Because You Are a Healer
By Rev. Dagmar Bollinger
You may recall my sermon from last year, called “The Spiritual Gardener” Being a passionate gardener, I quoted the eco-theologian Thomas Berry who said that “gardening invites us to participate in the deepest mysteries of the universe.”
Today I am sharing with you my thoughts about another mystery of the universe which is the art of healing. To give the topic some personal context, I am going back about fifteen years to the time when I lived in sunny Southern California where I thoroughly enjoyed the West Coast lifestyle and successfully pursued a career as an automotive engineer. I was also part of a vibrant worship community at Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes. Life was good. And yet, approaching age 60, I had an inner sense that I was about to make a significant change in my life. I just didn’t know yet what it would be.
So I turned to my trusted friend, Rev. Marlene Laughlin, who was then the pastor at Wayfarers. “Marlene,” I said: “What should I be when I grow up?” Contrary to her nature, Marlene ignored my joking. “Have you thought about becoming a minister?” she asked. “A minister?!” I exclaimed. “Why?” Still serious, Marlene said: “because you are a healer.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Then she told me that she had terminal cancer and that she did not have much time left. I was devastated by the news and immediately went into my engineer “fixer” mode. “Marlene, have you tried alternative treatments? There is the Deepak Chopra clinic right in your backyard. It’s holistic …” Marlene just smiled and didn’t say anything.
In the months that followed, Marlene remained the consummate pastor, calming my fear of death and dread of losing her. Ever so gently, helped me to accept the inevitable. I said, “Marlene, how can I possibly be a healer when you are the one comforting me?” Marlene said: “You are my friend and you are with me,” she said, “your presence is healing me.” She quoted Mark 14:49-50: “‘I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and you took me not. But the scriptures must be fulfilled.’ And they all forsook him and fled.’” “You are with me,” Marlene repeated. “How could I not be, I thought.” But I still didn’t get it.
Today, I am a board-certified oncology chaplain, that is, I specialize in providing spiritual care to patients with cancer at St. Joseph Mercy Cancer Center in Brighton, Michigan. Today, I know what Marlene meant when she said “because you are a healer.” Today I know that being with is the most fundamental attribute of a healer. Jesus taught us that. Contrary to what you might think, however, it wasn’t the long and arduous seminary journey that made me a healer. Nor was it the difficult and exhausting clinical pastoral education that followed. Even now it is not the demanding daily task of ministering to critically ill patients that makes me a healer.
Rather, I believe that the healer in us emerges from the seeds of goodness and truth that God implants in every human being at birth. In his writings, Swedenborg calls these seeds “remnants” (of goodness and truth) and says that we are mostly unaware of them until they emerge—often in times of adversity and suffering. I like to think of them as spiritual survival tools in the form of inner strengths without which we could not survive.
God works through our remnants to help us grow in compassion, loving kindness, and the desire to help others. In the process, God heals us. And it is when God heals our own wounds that we become healers to others. The Dutch theologian Henry Nouwen said that life turns us into wounded healers and opens in us the doors through which divine healing flows. We become agents of God’s healing love. No theology degree required.
However, in our modern times, it is difficult to navigate the complex language of healthcare. For example, we must distinguish between curing and healing. Curing is associated with sickness, described as identify a problem, discovering its cause, and applying a remedy. The common cold is a good example of a sickness. Illness, on the other hand, can be defined as a condition that involves loss of meaning in life due to physical and/or mental impairment.
Cancer is an illness. Treatment in form of chemo or radiation has a curative intent if the cancer is found early. If the cancer has progressed to a certain stage, the treatment intent may be palliative or hospice, that is, care focuses on providing comfort and relief from the discomforts of pain, mental stress, and emotional/spiritual distress at any stage of the illness. The goal is to improve the quality of life for both the person and their family.
This is nothing new. Only the means differ. Let’s consider the work of Jesus. Jesus was a folk healer, meaning, he engaged in both, curing and healing. He laid on hands and touched people (Mark 1:41). He used spittle (Mark 8:23) and rubbed mud (John 9:6) on parts of the body. This is how Jesus cured sickness. But Jesus also healed people’s illnesses by restoring meaning to life whether the person’s physical condition improved or not in the long run. For instance, the fever that afflicted Peter’s mother-in-law kept her from fulfilling her domestic role. When the fever left her, she rose and served the visitors (Luke 4:38-39). Jesus, the healer, restored meaning to the life of Peter’s mother-in-law.
As a chaplain, I am a spiritual caregiver. I care for the total person—body, mind, and spirit. People ask me how I can stand being with cancer patients day in and day out. They want to know how I deal with all the pain, anxiety and sadness that accompany it. True, caring for cancer patients and their loved ones is hard work. I hold hands and hug my patients and those close to them when they cry; sometimes I cry with them. I commiserate with their anger, their fears, their resentments and support their hopes without losing sight of reality. I am sad when patients die. But I also laugh with them frequently and share moments of deep joy and gratefulness. I listen to their stories and help them see the significance and value of their lives. At the end of the day I go home with a big basket of gifts filled with my patient’s courage, insights and wisdoms. They are my teachers and they care for me, too, because any encounter between two people is a two-way street. Let me give you an example of what I mean:
A 72-year old woman by the name of Beth is diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized ovarian cancer. Her survival chances are not good. She and her newly-retired husband just bought an RV. Their dream is to tour the United States, Canada, and parts of South America. Instead, they will be spending much of their time at the Cancer Center.
When I sat down with Beth for the first time and asked: “How are you today?” She said: “I am dying of cancer, how are you?” When she saw my consternation, she cracked a big smile and said gleefully. “Got ya.” We both laughed. Then I nudged her into a more serious conversation about her prognosis, and she laid out her philosophy: “The cards are on the table. I can either fold or play. It’s my turn to play.” She confided that she felt at peace, knowing that God’s hands held the final cards. I shared with her the Swedenborgian concept that God wants us to act as if we are in charge, but know that we are not. She loved the analogy and told me that she intended to live the remaining days of her life as fully as she possibly could. She was a teacher and wanted to leave something of herself behind, maybe read stories in English to migrant children so they would come to love the language of their host country. “Great idea,” I said. And what about your disrupted RV travel plans?” She laughed. “Could you imagine being on a more exciting trip than I am now? Who needs an RV? It’s parked in the driveway. Now my husband has a place to go when the grandchildren get on his nerves,” she joked. Then she grew serious. “I do worry about leaving my husband behind…” Her eyes got misty for a moment, then they brightened up again and she said, “I told him he should find himself a nice woman who likes to dance so he’ll get some exercise and keep up with the grandchildren.”
Beth gave me the impression that she was not going to miss a single moment of joy even in the midst of great pain. I was there to encourage her. At the end of the visit, she squeezed my hand and said: “Thank you for listening. I am going to miss you, my friend.” Beth died two months later and her family asked me to officiate at her memorial.
Listening deeply is an important skill when caring for a person in spiritual distress. Humans are meaning-making creatures who want to affirm that our lives are essential. When we listen with empathy that grows out of our own suffering, when we hold the hands of those who are scared, when we can be with them in their deepest pain without trying to fix anything, we are authentic ministers. We are the friend who cares.
Therefore, if you ever doubt, like I did, whether you can minister to a friend in need, stand in front of a mirror and say to the person looking back at you: “Yes, you can because you are a healer.”