Rod Dreher

More from that Krista Tippett interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland I blogged about yesterday — an excerpt from a Nuland book:

Always, the purpose of treatment is only to restore nature’s balance against disease. There is no recovery unless it comes from the force and fiber of one’s own tissues. The physician’s role is to be the cornerman — stitch up the lacerations, apply the soothing balm, encourage the use of the fighter’s specific abilities, say all the right things to encourage the flagging strength of the real combatant, the pummeled body. As doctors, we do our best when we remove the obstacles to healing and encourage organs and cells to use their own nature-given power to overcome. We have always known this. Every system of so-called primitive medicine I have ever encountered views disease as the imbalance of certain factors whose proper interrelationships must be reestablished if recovery is to take place.
… I have spent the adult years of my life being nature’s cornerman. I have provided it with whatever boost was needed, cheered it on, and felt the exhilaration of watching its formidable powers wheel into action once I have helped remove the impediments. An inflamed organ is excised, an obstruction is bypassed, excessive hormone levels are reduced, a cancerous region is swept clean of tumor-bearing tissue — and the wrongs are redressed, thus allowing cells and tissues to take over the process of reconstituting equilibrium. Surgeons are no more than agents of the process by which an offending force may be sufficiently held at bay to aid nature in its inherent tendency to restore health. For me, surgery has been the distilled essence of W.H. Auden’s perceptive précis of all medicine: ‘Healing,’ said the poet, ‘is not a science but the intuitive art of wooing nature.’

The idea of healing as a restoration of harmony is a powerful and important one — and even more central to Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which disease is seen as coming from and exemplifying disharmony within the human organism and its environment. But this is not only disharmony in the body, but disharmony in the mind/spirit. It seems to me that the role of the healer has to be not only restoring the body, when possible, but also restoring the mind and spirit. It simply isn’t possible for any doctor, no matter how gifted, to always and everywhere restore the body. We are mortal creatures, after all. But a true healer should take a more holistic view of his role, working to achieve harmony by reconciling the patient’s mind/spirit to the reality of his condition.
Last year, I blogged here about Henry McGrath, an Orthodox Christian practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine based in Bristol, UK, and how TCM’s view of the connection between mind and body is in line with Orthodox Christian anthropology. Read this essay of Henry’s for some fascinating insights. In the West, when a physician cannot restore the body, it seems to me his primary role then becomes helping the patient to die well, by reconciling him with his condition and his social environment. In other words, to make him whole, even as he lay dying of an incurable illness (a fate none of us will escape; ultimately the illness is mortality). Dr. Nuland’s insights suggest a fruitful area of dialogue between conventional medicine, TCM and religion.
I must say that as a relatively new Orthodox Christian, I have been greatly helped by the fundamentally different way Orthodoxy views the fallen human condition, and salvation. For the Orthodox, the model is medical, not legal. Salvation is not a matter of making sure your legal papers are in order when you get to the afterlife. Salvation begins now, with the regeneration of the person’s soul. Sin is like a sickness from which we can and must recover — and the healing/regeneration process lasts a lifetime. We heal ourselves by prayer, reception of the Sacraments, fasting, repentance, and so forth. These are like spiritual medicine, or therapeutic exercises that move us along to the restoration of the prelapsarian harmony that humanity once enjoyed. Which is to say, they move us along to sanctity. The saints may be thought of those who, in this life, achieved the greatest possible restoration of health and harmony.
This morning I didn’t say my prayers. I don’t think God is mad at me for that, as I once might have done. But I do believe that this was the spiritual equivalent of forgetting to take my medicine — and that this will set me back, however slightly, in my efforts to be a spiritual version of what Dr. Nuland described as “nature’s cornerman” — that is, to overcome everything within myself that stands in the way of the working of the Holy Spirit to heal all that is broken within me.
This is all playing into how I see my sister Ruthie’s struggle with stage four cancer. Paradoxically, her suffering is causing spiritual healing within me and within others, and the healing of broken family bonds, as well (if testimony in these various comboxes is to be believed) as encouragement to people who have fallen out of harmony with God and His will. We cannot fully know how all this works in the divine economy, but we can observe it and participate in the mystery. I struggle to deal with the prospect that in some inscrutable way, God is bringing about harmony and healing of souls through the radical disharmony of my sister’s cancer. And that her ultimate healing — beyond the healing of her body, for which we all pray — will depend on her being fully reconciled to serene faith that God’s hand is in whatever happens, and that He will bring good out of it.
When I was praying in anguish in her house the other night, I suddenly became aware of — well, not of a presence, exactly, but of an understanding that seemed to exist extrinsically (this is hard to put into words), and which had the properties of coolness, tranquility and solidity, as if it were polished marble. I was heated and passionate in my prayers, begging for my sister’s life, but that disappeared suddenly in the face of this awareness. And what I understood was that God is in this, and all will be well. I’m not saying I was given to understand that my sister will conquer this cancer; I am simply saying that I was told, or believe I was told, to have no fear, that what is unfolding is part of the Plan.
I can’t go any further than that, because I don’t know what to say. But I will tell you that I felt reconciled to the awful events happening now, and began to add to my prayers for Ruthie’s full recovery prayers for the graces to endure with faith, hope and courage what is to come — first for my sister, and then for everyone who loves her. This is part of our healing too, in the sense of moving toward harmony with Christ the Eternal Tao, which is one way to look at the Christian life (see C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” for a somewhat similar exploration of the theme of the soul’s purification and reconciliation with the Light through suffering.)
Incidentally, if you want to send my sister a message, I see that Ruthie Dreher Leming has a Facebook page. She’s apparently about as active on her FB page as I am on mine, which is to say, hardly at all. Yet I’ve asked her to start posting updates on her condition there, so everyone praying for her and hoping for her can know exactly what’s going on.

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