Healing as Sacrament

The Sacraments in Healing

Chapter 7

In truth, in very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells continually in me and I dwell in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me shall live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven; and it is not like the bread which our fathers ate: they are dead, but whoever eats this bread shall live for ever.
(John 6:53-8)

Every object, indeed every event in our lives, is potentially a sacrament.It is an outward sign and portent of a spiritual reality, for, as Psalm 24 tells us, "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein". The creation, from the minutest crystal to the most majestic mountain peak, the simplest unicellular organism to man at his most godlike, is fully subject to the divine creative will, and is sustained and loved by God. We remember in this context Dame Julian of Norwich and her exquisite revelation:

Also in this he shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lastest and shall ever last for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God. In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second that God loveth it, the third that God keepeth it. (Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 5)

The divine essence is not foreign to the smallest creature, for the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of all life, infuses and sustains the entire universe. In this respect it is man's supreme privilege to know the Holy Spirit as a divine presence within his own soul and to co-operate with him in the resurrection of the world. What a marvellous creature the human being is in truth, bringing into creative union the physical and the spiritual by way of the psychical! He is God's collaborator in our world, when he works according to the priesthood bestowed on him. He acts perpetually as intercessor for the world to God, as did Moses on behalf of the recalcitrant Israelites or Jesus for those who had participated in his crucifixion. "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

This statement of Christ on the cross incriminates ignorance as the basic cause of much, if not all, evil. It is the antithesis of the sacramental universe. The intrinsic holiness of all matter, which we have already noted, depends on the human touch for its sanctity to be made manifest in the world. It is here that the priesthood of man, of the entire human stock, finds its apogee. Whatever is handled and used with reverence and love in the name of God is consecrated to his use and becomes an object of blessing. Without in any way ceasing to be itself with its own intrinsic properties, it also finds its ultimate meaning in the realm of eternity. Therefore any work done in devotion to God, from whom all life and healing proceed, and in love to our fellow creatures carries with it a divine blessing. It blesses alike the one who gives and the one who receives. In between the two, lies God the Holy Spirit. It follows that no work is intrinsically menial or noble: its quality depends on the attitude and awareness of the person who performs it. The ablution of a latrine or the cleaning of soiled bedclothes can be as close to God's service as is the act of consecration of the elements of the Eucharist by a priest or the composition of a great work by an inspired artist. The food that a housewife prepares in love for those she serves is no mean presage of the eternal food God gives unceasingly of himself for our sustenance and healing.

The holiness of matter was proclaimed finally and definitively when the Word became fully flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). That flesh was ultimately, after it had suffered the ignominy of betrayal, the pain of physical torture and the agony of psychic darkness, to be resurrected to full spiritual reality. It was to share in the very being of God as a presage of the time when matter itself will no longer be subject to the deterioration inherent in mortality and find instead its true place in the eternal life of God. And even now any physical object that is handled in love and blessed in the name of the Almighty, retains the benediction and can transfer the love to the person who receives it. On the level of personal relationships a gift can bring gladness to the heart out of all proportion to its intrinsic value if it is given in love. On the spiritual level the things of our world can proclaim the nature of their Creator when they are blessed in his name. While never ceasing to retain their own identity, they at the same time are lifted above the rut of common usage to participate in the very nature of eternal life. Thus when even two or three have met together in the name of Christ, he is there among them (Mat. 18:20). His presence blesses them and fulfils the prayers they utter.

When Adam and Eve reject the invitation to enjoy the perpetual fellowship of God by choosing wilfully to investigate the knowledge of good and evil on a purely rational level - a symbolic exaltation of themselves above the divine providence, which is now relegated to the background of their thoughts - they exclude themselves from paradise, the garden of Eden in the creation story. God says to Adam that, because of his own and his wife's disobedience, the very ground is accursed on their account. With labour alone they will from henceforth win their food from it all the days of their life, and it will grow thorns and thistles, nothing but wild plants for them to eat. They will gain their bread by the sweat of their brows until they too rejoin the ground - from it they were taken and to it they will return as dust (Gen. 3:17-19). The sacrament of purifying labour - symbolized in the sweat of the brow - sets in motion the sanctification of man's selfish predatory control over material life which is an inevitable fruit of a separative knowledge of good and evil. The good and evil that concerns unredeemed man has a purely selfish application: that which benefits him materially is identified as his good, while that which stands in his way is regarded as evil. In this very childish understanding of values, man's sight is limited by expediency in terms of time and egoism in terms of extent. The deeper understanding that ultimate good must include all creation, and that the present moment is a passing illusion when separated from its place in the whole of life is beyond the comprehension of the naked human intellect. The recurrent pain and disappointment, succeeded by the renewed hope embodied in physical labour, start the process of restoring the earth from the curse of corruption to the promise of resurrection.

The products of the earth can be epitomized in the bread of daily sustenance and the wine that restores the warmth of life after a day's heavy toil. In the totally unredeemed person's life these products of the earth are purely symbols of gluttony and debauchery: to eat and drink to one's physical satiety is the summation of purpose in life. St Paul would put it thus, "If the dead are never raised to life, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die". (1 Cor. 15:32), as he quotes bitingly a popular maxim. As the person grows in love, so the bread and wine of common life are symbols of hospitality; they are given to refresh and restore the stranger on the rugged path of daily toil. Finally, when they are consecrated to God they become the very essence of life, for now they are the body and blood of Christ himself. Thus we read, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:53-54), words that prefixed this chapter. Jesus also tells us that the Spirit alone gives life, and that the flesh is of no avail (John 6:63). It is the Holy Spirit infusing the substance of the world that makes it holy; this holiness is made real by the action of the human being when he consecrates himself and all he uses to God's glory and the service of his fellow creatures. In the instance of the manna provided for the Israelites during their journey across the desert to the Promised Land, Jesus tells the Jews that it was not Moses who gave the heavenly bread, but God who gives of himself perpetually for the love he bears his creatures. Jesus says he is the bread of life and that only those who come to him will never be hungry and those who believe in him will thirst no more (John 6:32-5). The work of Jesus, therefore, is of a very different order of being from that of the magician or psychic miracle-worker who changes stones to bread. This, in fact, was one of Jesus' temptations while he was in the wilderness. Had he obliged the devil on this occasion by producing such a phenomenon, he would simply have exhibited his psychic proficiency, and in the end he might easily have enslaved all those who submitted themselves to him in the guise of a remarkable miracle worker. The final master in such a transaction is the devil himself by contrast, the providence of Jesus in such a miracle as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is one of perpetual self-giving to the multitudes, who are like hungry sheep without a caring shepherd. Their hunger is not merely physical but much more urgently spiritual. The sacraments of the Church remind us that Christ has given unceasingly of himself for the creation of all the material of the world, and when it is blessed in his name, he is there among all who are assembled as well as in the physical object itself, which then bears a blessing that both heals and restores.

And so it comes about that the Eucharist is the principal healing sacrament of the Church. But it also reminds us that all we eat and drink have a sacramental quality when they are prepared, handled and consumed in reverence and thanksgiving. In Ezekiel's vision of the miraculous spring that issues from the precincts of the Temple and becomes a wide, flowing river, the banks are lined with trees bearing fruit of life-renewing power (Ezek. 47:1-12). In the account of the New Jerusalem that concludes the Book of Revelation, this vision is broadened to attain cosmic dimensions: "Then he showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city's street. On either side of the city stood a tree of life, which yields twelve crops of fruit, one for each month of the year; the leaves of the trees serve for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:1-2). In the consecrated world each living form becomes edible not only for physical sustenance but also for spiritual transformation.

The water of life starts as a cleansing material. When Jesus uses it to wash the feet of his disciples just before his own betrayal and death, he brings to that basic element of nature, so taken for granted, the qualities of humility, service and purification. When it is used in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, it is a symbol of death of the old personality and a resurrection of the soul into a new life, one indeed of intimate sharing of the life of Christ. "Have you forgotten that when we were baptised into union with Christ Jesus we were baptised into his death? By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life" (Rom. 6:3-4). In the old dispensation, the sea has an evil connotation - it also symbolizes the unconscious mind - so that in the new heaven and earth there is no longer any sea (Rev. 21:1). It has been lifted up and spiritualized, when all who have passed through the barrier of mortal death have entered into the new life in God. Baptism is the initial healing sacrament; it brings the person symbolically through death and isolation into the community of all believers. The work is continued in the healing elements of the Eucharist, and is completed in all the elements of the world which we handle, use and eat. Consecrated water brings a blessing on psychically disturbed premises once the invading entity has been sent on its way for its own healing. In the healing of Naaman the Syrian by Elisha, the word of God works through the medium of the cleansing waters of the Jordan; they carry the blessing that removes the disfiguring skin disease from the army commander once he attains sufficient humility to immerse himself in the river seven times. The cleansing function of the water opens and illuminates the soul of Naaman so that he now acknowledges the one true God. Herein lies an even deeper healing, of which the restored surface is an outer sign.

The other great healing sacrament, Holy Unction, the anointing of the sick person with consecrated oil, stems from the use of oil in anointing the head of a guest as a gesture of hospitality (Ps. 23:5). Oil is at once enriching, lubricating and of a soothing nature. Mixed with various spices, the oil of the olive was used in the solemn act of anointing priests and kings in the time of the Old Testament (Exod. 30:22-33). The sacrament of anointing makes the king or priest a holy person, the anointed of God, the Messiah in the case of a king (or the Christ, as it is translated in Greek). But oil has also been used to anoint the sick; until recently the rite was employed almost exclusively for a dying person and was called extreme unction, but nowadays it is widely used for those who are ill. "Is one of you ill? He should send for the elders of the congregation to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man; the Lord will raise him from his bed, and any sins he may have committed will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and then you will be healed" (Jas. 5:14-16). In this succinct, though remarkably comprehensive, advice St James summarizes the essential aspects of spiritual healing: prayer, anointing and confession with absolution. When a person is anointed in the name of the Lord, the oil transmits the holy benediction and brings about an inward change in the one who receives it. But first there should be, if possible, a time for counselling that ends with a confession and absolution, followed by a period of prayer together, before the anointing is performed. In the instance of a desperately ill person this sequence must necessarily be severely curtailed.

In the beautifully evocative Psalm 133 the intimate love of fraternal communion is compared with the oil of consecration poured liberally over Aaron's head and running over his face and vestments. It blesses, not only the great high priest, but also all who are united in the priesthood as symbolized by the vestments: it is the destiny of the children of Israel to become a nation of priests (Exod. 19:6). All human beings are meant ultimately to exercise the authority of priests before God in representing the natural world before him and elevating it for blessing before its final transfiguration. Oil mixed with costly spices was used by the woman who came to anoint Jesus' body just before his passion and death; it was her way of preparing him for burial (Mark 14:3-9). After the burial that same body was to be resurrected into full spiritual radiance; the oil too had played its humble part in the cosmic conflict ahead of the Master, his agony, death and final triumph. In a much diminished form all healing sacraments are to be seen in this light: even when they appear to fail in their immediate object of inducing a natural cure, they are preparing the victim for the next stage in his spiritual journey that ends in the vision of God.

In the sacramental approach to healing, a part of the minister's own body is added to the natural elements of the world. The elements of the Eucharist - the bread and the wine - are prepared by human hands from the time that the wheat is sown and reaped and the vine tended and harvested, up to the preparation of the final products: as we have seen, God decreed that man shall gain his bread by the sweat of his brow (Gen. 3:19). And then the Eucharist is prepared on the altar by the president, an act that culminates in the final consecration of the elements to be distributed. In some of Jesus' healing miracles he uses his own spittle as part of the sacrament: in the healing of the man born blind, for instance, Jesus spat on the ground and made a paste with the spittle, which he spread on the man's eyes. Then he ordered him to wash in the pool of Siloam. When the man had done this, he could see for the first time in his life (John 9:6-7), This episode bears a resemblance to the healing of Naaman's skin disease: the healing was initiated by the word of Elisha as communicated by his servant and completed by Naaman's sevenfold immersion in the waters of the Jordan. In the sacramental act of laying-on of hands the minister of healing gives of his very body to be used by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this respect the words of St Teresa of Avila are especially relevant. "Remember, Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which must look out Christ's compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."

Indeed, the physical body given in service is a mighty sacrament. Hands used to calm, comfort and restore a fellow creature who is bereft and terrified are involved as intimately in the work of healing as when they are employed in some conventionally religious act. The priest himself is a sacrament of Christ's universal presence when he pronounces the words of absolution. Many of us still unfortunately have an adverse attitude towards the body, due in large measure to the way mankind has abused it through neglect, gluttony and debauchery. The use of spittle offends our contemporary approach to hygiene, yet saliva is endowed with disinfectant properties. If our mouths were clean, the saliva would be fresh and healing in power; when our mouths are poorly cleansed, our breath soiled through smoking and alcohol, and our teeth rotten due to dietary indiscretion, then too does the spittle become offensive. Health is indivisible, permeating the entire personality from the soul to the body by way of the mind and the emotions. St Paul reminds us very forcibly that the body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God's gift to us. Indeed we do not belong to ourselves, for we were bought (by Christ, who redeemed us from the slavery of sin) at a price. We should therefore honour God in our body (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

But in fact the whole world is a sacrament; it is we in our obtuse self-centredness who avert our gaze from the transcendent splendour around us that also shows us the way to a knowledge of God. Jean-Pierre de Caussade in his spiritual classic Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence speaks near the beginning of the first section, on the virtue of self-abandonment, of the sacrament of the present moment. He considers, as an example, the external life of the Blessed Virgin which was on the surface very simple and ordinary. She did and experienced much the same things as did other people in her state of life at that particular time. Outwardly the events of her life after the birth of Jesus were little different from those which happen to everyone, but the interior invisible element that can be discerned by faith is nothing less than God himself performing these works. De Caussade sees in the bread of angels, the heavenly manna, the pearl of the Gospels, nothing but the sacrament of the present moment. God the Son is present in such lowly surroundings as the manger, the hay and the straw. Furthermore he was given not to the mighty but to the humble. "The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away" (Luke 1:53). God reveals himself to the humble in the humblest things, while the great of this world who never penetrate beneath the surface do not discover him even in great events.

The sacraments of the Church remind us of the holiness of all creation. God created them all and he saw that it was good, as the first chapter of the Genesis story puts it. The humbler creatures are given over to human dominion, and even the perverted will of the rational creature cannot entirely destroy the other forms of existence. It certainly defiles them, in so doing bringing suffering into the world, but the fruits of this very sinfulness are the means whereby the gradually enlightened will of man can begin to repair some of the damage he and his forebears have done. Once man returns to God in prayer, he can at last begin to heal the harmful effects of the past. Prayer makes possible the entry of the Holy Spirit as a conscious presence into the world of matter, which now can assume a sacramental form. When man is fully enlightened by the will of God - when his whole life is prayer - he will see the divine presence in each moment of time. The need for special sacraments will dissolve into the awareness of the sacramental nature of the world, and every moment will be glorified by the living God.

The greatest sacrament in the world of becoming is the Church, described as the mystical body of Christ, since the body of the risen Christ is to be the focus of worship in spirit and truth. In the final advent, symbolized as the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, there is to be no concrete church any longer: "I saw no temple in the city; for its temple was the sovereign Lord God and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22). Then, as is prophesied, the Lord shall be one Lord and his name the one name (Zech. 14:9). In our present world the sacraments of the Church are of the greatest value in reminding us of the holiness of even the simplest products of the soil when tended with human care and ingenuity. They bear a blessing that speaks of the divine providence resting over all creation, as the cloud covered the mountain when Moses received the stone tablets of the Law from God (Exod. 24:12-18). And this holiness is the essence of their healing properties: they can help to restore the creature to that goodness which was the initial result of God's creation. As we grow in spiritual vision, so God is never far from us, even when outer events appear to go very badly for us. The world is seen increasingly to be a sacrament of God's unfailing providence and self-giving love for His creatures. This does not mean that the sacraments of the Church become less important; this understanding in fact deepens their holiness, but at the same time brings the whole world into their orbit. It is our duty and privilege to heal the world - which has in the past suffered immeasurable hurt through the rapacious greed of the human species - and establish harmony and peace among all its creatures. As we bless the world in the name of God, and act that blessing in our daily lives, so the world assumes an increasingly sacramental quality, and in turn heals and purifies all who come into contact with it.

When we have departed from the world of matter at the time of our death, we will see the full sacramental nature of the universe. All that we have handled in love will return to us as a blessing, enabling us to continue the work of healing and restoration in the life beyond death as members, albeit little ones, of the Communion of Saints. God has taught us to see His divine Spirit in such common articles as water, wine, bread and oil. When we have been fully immersed in the sacramental reality of common life, then we will be able to sense the divine presence in all the circumstances of mortal existence. As St Paul says, "For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths - nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-9). Every circumstance in life no less than every article we encounter is a way towards healing once we are open to the full thrust of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, some experiences will seem on the surface to be a terrible misfortune and some articles to be frankly noxious. But even in these encounters a larger blessing lies concealed for those who proceed in faith and integrity of purpose. "Meanwhile, our eyes are fixed not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). The sacramental universe links the unseen to the seen, so that the visible may eventually move towards a full participation in eternity. Then there will be no sacraments, but simply one sacrament, a world at rest in God.

Chapter 8
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