The longing for happiness, deeply rooted in the human heart, has always been accompanied by a desire to be free from illness and to be able to understand the meaning of sickness when it is experienced. – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Instruction on Prayers for Healing
In every heart there is a longing for happiness. In the pastoral care of the sick and dying it is common to encounter this longing in an unadulterated way. In a hospital it is common to witness myriad forms of physical, mental-emotional, moral, and spiritual suffering.
It is not uncommon for people, whether patients or family of patients, to desire prayers for healing. More often than not the type of healing that is desired, insofar as it is expressed, is physical – they desire the reversal of the physical symptoms of illness and the restoration of physical health. It is much less frequent that a patient seeks out prayer for healing of the soul – even if this may often be what is more deeply desired.
In my work in the pastoral care of the sick and dying at a local hospital I often find myself in an awkward position: patients who are very sick call pastoral care so that a hospital chaplain may come and pray for healing over them. I know from experience that a miracle is very rare, and I don’t seem to have the gift of that type of healing. I have never on one occasion witnessed anything that resembled a supernatural healing. But I also want to honor the desire to have prayers for physical healing and never would want to shut the door on the possibility that God could and would grant a request such as this if it were his will.
In the document quoted at the beginning of this article, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “sickness, like other forms of human suffering, is a privileged moment for prayer, whether asking for grace, or for the ability to accept sickness in a spirit of faith and conformity to God’s will, or also for asking for healing.”
It is so true that it is in the experience of suffering, and especially sickness, there is a privileged moment for prayer. Recognizing this means recognizing also that prayer ought to glorify God, and it ought to be experienced as saving and sanctifying. Discerning how to pray with and for someone who desires a miraculous physical healing then requires an ability to pray from within the communion of Catholic faith, guarding against the temptation to give an impression that prayer is a type of magic that will change nature according to the will of man.
The Christian faith teaches us this truth: that we are ultimately called to joy, yet examples of suffering abound. Our desire to be delivered from suffering is because suffering, including physical illness and death, is truly an evil, it goes against a correct intuition that we have that life is meant for more than the absence of life, and health points to something greater than its own deterioration.
In the New Testament healing characterized the public activity of Jesus and healing manifested his messianic mission. Healing in the New Testament demonstrates that Jesus possesses a power that belongs to God alone. This power to heal is passed on through the apostles and transferred by the laying on of hands on the sick. The preaching of Philip and of the Apostle Paul were accompanied by manifestations of the power of God, including miracles of healing.
Yet, then Cardinal Ratzinger writes this important point, “the messianic victory over sickness, as over other human sufferings, does not happen only by its elimination through miraculous healing, but also through the voluntary and innocent sufferings of Christ in his passion, which gives every person the ability to unite himself to the sufferings of the Lord… In bringing about redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of redemption. Thus each man in his suffering can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
There is no route around suffering and death, even if a supernatural healing is granted, it is temporary, meaning that the same person who experiences a miracle of healing will still eventually suffer and die. If this is true then, we must recognize that as Christians we are are invited to participate in the redemptive reality that St. Paul speaks of when he proclaims that, “In my flesh I complete was is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” The disciple who is called to pray with those who are in the midst of illness and dying must not shy away from the reality of suffering and death, and the opportunity they behold for offering the body as a living sacrifice and participating in the atoning sacrifice of Christ for something greater – for the body of Christ. Suffering and death is no longer an individual, isolated reality but instead a reality that an individual experiences as opening outward into communion with God and others. Experienced through the lens of the Cross individual suffering takes on the meaning of self-gift for others, self surrender for the sake of the Body of Christ, united to its head, participating in the one sacrifice of Christ with the entire person. Suffering isn’t removed for the Christian, but its meaning is changed by the gifts of faith, hope, and love. Perhaps the greatest gift we can foster in a person then are these theological virtues. With these virtues a person then is surrendered to God’s will, whether there is a miracle or not, it matters less, what is important is where my faith, hope, and love are placed.
It would be clear then that a type of prayer for healing that didn’t build up faith, hope, and love, ultimately, wouldn’t be Christian, and could be a flight from the Gospel.
This concludes part 1 of my reflection on prayers for healing.