Sermon: How Do People Heal?
HOW DO PEOPLE HEAL?
© Barbara F. Meyers 2004. All Rights Reserved.
and to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee on September 24, 2004
Sermon – How Do People Heal?
One Sunday morning during my internship in San Francisco, my husband Tom and I were walking to the church through the Tenderloin, the city’s poorest neighborhood. On one street we happened upon a woman I will call Frances, a street person who sometimes came to the Faithful Fools Street Ministry where I spent half of my time on my internship.
She was begging on the sidewalk. She recognized me right away and we smiled and said “Hi” to each other. Frances has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of mental hospitals and jails for years in San Francisco. She can carry on a conversation when no one is around and frequently mutters to herself, or to the voices that she hears in her head. Most people who encounter her ignore her or avoid her.
I felt a certain kinship with Frances because I, too, am living with a mental disorder. In fact, I first walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church shortly after being discharged from the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. What I found there helped me to heal from my emotional problems and enable me to live a life of stability and love.
Years later when I began studying at Starr King School for the ministry, I remember one talk given by Rebecca Parker, the president of the school to us students. She advised us to find questions that were central to our call to the ministry and to “live the questions.” Somehow I knew that these questions would be different from ones from my previous career as a software engineer, like: “Why does the computer always crash when you’re working on your final report?”
After some months at seminary, I discovered that I had been living with a question related to my intended community ministry focusing on issues of mental health. The question is: “How do people heal?” In my case, the kind of healing that I was reflecting on was healing from mental health problems.
Clearly healing is possible because I had seen it in others and experienced it myself. But, how did this come about? Knowing this, I felt, would be central to the ministry I was to undertake. I have immersed myself in living with this question and today I’ll tell you some of my conclusions.
But first, I want to get back to the story of meeting Frances that Sunday morning because it illustrates the kind of healing I’m talking about.
Frances wanted to talk to me that morning about an experience that she had recently had saying a confession to a Roman Catholic priest. She had gone to confession and told the priest that she was in despair and didn’t know what to do. The priest told her, “God never despairs of reaching you because He loves you.”
She said that this simple assurance that God loved her was worth all of the psychiatric medications, hospitalizations, people sticking her with needles, police harassing and jailing her because of her mental illness, social workers who lost patience and yelled at her, and psychiatrists and therapists who didn’t understand her.
She said most psychiatrists and doctors didn’t know anything about religion and how important it can be to people.
Here is someone with none of the advantages that I have for dealing with a mental disorder: no close loving family, no home, no insurance, poor physical health, no education, no vocation, very limited finances, a mental disorder which was very difficult to treat, and a society that basically kicks her around.
Yet, in spite of it all, this precious Child of God still wakes up each day, and tries her very best to meet the day and find meaning in her life.
And, she was now was telling me that God can do miracles because knowing that God loved her had made her feel so good. In the medical sense she wasn’t “cured” and probably never will be because she still has symptoms of schizophrenia, but in an important sense, she was healed. This kind of healing brings one a sense of inner freedom, joy, compassion and spontaneity.
I told my husband, that it didn’t matter what was said in church because I had just heard my sermon for the day.
To others, Frances may have looked like a worthless bum sitting on the street that Sunday morning, yet as tears filled my eyes, I saw her as she was: a person of inherent worth who had just delivered me a message that I so much needed to hear; she validated my ministry to people with mental problems, the direction that my life is taking.
Thus, another part of this miracle is that she delivered it to me. She understood and articulated what many others don’t understand; why religion is so important to one’s mental health. Of course, I understand that religion doesn’t eliminate the need for professional medical care; but it is an important, often ignored part of the solution.
Now, just how does a miracle of healing like this happen? The psychoanalyst Karl Jung says, “Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”
So, there is something about living with life’s ultimate questions that plays a part in healing. But, what is it?
In all my readings and experience, one common theme that emerges is that some experience of unconditional love from beyond or within is crucial to healing. To experience this love, one needs to:
- Have courage to bring one’s hurt and wounds to the surface.
- To surrender to God, or the Mystery of Life.
- And, to feel unconditional love from God or that Mystery
When Frances went to confession, she had the courage both to trust the priest with her despair, and to be open to receiving God’s love through the priest.
Many who have looked at this process reflect that the source of healing seems to come from a higher power which is beyond and/or within. I see it as the presence of the Holy, a gift of grace. At the holy moment when the priest assured Frances that God loved her and she was open to receiving that love, grace touched her life, just as it did mine when she ministered to me.
Frances’ relief was immediate. For others it is more gradual, a growing sense of inner joy, freedom, and compassion. Psalm 116 expresses this beautifully:
“Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.”
Obviously, one need not have a serious psychological disorder in order in order to benefit from this kind of healing. All people go through difficult times at some point, and could grow inwardly from being open to such healing grace.
At this point in living with the question “How do people heal?” it seems clear to me that curing an illness is quite a different thing than healing a person. Symptoms may periodically return and a person may even die, but the person’s spirit can be healed, making all the difference in how the person’s life is lived.
I am still living with this question. It will probably always be there awaiting new insight as I progress on my ministry. As my encounter with Frances shows, the gifts that this search has given me have been life-changing for me. May they also be so for those to whom I minister.
I will close with words from one of my favorite hymns: “Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design”
“Let eyes that in the plainest cloth
a hidden beauty see
discern in us our richest hues,
show us the patterns we may use
to set our spirits free.”
May we all find the courage to be open to that healing grace that surrounds us.
So be it. Amen.