Someone asked me some time ago whether I still believe in healing.
The answer I gave is that yes, I do, but that I tend to think about healing slightly differently these days. My thinking about healing has been largely conditioned through experience, by which I mean my own experience (of living with depression and anxiety) and the experience of ministering amongst others as a parish priest.
In the past I have prayed unbelievably hard (perhaps you have to) for miracles to be performed. I have prayed that pain will be removed and health fully restored. I have prayed for the miraculous. Now, let me be clear: I do believe that the miraculous can and does occur, but I also know that my prayers for a wonder miracle have tended to go ‘unanswered,’ (where I am the judge and final arbiter of what wonder and answered prayer looks like!)
Wonder miracles can, and perhaps do, occur but, surely they are the exception rather than the norm?
Nowadays I tend to focus on the ing in healing. I tend to regard healing in process terms. I regard it as attending with love and compassion to the reality of the human condition.
In my benefice we have three aspirations: hospitality, holiness and healing. They all defy precise definition and they all clearly relate to and inform each other: you can’t really be a healing community, unless you are a hospitable community, you can’t really be a hospitable community unless you, in some way, commit to seeking to grow into the likeness of Christ, the host, and the Messiah. These aspirations are about as close to a vision or mission statement as we can manage.
So what is this thing called healing and why am I so passionate about it?
I am passionate about healing because poor mental health has been an enduring feature of my life, and the great lie that I have been the victim of for most of my life is that I must suffer alone. Depression and anxiety (and I have suffered with both – they are my ugly and uninvited ‘twin impostors’) are not silent conditions: they breathe pain into both your mind and your body, they tell you things.
They tell you that nobody will believe you if you tell them how you really feel and that, in any case, and that you really shouldn’t feel as you do, after all……And, the cruelest lie they tell you is that your life has no value, followed closely by ‘they would be better off without you.’
We need to be clear: anxiety and depression can lead us on the ugliest of all pilgrimages, the one from isolation to the grave.
The fact that I am not in the grave is the greatest miracle of all, for I have had periods of my life where death seemed the most favorable of outcomes. I have cried into my pillow every night a prayer of anguished pain: ‘Lord take this pain away, or don’t let me wake up tomorrow.’ This has been my sincerest, most heartfelt, and, thank God, seemingly unanswered prayer. I have also felt so, so, angry at God, for surely as a Christian I shouldn’t feel like this, should I?
Christianity, faith, liturgy sometimes doesn’t help, in fact it can make things a whole lot worse: ‘I shouldn’t feel like this.’ Hearing about the Fruit of the Spirit, or the fact that Jesus came to give life in all its abundance is a pretty hard message to receive when you feel in the pits, when just getting to a church has taken every vestige of residual energy, and when everyone else appears so on message, and when abundance can only be measured in terms of the ability to get through the liturgy without bursting into tears, or exploding in a fit of rage.
Going to church when you feel crushed by despair and shot through with anxiety can be just so hard, and so conflicting: ‘I shouldn’t, they don’t, and where for …….sake are you God. Will you just do something God-like? Make it all go away, or make me go away,’ has been my mental health lament. And, as I now know, it’s a pretty common lament.
Well I am still here, I haven’t (as yet) gone away, or been taken away, so something must have happened, something must have changed. So what is it that happened, and what role has the church played in my healing?
First and foremost the church has given me the gift of friendship. I have been fortunate to have had a very close friendship, with a wonderful man (Nick), who sadly died last year, whose own spirituality was hard won. I have other wonderful friends who know something of my back story and the sometimes grim realities of my daily pilgrimage. They are my best counselors and they are all people who can, to some extent, say ‘me too.’ I now know, through the church, that others stand in solidarity with me, and I with them, and this helps. It helps dispel the great lies. Friendship is a subtle gift, but it’s a great and, I would say, miraculous gift. So, thank you to all my friends, those me-tooers that have been, and remain, fellow pilgrims.
Secondly, I have been forced, in the light of experience, to rethink the ministry of healing. Healing is, for me, no longer coterminous with cure and this is a really crucial point. Cure sets, for me, an impossible standard, and impossible standards make things a whole lot worse. Impossible standards render the ‘you’re not worth it…..you’re not good enough and they would be better off without you’ lines truly credible. Now I think of healing as fostering the possibility of living with, through and beyond anxiety, depression and fear (this is how we style our mental health liturgy). Framing healing in these terms has allowed me understand something of the abundance that Jesus offers. Framing healing in these terms seems and feels both pragmatic and realistic, and maybe that’s good enough?
As a parish priest I firmly believe that the church must take mental health seriously as part of our healing ministry. In fact I believe that the slow and attentive work of ministering into a context where poor mental health is on the rise is the most important, most challenging, and potentially most fruitful aspect of our healing ministry.
My advice (and I am sorry if this sounds pompous and presumptive) to any church interested in mental health ministry is to start by fostering a culture where the reality of anxiety, depression and fear are acknowledged, affirmed and normalized. Churches need to be hospitable not just to people but to the realities of the human condition. I would also encourage churches not to be too ambitious. We mustn’t over-promise. We mustn’t add to the burdens of already overburdened people. But, what we can do is pray. We can pray that those who suffer will be able to live with, through and beyond depression, anxiety and fear. Churches can be places of deep healing: communities that attend to the reality of life and places of friendship, solidarity and prayer.
Attention, friendship, solidarity and prayer, these four, can act as real antidotes to the lies of the ‘twin impostors.’
Without these four can there be any real healing?