The Theology of Health and Healing - Hildegard Lecture, Thirsk
Friday 7th February 2003Transcript of an address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at Holy Rood House Centre for Health and Pastoral Care, Thirsk.
Just by way of introduction may I say how very grateful I am for the invitation to be here, how very grateful I've been for the involvement, such as its been, with the Baxters over quite a few years now and how much I've learned from them, and how wonderful its been to be guest here before now, and how much I'm looking forward to this weekend.
'When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man he passes through waterless places seeking rest. But he finds none. Then he says, "I will return to my house from which I came," and when he comes he finds it empty, swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.'
One of Jesus' most powerful and memorable images is that picture of an untenanted space, an uninhabited space into which flow the forces of destruction. My argument this evening will be that, in thinking about the theology of health, we are thinking about how the world comes to be inhabited. Let me explain a bit further.
You'll be familiar with the way in which St Paul, in more than one letter, speaks about the flesh, that system of destructive reactions and instincts that keeps us prisoner to sin. You'll remember his catalogue in Galatians, Chapter 5, of the works of the flesh, beginning, you might say predictably, with more obvious physical disorders: debauchery, sexual immorality, and then proceeding to party spirit and envy and things which don't seem quite so obviously physical. And then returning, just to round it all up, with drunkenness.
What the flesh, as St Paul uses that term, is, you might say, a word that describes human life minus relationship. Or perhaps human life that is not inhabited. What St Paul seems to mean by flesh is precisely the kind of thing that Jesus describes in that image of the untenanted space; flesh is human life that is not properly inhabited. Flesh is human life somehow alienated, cut off from its environment, cut off from that life of spirit which in St Paul's usage is always about relation. And if salvation is, in its widest sense, seen as the bringing together of flesh and spirit in body, then perhaps we can see how all this has some pertinence to what we mean by health.
The gift of the spirit in St Paul's theology is a gift that always brings relation. And the life of the spirit, as opposed to the life of the flesh, is life in free relation to God and generous relation to one another. Flesh, as the opposite of that, is the system of empty, untenanted life, where there is no spark to relate. So that the process of our salvation can be described as how flesh becomes something fuller, becomes body, part of the body of Christ, a temple of God's Holy Spirit. Because the Bible assumes, from beginning to end, that this material flesh is made to be inhabited and that the whole material world is made to be inhabited by the action of God.
God's grace makes people fully human, says the Church of England report, 'A Time to Heal'. God's grace makes people fully human. If what I've said so far makes any sense then, what we might say, is that God's grace makes flesh to be inhabited by spirit, that is, makes flesh something more than the dead lump of untenanted material which lies around for other people to fall over. It becomes a language, a system, a means of connection. And it seems to me that this is not just something we need to say to about the theology of health, as if that were a little part of the map, it's something we need to say about theology as a whole.
I want to move on from that initial point about flesh and spirit to suggest that the whole business of theology is, in one sense, to trace how God transforms flesh, how God makes flesh inhabited, by creating living relationship with himself.
It's an awkward set of words in a way, isn't it, because when you speak of flesh being inhabited we can run away with the idea of that something is being injected into this lump of flesh from outside, rather than what the Bible, much more readily tends to assume, that the life of the body is the flowering of everything that God has made there and that the spirit and soul are bound up with that. But bear with me as I use that imagery because it helps in some other areas.
Theology is the art of tracing how God transforms the flesh by creating living relationship with God, and through that living relationship with the rest of what God has made. We could say that there is sense in which every good human story is about how flesh is inhabited, how flesh is filled with meaning. How do you tell the story of you own life? Not simply as a record of what happened to this particular lump of fat and bone. You can tell your story as a story of how you learned to speak and to relate, to respond and to interact. In other words, you tell your story as the story of how your life, how your flesh, became inhabited.
A novel about the growth of a human self is that kind of model. The Bildungsroman, as the Germans call it, that evolution of the sense of self, flesh becoming inhabited. And a good love is supremely, superlatively a story about how flesh comes to be inhabited and comes to mean what had never been dreamed of.
And so for the theologian the story being told is about how flesh comes to signify God, how flesh is inhabited by the life of God so that, in relation to God, it becomes transfigured and transfiguring. 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,' says the fourth Gospel. God inhabits flesh with the divine communication and the divine freedom itself. And that most fully inhabited, most fully, can I say, saturated flesh, which is the humanity of Jesus Christ, becomes the supreme instance of health, flesh and spirit in one life; the world inhabited by life. The presence of God's word, God's freedom to love and to communicate, so soaked through that piece of the human world which is Jesus of Nazareth, that the fullest possible meanings of God are communicated there and the very freedom of God is acted out in that life to make us free. And once again, to refer to the Church of England report, Christ's body, says that report, is an instrument of grace. Christ's body, in the incarnate life of Jesus, is an instrument of grace.
So the story which theology tells, which theology reflects on, is, you might say, the most comprehensive version of a story we're telling ourselves and one another all the time; our own stories of how our flesh came to mean something, came to say something. As I have said, we can tell it in terms of simply the story of our lives. We can tell it in terms of a love story. We can tell it, sometimes, in terms of a therapeutic relationship. We can tell it in terms of, and through the medium of, artistic creation. The world is no longer an empty space as the story is told.
One of the most recent records I've read in recent years relevant to this, is book on music therapy as exercised with children and adults who have Asperger's Syndrome, and how communication is established in such situations; through long arduous stretching work. The filling of a kind of space, or perhaps rather the recognition that a space is already inhabited and is only waiting for that which will draw it out in freedom to communicate. Perhaps I can mention here the extraordinary series of books on Asperger's Syndrome published by Jessica Kingsley over the last five or six years. Jessica, who is an independent publisher, has made, I think, a unique contribution to the understanding of autism by publishing this wide range of studies and selected essays and testimonies on this subject.
I have already hinted, then, what sort of model of health is around here. Health is something to do with the bridging of a gulf between flesh and spirit. And often as we look at the Gospel stories of healing, as we look at them hard and carefully, we will see how healing there emerges in a situation, whereas we look more closely at it, there is some sort of concealed alienation, some sort of bruised relationship. Much to simple to say, 'Jesus comes and heals sick people and that's wonderful and everyone is very glad.' That is very much the bottom line of the Gospel stories. But look harder and you can see how the act of healing in these contexts is, again and again, subtly connected with different kinds of isolation, different kinds of alienation.
If you look at the first four stories of healing in St Mark's Gospel, this comes over rather clearly. The first dramatic story is about the demoniac in the synagogue. 'What have we to do with you? Have you come to destroy us?' The empty, fleshly life, is one which lives in fear of being destroyed, and in that fear destroys itself more and more deeply, inviting in destructive forces and colluding with them. And not surprisingly when fullness appears, in the shape here of God's word in flesh, the reaction is terror.
The next story of healing is about Simon Peter's mother-in-law. Not nearly such an obvious one, you might think, and yet there, what we see is how relationship with Jesus flows over into a healing relationship with those around those related to Jesus; how the work of Jesus creates a network, a set of connections.
With that in mind, moving forward to the next story of the healing of the leper, we have most painfully obviously the case of someone whose sickness is utterly bound up with exclusion, who is not permitted to be part of a worshipping and thanking community. His healing, therefore, is very much a matter of integration into the life of a community that praises God.
And when, in the last of this quartet, the paralytic is let down through the roof by his friends, Jesus' first response is a word of forgiveness; as a recognising that what is there on the surface is somehow bound up with an inner alienation, fear or guilt.
In all these stories and in many, many more, what we have in Jesus' healings seems to be restoration of relation, inclusion in community, the bridging of a gulf between spirit and empty or alienated flesh. These people, as they are healed or exorcised, come to be places inhabited by love, by thanksgiving, by peace, by the sense of absolution. So healing, in these stories is, as I've suggested, more than simply the act that brings physical health to the midst of physical sickness. It's a point that the Gospel narratives make, in various ways, again and again. Somewhere in the background is a brokenness, an emptiness that needs to be addressed. And the act of healing frees the person to express what they are made and called to be, which is members of a community that lives in gratitude and in praise; members of a community in which flesh gives voice to spirit and, in so doing, creates further networks of healing, integrating relation.
Two other stories give some extra perspectives which just fill that out a little further. One is St Luke's story of the ten lepers who were healed and the one who returns to give thanks. He is told that his faith has made him whole because the act of thanksgiving is the end of the story of healing. That person is again a part of a community which gives thanks, which utters praise, which celebrates and which therefore fulfils what human beings are made to be.
And the other, darker story, is the one which appears after the narrative of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels; the man with the epileptic son who waits at the foot of the mountain while the disciples try, without success, to cast out the demon. A demon which, says the father, casts the boy into fire and water, as if the inner emptiness of diabolical action is a kind of anger with the body, the deepest rupture of all when spirit is angry with body and has to be reconciled.
Now those are the principles on which I think we can proceed to think through a little further, not only what a theology of health is about but perhaps, as I've already hinted, what theology itself is about. Let's stay just for a moment with what health and healing are about.
This vision of health as some kind of reconciliation of flesh and spirit, the making of flesh to be inhabited by spirit in life-giving relationship with God and others, that sense of health can, of course, take us in two directions as we think about healing.
Of course it has to do with physical healing and there's no way around that in the Gospels, nor should there be. Jesus did actually make sick people better in a perfectly simple and straightforward sense according to the Gospel narratives. And let's not get too complicated about that because the reconciliation of flesh and spirit is, as in those stories that I've mentioned, very deeply bound up with restoring a person's suffering from different kinds of alienation to that place where they are free in their flesh to praise God in community. And that, in these cases, requires them to be made whole in a simple, physical sense. But as we understand this theologically we also see the possibility of understanding healing in different ways.
Reconciliation with the body can take many forms and I don't think it is at all an evasive way of looking at this to say that healing, therefore, is potentially about reconciliation with a body that is not going to 'get better. There are reconciliations and liberations, as we know, to be made within a situation which, physically, may not change much. And that's what people learn, isn't it, when they minister with the terminally ill. It's what people learn when they minister with those who live with long-standing, continuing disabilities, as we call them. We know that there is a healing there which has to do with an inhabitating of the body, a freedom within the body which may be dying, mortal, limited, pained, in all kinds of ways.
And what is common both to the more obvious kind of physical healing and of that kind of reconciliation with where the body is, what's common, surely, is that healing is, again and again, what makes it possible for an embodied spirit to praise God in community with other embodied spirits. That may equally be material healing or simply a sense of how to inhabit a body which is dying, limited and suffering.
It's impossible to generalise beyond that, I believe, and woe betide us if we do; woe betide us if we try to say every real healing is really a physical transformation or every real healing is some kind of inner transformation. I don't think either of those will do. I don't think that the New Testament lets us get away with either of those reductions because of the way the stories of healing are told; never just the solution of the physical problem bound up without addressing bruised, limited or damaged relationship bound up with the inhabiting of what could be a dangerously empty space. It also shows us how the imagery of healing can relate to the whole agenda of how we grow and develop and become holy, a related word of course, as persons.
Sin, as St Paul seems to see it, certainly in Galatians 5 but in other places to, seems very much to be about uninhabited flesh, the flesh used in a meaningless, a destructive or an isolating way and our simple habits, things that keep us prisoner in our relation with God, the things that set a ceiling on our growth towards God, these have a great deal to do, I believe, with that sense of uninhabited flesh.
I can't remember who it was who first said, alarmingly, that by the age of 40 you have the face you deserve – a very sobering thought, as you look in the mirror – but that half-serious observation reflects something, in fact, very profound about how we are with one another and the difference between inhabited and uninhabited faces. The poet, W H Auden's remark, about private faces in public places being wiser and nicer than public faces in private places bears on this also! When you're with someone are you seeing in them an inhabited face? Those of us who habitually have to speak in public may very well ask ourselves awkward questions about this. Faces can look uninhabited because they are working at a shallow level, at a protected level, even at a destructive level. And we learn a great deal simply from looking at faces - the instinct of the Eastern Orthodox Church that our own holiness is enriched by looking at the faces of the holy is a very sound instinct. When I think of those people that I've known who are most obviously holy throughout my life I think of faces that look, in the best sense, lived in.
So, as I say, I don't think it's necessarily some kind of evasion to suggest that there is more to this business of theology and health than simply treating healing as a demonstration of divine power in solving physical problems. It's not how the Gospels tell the story, it's not the picture of humanity that the New Testament and, indeed, the Old Testament as a whole would give us.
As I said, I see this as leading us towards to a whole way of looking at theology itself, theology, as I said earlier, the art of tracing how God transforms flesh by creating living relationship. Theology, therefore, has a discipline that traces the process of how the world gets to be inhabited. After all, the biblical story itself begins with a situation in which the world is empty, waste and void. God, mytholigically speaking, rubs his hands and says, 'This void will be inhabited.' History begins and the world comes to be a system of relationships and of means. Theology traces how the world in general, and human history in particular, and your human body and mine in even more particular, come to be inhabited. And we can speak of healing as the means of this, just as we can speak of repentance as a means for this to happen, or of conversion as a means for this to happen and of transfiguration as that which holds it all together. So that healing aims at what theology deals with, a spirit-inhabited body or a body becoming spirit, inhabiting a world and so in some sense transfiguring that world in and through Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ's inhabiting of the world and the body for the sake of healing in the broadest sense has made that possible for us.
Ultimately it's not just that God has made a world to be inhabited, God has made a world which God purposes to inhabit and which in some sense God does already inhabit in that wisdom, that beauty, that order, that alluring wonder which is there in our environment. God is already inhabiting what has been made but the task that God undertakes in our human history is, you might say, the harder one of inhabiting the thoughts, the feelings, the reactions, the passions, the griefs and the exhilaration of very contingent and messy human beings like you and me. And the pivotal moment is when God fully and unequivocally inhabits that life which is Jesus of Nazareth, that death and that resurrection which belong to Jesus of Nazareth and which make all the difference to your body and mine so that our own inhabiting of the world changes.
So this is where we move on to how important it is to link healing, in what can sometimes seem a rather narrowly focussed sense, with everything we want to say about the Gospel. I've been suggesting, in effect, that the Good News the Gospel tells us is that, first of all, the world is inhabited by its maker; second, that the maker of the world has made it possible for us to inhabit the world more fully, more deeply, more joyfully than we could ever have possibly imagined. That's one way of expressing the Gospel. But that inhabiting of the world involves something more than simply healing in the narrower sense, it involves our self-knowledge, it involves our art and our science, it involves our labours for justice because all of these are about inhabiting the world.
A world in which there is no hunger and thirst for justice would be a world of flesh. We would, so to speak, be sitting next to one another 'uninhabited'. We would have no passion, no spark of relation with one another which made us hungry and thirsty for justice. A world without art would be, again, a world in which flesh sat on its depressing own, in which, in a world uninhabited, we would feel no passion to discover how the environment is inhabited by God's glory and reflected in word and in image.
I mention self-knowledge as well, which sounds a strange thing to bring in here. But I believe it's really quite an important dimension of this. The Gospel tells us that we can inhabit our own lives and our memories, come to terms with, be at peace with ourselves, remember who we are without pain and alienation because we trust a forgiving God. That, too, is part of the Gospel, that,too, is part of inhabiting the world. And of course, above all, that has to do with the way in which we learn to inhabit the world in prayer, prayer which is not, in spite of quite a lot of encouragement to think otherwise, not an activity of something that goes on outside the body but prayer which is, essentially, the action of an embodied spirit. Remember the phrase I used earlier on about embodied spirits praising God in community with other embodied spirits. That's where prayer begins and ends. And the way in which we learn to 'be' our bodies as we pray, to attend to our bodies as we pray and be conscious of how they inform the desire and the openness of prayer, that, well, we are learning slowly, and it's good to know that the tradition represented by Hildegard and others has helped us recover that in these last couple of decades.
Lest you think this is just some kind of eccentric aspect of Christian piety or Christian theology in a corner, and some do, remember what St Theresa of Avila, a standard orthodox Catholic mystic after all, has to say about this. She describes the process by which at the beginning of your life of prayer, you are mostly aware of disorientation. You don't know quite what's going on and strange things may happen in your body and you may feel that you're not in control or you're out of it. But as you become accustomed to God, as you become more deeply at home with God, prayer is something that happens from where you are. Theresa, with typical acidity and humour, describes her memory of the day when she decided she no longer wanted to be dead, the Feast of St Mary Magadalene in 1560 something, when she realised that some kind of breakthrough had occurred in her life of prayer which made is possible for her to say, 'It's here and now that I need God. 'It is in this body and in this place.' So when she speaks about walking with God among the pots and pans in the kitchen and she realises that the vocations of Mary and Martha are not quite as far away as she once thought; 'As this body, speaking, moving and acting, I am praying, and the journey has been back to that starting point here in the present moment.' And that too, I suggest, is part of the story that theology tells and which a theology of health, in particular, will bring to the fore.
So in this brief reflection I've tried to express the sense that I have of the work that's been done at Holy Rood, which goes on being done, and how it asks questions, both of what we think of health and what we think of theology. It asks questions of a view of health that is narrowly functional, it asks questions of a view of healing that is simply about making things better for individuals. It is in that sense very closely bound up with the theological content of this Church of England report which I've mentioned once or twice. The work done here makes those connections which I've mentioned with the arts, with therapy, with the labour for justice and, in so doing, puts the question to theology itself; is theology a story of healing, in what sense can theology be re-imagined as a story about how peace is made between flesh and spirit, a story of how God's inhabiting of the world in creation, redemption and sanctification bridges that gulf which opens up when we're not looking between flesh and spirit?. It's often quoted, and I make no apology for quoting it again, the Russian theologian, Vladimir Lossky, said, 'What do you say if you're asked what the Holy Spirit looks like?' His reply was, 'You look at holy people.' That's to say, you look at inhabited faces, faces that have stopped being flesh in that negative sense in with which we began, the untenanted, the empty space where relation doesn't happen, the spark doesn't kindle, where there is a kind of deadness and a kind of isolation which makes us less than human.
God has made us to live as material beings in a material world and has made us, therefore, as creatures who have to learn how to live in our world. Because we have intelligence and love and imagination, our living in our environment is a story, not just a given fact. A story of our salvation is the story of that learning and that teaching by the God who brings the very divine life itself to inhabit our world, to touch, to heal, to promise and to transfigure. So, with, I hope all of you here, I want to wish every blessing in the years to come for Holy Rood House and for that work which our church (not just the Anglican Church) needs desperately to recover. A sense that the Gospel is about healing, about telling effectively, powerfully, transformingly the story of how God inhabits this world, telling it in words and thoughts and theology, telling it also in what we do in our work for justice, in our arts, in our care and our pastoring. Remembering that one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith is that we only learn to live in heaven in the presence of our maker, saviour and lover when we learn to live on earth in the here and now, inhabiting the space in which God has placed us.