Spirituality - Faith - Divine Healing and Mental Illness
by: Gunnar E. Christiansen, M.D.
Co-Chairman, FaithNet NAMI
Does "Divine Healing" happen in our world? For most of us this concept raises a red flag. It seems we have witnessed too many situations in which those with mental illness have been psychologically harmed by over-zealous clergy and/or religious groups in their attempt to bring about a miraculous "cure." But is this aggravation obscuring visualization of the opportunity we have to follow a pathway, which leads to "healing?"
I put the words "healing" and "cure" in parentheses, because although Webster lists them as synonymous, I believe it is helpful to make a distinction. Whereas being cured is a complete restoration to the normal state, I interpret healing as the presence of solace and a sense of wholeness, which are gifts from God.
Healing is not a sudden phenomenon, but a process, which particularly with mental illness is often slow in its development. Tormenting questions (e.g. "God Why Me?" and "Does My Illness Have Meaning?"), which are difficult if not impossible to answer, are often significant roadblocks for those with these "no fault disorders." Resolving the mental anguish associated with pondering such questions requires trust that God is with us even in our most difficult times.
Job’s peace of mind did not occur until he was able to accept God’s plan for his life, which included suffering. At the conclusion of this provocative book of the Bible, we see that Job truly knew God and was able to accept his plan even though it was beyond his understanding. Job’s feeling of assurance of God’s justice and fairness despite suffering was a spiritual gift, which is just as available to us today. I can’t visualize how someone with mental illness or any chronic illness can experience serenity without this confidence in God. (Please refer to the FaithNet NAMI newsletter, vol. 2, Issue 1 for a more detailed discussion of the suffering of Job.)
Faith that God is constantly within us is also a gift. It seems we have been created with a basic spiritual part of our being, which is able to respond to his presence. We are not just a sack full of genes that reacts only to our earthly environment.
In addition to our sensing God’s presence as we pray and/or meditate, it is equally appreciated through relationships with others as we give and receive acts of love. Communion with neighbors, society, family, nature and God provide basic building blocks in the development of our spiritual strength, which in turn is critical for healing.
In order to have significant communication with our fellowman and God, it is critical that we listen with our heart and share ourselves. We must not only talk about what flatters us. We must be open and honest about our difficulties and challenges. Otherwise we will end up playing a game of "20 Questions," and miss the opportunity to talk about feelings, meaning and purpose, which are all necessary for spiritual bonding.
As I think about my connection with God, I visualize Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in which man and God are reaching toward each other and are about to touch finger-tips. Although we cannot have this direct physical contact, I feel we are touching God as we reach out to those who are suffering.
Suffering is not a blessing, although many theologians feel that we cannot fully mature without having experienced it personally or have been the caretaker of a loved one who is suffering. For certain, giving and receiving care and compassion does enable both the caregiver and recipient to be blessed. There is an ancient Chinese word that when translated means both crisis and opportunity. It seems they must have been thinking of suffering when they developed this word.
Although I continue to be imperfect in my service to others, it is in my effort to do so that I have found meaning in my life. In order to be of service we don’t need to be a psychiatrist, psychologist or theologian. We just need to be a friend. All we need to do is to connect with each other. God will do the rest.
Connection with someone with a serious mental illness who has lost contact with reality is particularly difficult, but still possible. What is needed in this situation is not a theological discussion, but only the presence of someone the person loves and respects. Although one’s presence may not bring about instant healing, it may be a significant step in its development.
The inner contentment that I observe in those who serve others without asking compensation in money or praise is beautiful to behold. I believe it is God who provides the strength to be of service and that he blesses those that give of themselves in humbleness. An equally profound effect on my life has been the observation of those who despite suffering have attained peace of mind and seem more concerned with others than themselves. More often than not, those I intend to serve are the ones who through their spiritual strength give me far more than it seems that I am able to give to them.
For healing to occur, it is also necessary for most of us to pass through the stages of the emotional reactions so nicely listed by Joyce Burland in the Family to Family manual. We must progress past the stages of anger/guilt/resentment and grief, gain understanding of the illness and finally accept the role we must play in the treatment. Acceptance does not mean, however, that we should be satisfied. Dissatisfaction is a necessary ingredient for stimulating us to seek improvement in our medical condition as well as in our relationship with God. Unless we strive to help ourselves, we should not assume we will be given the feeling that God is with us.
We must avoid the temptation to "turn it all over to God." I believe a far more helpful prayer would be to ask God for the strength to do our part in the rehabilitation process of our own illness or in the care of another. As Rabbi Harold Kushner pointed out in his excellent book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, we should ask, "Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?"
Medication and/or psychological analysis are of utmost importance in treating abnormalities of the body and mind, but cannot be expected to fulfill the needs of the spiritual aspect of our being. In order to meet these needs, which in turn leads to solace and a sense of wholeness, we must turn to God and rely on his giving us the spiritual strength to trust in his presence.
I believe it is proper to call this process, "Divine Healing."