Saturday, April 03, 2010

April 3, 2010 - When All You Have Left Is Yourself

Today I’m reading an unusual article in Cure magazine online, "Keeping the Faith," by Kathy Latour. What’s unusual about it is that it deals with the topic of cancer and spirituality with attention to spiritual community.

I find that refreshing, because there’s lots of talk about a sort of generic spirituality when it comes to cancer survivorship. “If it makes you feel good, do it” is the all-purpose mantra. The problem with this sort of approach is that it ends up being a do-it-yourself activity, like trimming your nose-hairs or working out with a Thighmaster.

I think this individualism comes out of good old American separation-of-church-and-state thinking – something I’m in favor of when it comes to politics, but which is woefully inadequate in all but the most superficial discussions of religious faith. Take that line of thinking to its extreme, and you’ll end up like poor old President Eisenhower – who supposedly let himself be quoted saying: “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Some presidential scholars insist that’s an apocryphal remark, and it may well be – but, it catches the spirit of the age. (Eisenhower was a Presbyterian, by the way – though, if he really said that, I suppose he missed Sunday School the day they were teaching Calvin’s high conception of the church.)

In cancer support groups, “guided meditations” abound – those stress-relieving exercises that begin: “Close your eyes, pay attention to your breathing, and imagine yourself walking across a grassy field...”

Now, I can understand the appeal of that approach, to those who arrange chairs in a circle for their cancer-and-spirituality workshops. You can be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew or South Sea Islands cargo cultist, and still get something out of a guided meditation exercise. Whether the glowing figure walking towards you across that grassy field is Jesus or the Bodhisattva Maitreya makes little difference, because it’s happening in your own, private mental world. No muss, no fuss, no cross-denominational misunderstandings. Everybody leaves happy.

Outside of houses of worship, spiritual support groups are often led by people without any strong (or strongly evident) religious affiliation – the “I’m spiritual but not religious” sort of person. You’d think hospitals and agencies would seek out seasoned religious professionals – nuns who work as spiritual directors, say, or Muslim teachers of Sufi prayer – as long as they’re committed to interfaith dialogue. But, no. Charitable-organization program directors aren’t known for sticking their necks out, so they smile beneficently on psychiatric social workers with no theological background who say, “I can do that,” or on generic “interfaith ministers” holding degrees from unaccredited seminaries (or, God forbid, even internet “ordinations”).

That’s why the article I’ve been reading is so refreshing. The author, Kathy Latour, interviews Harold G. Koenig, M.D., of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University – a prostate-cancer survivor himself – as he describes a discussion group he co-facilitated called “Engaging the Spirit.” It was a place “where cancer patients and survivors explored spiritual and faith questions as they traveled the cancer journey.” Knowing his group was composed of people from a variety of faith traditions, Harold began each discussion with a simple question: “How’s your spirit?”

OK, that’s a workable generic opening question, but Harold’s point is that the discussion need not remain in that level: “I learned from those who took part that no matter how someone defines his or her faith, in a group of cancer survivors there exists a common quest to understand existential questions about life and death.” When that quest is pursued through religious community, there comes an awareness that “God has a purpose for them and is in control and they don’t have to be. This is where mental health comes from.” Such a strongly-held conviction, the article continues, “frees them and reminds them that their illness can result in ‘something good.’”

From his own experience as a survivor, Harold upholds the value of “a belief system that frames your diagnosis in the context of your life and what you believe happens after life. If you have no framework to place that in, all you have left is yourself and it isn't enough. You can't carry the full load – you weren't meant to.”

A great many recent research studies of spirituality and health, Harold maintains, conclude that people who follow a particular faith tradition “need and use fewer health care services because they are healthier, more likely to have intact families to care for them, and have greater social support.”

The Rev. Isabel Docampo, associate professor of supervised ministry at Perkins School of Theology, “says her fear and depression after facing surgery for life-threatening cancer of the salivary gland came not from a crisis of faith, but from the pain and sadness that she felt from the idea she might leave her 21-year-old son, Ben, and her husband of 18 months, Scott Somers, also an ordained minister.”

“The way I have always looked at life is that it is what it is,” Isabel reflects. “Life is a struggle and God has been there for all the blessings and all the bad stuff, and God is going to be here for the cancer.”

Amen to that.

I wouldn’t want to face cancer knowing that “all I have left is myself” – nor some individualized spirituality I’d made up out of whole cloth, either. One of the great strengths of submitting oneself to the discipline of a particular religious tradition is knowing it’s not all about me, nor will it ever be so.

Now, on to my Easter sermon...

2 comments:

Robin said...

I can affirm your post, with a caveat. I have the nagging concern that statistics such as "'A great many recent research studies of spirituality and health . . . conclude that people who follow a particular faith tradition “'need and use fewer health care services because they are healthier, more likely to have intact families to care for them, and have greater social support'” might reinforce the old old prejudice that sin has caused an illness or disability. The modifier, "more likely", will be overlooked by folk who wish to hang their hat on the medical/health version of the "Prosperity Gospel" or who cling to Judeo-Christian beliefs that ignore John 9.* And, of course, I also have to add that there's guilt enough for divorced persons without their thinking that their divorce has contributed to ill-health. In fact, it may have done just the opposite -- in any case, I'd see it as a split-decision.

*You KNOW I love the response to "If you prayed hard enough you'd be healed," that goes like this: "If YOU prayed hard enough FOR me, I'd be healed!" ;)

Back to those Easter sermons . . .
Robin

Robin said...

Nevertheless, “God has a purpose for them and is in control and they don’t have to be. This is where mental health comes from.” Such a strongly-held conviction, the article continues, “frees them and reminds them that their illness can result in ‘something good.’” ended up in my Easter sermon as an example of resurrection!