one looked at the illnesses that arise in society at a given time, one can also see what are the ways in which the collective society has gone astray, and therefore come to understand what we need to learn, or perhaps relearn.

In this powerful vision of health and illness, the sick individual is not seen as merely a victim of his or her own sins, but rather is the bearer of our collective failings, and can therefore become our teacher, if we would only listen to what their illness has to tell us.

How then might we describe the three general types of sickness that haunts our modern reality? Cancer is an illness characterized by massive out-of-control growth that is undifferentiated and eventually, if not checked, causes the death of the host. Autoimmune diseases are ones where the body attacks itself; it is a disease of confused relationship in which one part of the body doesn’t even recognize another; rather the immune system considers it’s own body a foreigner, a threat it must fight against. Mental illnesses are diseases of the mind, in which thoughts and feelings are confused and disordered; the person is lost in world of sadness, alienation, and delusion.

Looking at these descriptions, we can see a perfect depiction of our current world. We have adopted an economic vision that requires constant, ever increasing, growth that is often undifferentiated, unplanned, and in it’s lust for resources threatens to kill the planet that sustains our life. Furthermore, the pace of life required by this existence is causing our relationships- with ourselves, with each other, with God- to deteriorate almost to the point of being non-existent. How many times do you hear people say they don’t know whether they are coming or going, or they never have time to visit, or they don’t know their children? Finally, our way of living, our speed of life, and the ruthlessness of globalization, is causing us to become more confused and less in touch with ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, and our being. We suffer from radical alienation such that we no longer understand one another, and our fights and divisions grow deeper every day while our capacity to think clearly diminishes with every sound bite and bit of spin we pack into our heads.

Thus through these illnesses God is showing us how we are deviating from that which Jesus said summed up the entire law, “Love the Lord thy God with your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Furthermore, if the problems of our alienation and disconnection are seen in the illnesses themselves, then the solutions are visible in the treatments for the illnesses. These are treatments which require that we slow down, that we focus on our relationships, and clear our minds. For in addition to so-called conventional medicine, we are finding that in order to cure these modern diseases we need to pay attention to what we eat, to what we do, to how we think, to our relationships with self and other. The way of love that Jesus points to is the way towards health and healing, and as we take care of ourselves and those around us who are ill, our capacity for love grows and we begin to move into the way of God’s Kingdom.

So let us listen to the teachers among us, let us be open to the wisdom of God that is revealed in their sickness, and then as we listen and respond to their teaching, let us Be still and Know God (Psalm 46:10).

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