Healing and the Holy Spirit

Have you ever heard testimonies from fellow Christians about powerful healing experiences and secretly doubted or judged them? Or have you perhaps felt threatened by or resentful of the joy and freedom they seem to possess? I admit that I have!

For every person who has a powerful healing story there are dozens of others who have been reaching out for years and (it seems) experiencing no answer. Whether we have a physical ailment, anxiety and depression, a repeated sinful habit, an addiction, or relationship struggles, we can find ourselves suffering painfully for many years.

Reaching out and not being attuned to, not being heard, or not being cared for is one of the most painful human experiences. It can feel far safer to close ourselves off, to believe that healing doesn’t really happen, or to claim that it happened “back then” with Jesus but no longer happens today.

It doesn’t help that plenty of us Christians are prone to exaggerate or embellish, to draw attention to ourselves, or to avoid facing our brokenness by hiding behind a healing story. Even when real healing has happened, it can be tempting to tell a glamorous healing story that turns a blind eye to our ongoing struggles and avoids facing the toilsome work still ahead.

Isn’t it fascinating that sometimes God works powerful graces so swiftly and suddenly, and other times he seems to keep us waiting for SO long?

Lurking in the background here is perhaps the greatest theological mystery, namely, the interplay between God’s omnipotence and our human freedom. He is the all-powerful God AND he always honors the freedom he has given us. This means that the Holy Spirit works with amazing swiftness, but always in a way that respects and honors our human dignity, our desires, our receptivity, our readiness, and our freedom to choose.

Ambrose of Milan comments on this swiftness of the Holy Spirit, reflecting on Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and declares her to be full of grace. He invites her to say “yes” and become the mother of Jesus. She freely and wholeheartedly surrenders. Immediately God’s eternal Word becomes flesh in her womb, as the Holy Spirit rushes upon her in a new and special way. The result? She sets out in haste to the hill country. In the words of Ambrose, “Filled with God, where would she hasten but to the heights? The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts.”

The Holy Spirit acts with utmost swiftness. Whether impregnating the Virgin Mary, forgiving the sins of the Apostles on Easter Sunday, exorcising demons, healing the sick, or raising the dead, the Holy Spirit needs no time.

It is we who often need time. And God honors us in that need!

I know for myself that my “yes” to God’s invitation, my surrender to him, seems to come with strings attached. I have experienced many grace-filled moments in which I have given everything to him. Yet I keep discovering that I have secretly crossed my fingers behind my back. Somehow I have maintained a contingency plan, withholding some small parcel for myself just in case he doesn’t come through for me. It reminds me so much of the scene in Lord of the Rings in which Bilbo Baggins is called upon to surrender the highly corrupting Ring of Power, passing it to his nephew Frodo. Bilbo agrees and then gets up to leave the house – only to be confronted by the wizard Gandalf with the words, “You have still got the ring in your pocket.”

Like Bilbo, I can so often respond, “Well, so I have.”

And God waits – not with disdain or disappointment, but with eternal kindness and patience. He desires me to desire him. As a loving Father, he patiently watches me grow, without jumping in or coercing.

Receptivity in freedom is not a “one and done.” Even for Jesus and Mary, who were so utterly receptive to the Father’s will, so totally open to being led by the Holy Spirit, receiving was an ongoing reality. Mary was already “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) when she said yes to God – receiving ever greater blessings. She pondered God’s mysteries in her heart as she kept growing in her wisdom and understanding (Luke 2:19, 51). Luke twice tells us that Jesus himself grew in wisdom and in grace (Luke 2:40, 52).

To be truly human is to grow our whole life long. Our human existence is dynamic, not static. We are freely invited by God to become who we are. We are created in God’s own image and likeness, and called to receive love freely and give love freely as we grow in communion with God and each other. We are intended to love and be loved with ever greater depth and fullness and fruitfulness.

Desire and receptivity are key concepts here. We all have holy desires, sown in us by God the Father, who is always drawing us to himself (John 6:44) – often in undetected ways, but always in a manner that honors our freedom to say yes or no.

As we well know, our good and holy desires often get twisted and tangled up. Augustine of Hippo beautifully described the experience in his Confessions. In our unloveliness we plunge ourselves into the lovely things God has created – things which cannot even exist without him. We run far from him even though he is never far from us. And ever he pursues us, ever he invites us to open up and receive.

Desire stretches our hearts. The more we receive and truly experience the living God, the more we thirst for him. Thirst for God is quite possibly the most painful human experience of all – and the one that keeps enticing us to stretch out our hearts in receptivity. The more we willingly thirst, the more we can receive him, and the more the Holy Spirit is then unleashed to rush upon us, to flood us, to possess us, and to lead us in haste to give freely and sacrificially to others.

God alone knows all the reasons why healing does or doesn’t happen in any particular case. In some cases, we may never know in this lifetime. Often, however, what feels like a delay to us is actually a deep honoring of our desires, our receptivity, and our freedom. I believe that the single hardest human thing for many of us is to open up and receive. It is so hard to do what the Virgin Mary did in her fiat – to receive love vulnerably, freely, and wholeheartedly, setting down all our well-crafted defenses, permitting God and others to be and to stay intimately close.

Quite often, we find ourselves in a bind. One part of us deeply aches for connectedness and communion. We ache more than anything else for someone to draw near, to see us, to hear us, to be intimately close to us. And then when a good and trustworthy person actually does that, we freak out and sabotage! I am astounded at the lightning speed with which my defenses engage in situations like this.

The great spiritual question is the question Jesus asked at the pool of Bethesda to the man who had been crippled for 38 years: “Do you desire to be well?” Of course we do! All of us desire to be well, to love and to be loved. God created us for these things and planted these desires in us. But many of us are also chained by our pride and self-reliance, our hiding and self-protection. We need Jesus to break those chains by the power of the Holy Spirit. He will eagerly do so, and with even greater swiftness that our defensive reactions – if and when we deeply desire it. Some of us need many years to grow in those desires and reach a point where the strength of our desire is greater than the strength of our defenses. The Holy Spirit will never force himself – but thankfully he only needs a tiny crack to enter. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough.

Many of us may need a long time and much breaking up of the hard soil before we are receptively willing to permit the Holy Spirit to act upon us and possess us. Likewise, after powerful moments of healing, the real work is only just beginning. Whether the healing received is physical, emotional, or spiritual (with spiritual healing always being the most important and most amazing), we are then invited in freedom to grow and mature and bear fruit. Only Jesus, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, can liberate us. He breaks our chains, rolls away the stone that is blocking our self-created tomb, calls out forth, unbinds us and pulls off the masks that have obscured our vision. Once these obstacles are removed, his desire is for us to keep growing in our desires, to keep receiving and giving, and to bear fruit. He wants us to be true sharers in his love, his freedom, and his dignity. We are not robots of puppets. We are no longer slaves but are led by the Holy Spirit to live in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Conversations about faith and good works so easily get sidetracked if we don’t look at them in terms of Love. From start to finish, it is all God’s work – starting with the very desires themselves that he sows in us, continuing with the period of preparation (as long as it takes) for receiving the gift, rushing ahead in powerful moments of healing and grace, sprouting forth with new life, proceeding with everyday moments of patient and laborious growth, and culiminating with superabundant fruitfulness. From start to finish, God honors our dignity and freedom, inviting us freely to grow and mature and bear fruit in love, as we become who we are.

Images of Accompaniment

I dream of the day when each parish church will be a family in which everyone is receiving accompaniment and giving accompaniment. On that day, we will all be humble and vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to receive what we need, and will be thoughtful and generous enough to give accompaniment to others that God sends to us. On that day, it won’t just be the priests or the same couple of leaders in parish life trying to do the accompanying, but everyone, each according to his own calling and gifts. All will be accompanied and all will accompany.

There are various images that come to my heart when I think of this accompaniment: sharing bread, playing music, dancing, mentoring, coaching, walking along the path, sitting down next to someone, cultivating a garden, and mothering.

Accompaniment, at its best, is a committed relationship in which one is receiving the things he needs. Our needs are various: fellowship, listening, empathy, encouragement, affirmation, care, comfort, accountability, teaching, nurturing, guidance, and much more.

The first image that comes to mind is sharing bread together. That is literally what “accompany” means. Think of all the meals shared by Jesus and his twelve apostles – those to whom he provided consistent accompaniment, day in and day out. In the best meal experiences, all participants truly feel a sense of connection and belonging. In that spirit of openness, hearts are changed. We receive not only physical nourishment but a sense of community and belonging and purpose. Historically, those who share bread together were also those who walked the path together. They were part of a company travelling together, “companions” on a journey. Certainly our walk towards eternal life is a long journey, and we need companions.

Another image of “accompaniment” involves music. A musical accompanist is not the main attraction. Rather, his role is to be almost unnoticed in the background, boosting the confidence of the main performer(s). When the soloist or choir members make mistakes, the accompanist adjusts, helping them regain their composure and their rhythm. There is much more to accompanying than simply hitting the right notes – it’s a wonderful art of being interconnected with others and bringing out the best in them.

A related image of accompaniment is teaching someone to dance, or dancing with someone. I must say, this has NOT been a strong point for me. I think back to Homecoming my Junior year. My skills on the dance floor were duly noted by the football coach. He really enjoyed himself at the next practice, teasing me and another football player named “Bubba.” Something to the effect of filming a documentary entitled, “White Men Can’t Dance.” Anyway, those of you who love dancing know some of the skills needed – an intimate connection with your dancing partner, an overcoming of inhibitions, a willingness to make mistakes and adjust, attuning to each other and to the music, etc.

My football coach certainly knew how to tease, but we also revered him. He was an excellent mentor and coach.  He knew how to give both criticism and praise, and had our undivided attention. He motivated us beyond what we originally thought was possible. I am still deeply grateful for the incredible discipline that our conditioning drills instilled in me. My internal “smoke alarm”goes off so frequently and so falsely, warning me that something is too much for me. Occasionally it’s right, but so often it’s wrong – I can actually handle it. Coaches are so good at helping us learn those lessons. Think of how many teens look up to their coaches. I encourage you to ask yourself – what would the equivalent look like in parish life?

One of my favorite images is sitting down next to someone. This image is especially helpful in those many moments of life when the shields of self-protection are up in full force. Most of us resist accompaniment, especially when we are feeling afraid or ashamed. When someone sits down next to us in a non-threatening way, it says so many things. It says, “I see you.” I see that you are hurting and afraid. I see that you feel ashamed, so I won’t look at you too forcefully or directly. It says, “I’m with you.” I am willing to sit on this dung heap with you and be sad with you. I’m not any better than you and I’m not trying to avoid your mess. It says, “You’re safe” – I won’t try to meddle and fix this. I’m just here at your side. If you want me to leave, I’ll go. If you want me to draw closer, I’ll draw closer. I respect you and your freedom. I notice you; I care about you; I am here for you.

Still another image is cultivating a garden. It’s a wonderful image because it involves both a consistent commitment AND incredible patience. On the one hand, the best gardeners show a marvelous awareness of what is affecting their plants: the soil, the water, the sun, the weeds, and unwanted pests. They vigilantly and diligently intervene to allow their crops to grow and flourish. On the other hand, they wisely understand that so much is out of their control, that growth is slow, and that they themselves do not provide any of it – not the seed, nor the plant, nor the growth, nor the fruit. They resist the urge to pull up the plant and check on its status.

Finally, and above all else, when I think of accompaniment in Church life, I think of motherhood. The Church is our Mother. Each of us, in our own way, shares in that mission of “mothering” others within the life of the Church. Jesus says that those who do his will become brother and sister and mother to him. New members come to birth and grow in His Church when we are willing to accompany. I’ll share more next time!