The strange conflicts of the modern period have nurtured a sort of bifurcation (at all times and not just in our present trials). I have written regarding mental health issues any number of times, always encouraging people to include medical intervention among their therapies. We are not a “ghost in the machine” a “soul inhabiting a body.” Whatever we are, we are one thing. The separation of the soul from the body at death is tragic and creates a situation that is not at all normal. The soul is not “naturally” immortal – but is sustained in its existence solely by the will of God. When we speak of its “immortality” it is this good gift of God we have in mind rather than an independent property of the soul itself.
We seem not to have read the Scriptures (particularly those not in the Protestant Bible). There is a very ancient and clear understanding to be found in the 38th chapter of Sirach. I share the whole chapter here as well as a few additional comments:
Honor the physician with the honor due him,
And also according to your need of him, For the Lord created him.
Healing comes from the Most High,
And he will receive a gift from the king.
The physician’s skill will lift up his head,
And he shall be admired in the presence of the great.
The Lord created medicines from the earth,
And a sensible man will not loathe them.
Is not water made sweet by wood
That its strength might be known?
And He gave skill to men
That He might be glorified in His wonders.
By them He heals and takes away pain,
A druggist making a compound of them.
God’s works are never finished,
And from Him health is upon the face of the earth.
My son, do not be negligent when you are sick,
But pray to the Lord and He will heal you.
Depart from transgression and direct your hands aright,
And cleanse your heart from every sin.
Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice and a memorial of the finest wheat flour;
And pour oil on your offering, as if you are soon to die.
And keep in touch with your physician,
For the Lord created him;
And do not let him leave you,
For you need him.
There is a time when success is also in their hands,
For they will pray to the Lord
To give them success in bringing relief and healing,
For the sake of preserving your life.
He who sins before the One who made him,
May he fall into the hands of a physician.
I can only think of how many errors might have been avoided over the years had this passage of Scripture been part of the reading of pious Christians. It has a balance that is timeless!
The great danger and temptation of secularism (modernity’s greatest invention) is to lay claim to certain areas and domains of the world as a “neutral zone” – something self-existing that has nothing to do with God. This is patently untrue and represents an act of theft. This has particularly been a dangerous assertion regarding science and medicine. These things are the gift of God.
This gift has a very deep history as part and parcel of faith. Even the ancient pagans saw the practice of medicine as a “theological” activity. St. Luke, the companion of St. Paul, was known as the “beloved physician.” St. Paul himself dispensed medical advice to St. Timothy (which, incidentally, involved using a bit of wine rather than just water).
If the world is truly a “one-storey universe” – then all these things belong to God and are only rightly seen and understood in His light. The human body is a temple. Heaven and earth are full of His glory. Though our altars have a special significance and a rightful place in the sacramental life of the Church, they are not islands of holiness in a sea of secularity. The altar of God is first, and foremost, in the heart, and can be found everywhere at all times. We don’t therefore destroy the altars of the Church, nor neglect them, but we go to them that we might go to the altar of God elsewhere as well.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, noted the danger in what some call “thing-ification” – to make the sacraments into a “holy thing” in a manner that excludes alll other things from being holy. He taught repeatedly and clearly that sacraments reveal things to be what they truly are rather than making them into something they are not.
I’ve known so many doctors and nurses over the years. In this part of the country, most of them are believers and Christians of some sort. I have had a doctor initiate and lead the prayers for my dead child as I stood by my wife’s bed during a still-born delivery.
I will close with a story shared to me by one of those doctors. Years ago, he had the difficult duty of telling the parents of a young boy that their son was not expected to live. His condition had deteriorated too far. Somewhat carefully, he asked them if they had a minister. They said they did not. He asked if he could ask one of the priests from his church to visit them. They allowed it.
The man he sent was Fr. William Pollard. He was a scientist, founder of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and one of the leading physicists of his day. He was also an Episcopal priest. In his lifetime, he received some 19 honorary doctorates for his work in faith and science. (I recently found a book of essays in which his work appeared alongside that of Fr. Georges Florovsky).
Fr. Pollard came, visited with the family, and anointed the boy.
Late in the night, my doctor friend received a call concerning the boy. He was so tired he didn’t pay attention. He simply got up and went to the hospital, expecting that he was going there to inform the parents of the child’s death. Instead, when he got there, he discovered that the boy had completely recovered.
He said to me, many years after that event, “There is no way known to medical science for that boy to have lived, much less to have had such a complete recovery in so short a time.”
That sort of story is only one of many stories of faith I have heard in the years of my ministry. I have always found myself welcomed by doctors and nurses. When I first came to Oak Ridge, I had the privilege of meeting Fr. Pollard, who was dying of cancer at the time. Six weeks after I came, I buried him. May his memory be eternal.
God be with our medical professionals and the whole of their heroic staffs during this time of trial!