Ever since Pope John Paul II declared a special day every year to remember the sick and to pray for them, the World Day of the Sick has reminded Catholics to make healing an important part of their lives.
The pope chose Feb. 11, The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, for this purpose. For more than a hundred years, the miraculous waters of Lourdes have restored millions to good health and revitalized their faith. Therefore, it is a good occasion to reflect on what illness and wellness mean in our modern world.
Illness has been with us since time immemorial, a constant reminder of the frailty of our human condition. Ill health also threatens our hubris, the conceit that we are in total control of our fate.
Traditionally, illness has meant physical indisposition, the maladjustment of our bodies to our natural environment and infections from insalubrious surroundings, such as air (malaria, tuberculosis), water (cholera) or a sudden proliferation of life-threatening insects or animals (plague). Fortunately, modern scientific progress has managed to bring many such threats under control through public hygiene and immunization programs but the threat to a healthy life remains.
Illness is more than just the body falling sick. Often, it is the mind that breaks down; our fears today are more of an ailing mind than an infirm body. The mind too must adjust to the artificial environment — the omnipresent technosphere — which we have created for ourselves. The frenzied pace of modern living brings in its wake depression and stress (heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and cancer), and lifestyles that promote excess rather than moderation or abstinence.
Even more, modern living is bereft of religious purpose and belief which has created a loss of meaning for many people who live as if God does not exist. Hence the rise in addictions and substance abuse, of violence inflicted upon self and others, of dementia and grave psychological disorders, even suicides.
It would not be incorrect to say that we live in a world radically and inescapably sick.
Illness comes in many shapes and guises, and we never quite seem to escape its clutches. It is not just that there are new strains of ancient diseases which defy the latest vaccine; there are also completely new kinds of diseases unknown before. They are the shadow side of our so-called developed lifestyle. They torpedo our sense of the good life with obesity, depression, diabetes and AIDS.
Is there then no cure for illness in this life? There is.
The message of Lourdes is to seek to be truly healed and do not merely seek relief from pain.
Jesus is the true healer. He never turned away the sick, no matter how imperfect their belief. And in restoring them to wholeness, Jesus also opened their hearts to the good news of salvation. He made them see that their fulfillment lay in God's plan. He led them to faith.
More and more, advocates of wellness urge us to "get back to nature," which is nothing more than to live in a web of relationships, physical, biological and spiritual. The myth of the Garden of Eden tells us that once upon a time human beings fractured this relationship of faith in nature, and ever since they have lived in disharmony, tension and violence.
To live in harmony with the natural rhythms of our bodies is to promote balance and energy, and the nourishment of our inner lives. Disciplines like yoga and tai-chi nurture the outer body, while meditation, pranayama and mindfulness channel the inner vision.
So much of modern civilization has been built on violence and waste, and it is has made us all sick. The sickness is a metaphor for our alienation from nature and God.
We cannot recover health, unless we turn back and rediscover God's original blue-print for our lives. This is what faith is. Rediscover faith so that illness turns into wellness and wholeness.
Health or wellness is not just about being free from external infection, but rather perceiving ourselves growing from within, the way we were always meant to. For we were always meant to live in relationship and faith.
For this we need to be freed of all our bondages — illnesses, addictions and neuroses — so that we can embrace God's word and live it fully. This is what healing does. Not just the sick body restored to health, it is the withered spirit renewed and put in a benign relationship with itself, others, nature, and with God. All healing leads to new faith.
We began by asking, what is illness? What is health? Simply put: illness is a metaphor for our brokenness, with ourselves and nature. Health and wellness means being restored again to our original nature. And the first step is to believe.
Father Myron J. Pereira SJ lives in Mumbai, where he is a writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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