Healed Doesn’t Mean Cured

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Pilgrimage is … an act of devotion to find a source of healing ….”

—Phillip Cousineau, The Art of the Pilgrimage,

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Right after my parents bought our first television set in 1953, our family watched everything from test patterns to evangelist Oral Roberts sitting in a tent healing people’s various medical misfortunes—you name it: tuberculosis, speech impediments, polio (“Praise God, Billy Ray, I can feel the stiffness leaving your little foot!”). Since my father was skeptical (What he said was that the show was a crock of shit), I too doubted the healing power of the prayer.

But I never felt strongly against the idea that faith can cure disease and other afflictions until my eighteen-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The object of my most intense anger was not TV evangelism, but the alternative health industry. I recall sitting by Laurie’s bedside in the hospital, reading ads to her from a glossy magazine she subscribed to for Royal Jelly, Ayurvedic Ginseng, and macrobiotic hair care, “Refreshing Summer Seaweeds,” “Non-toxic Alternatives to Mercury Fillings,” and “Curing Infertility through Chinese Medicine.”

One afternoon, she wanted me to read an article titled “Alternative Cures for Cancer.” The gist of the article was that rather than “deadly chemicals and mind-altering drugs” (I remember those words), the best way to cure cancer is with a healthy, positive self-image built on faith and love. I think the article posited that eighty to ninety percent of all cancer is preventable.

When I finished reading, I heard a thick voice slurred by morphine: “I’ve tried … to be positive … but I guess I’m just not strong enough … I wish I weren’t such a wimp.”

Her words still haunt me. Bad enough that my daughter had to die, but for her to feel that it was somehow her fault because she didn’t have enough faith fills me with rage. Over the twenty-eight years years since Laurie’s death, I have walked out of a teacher workshop on “Wellness” in order to write angry letters to my principal and superintendant on the dangers of trying to teach what I saw as unrealistic expectations. I have seethed at Biblical stories of Jesus bringing some people back to life, while others die. And I remember grinding my teeth after 9/11 when a parishioner at the church I attend publically thanked God for saving her son who worked in one of the twin towers.

“What about the other 7000 who died?” I muttered to my wife. “What did God have against them?”

My attitude began to change, however, after Mary Lee and I attended a healing service on the Island of Iona, in Scotland. The pastor began by saying that we need to remember that healing doesn’t mean curing. The word “heal,” he said, comes from the word “whole,” and he believed that God’s purpose for us all is a life of wholeness. The healing service, he said, was not about changing God, but about learning to trust God, even as we don’t know when or how or what kind of healing will happen.

Gradually—very gradually—I’ve begun to understand his distinction. For example, when Mary Lee and I started training for our pilgrimage along Saint Cuthbert’s Way, the sixty-two mile hike from Melrose, Scotland to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast, we both experienced back, hip, hamstring, calf, ankle, and foot pain. I have two artificial hips. The latest CT scan of my back has revealed severe narrowing of the lower thoracic disks, “vacuum disc phenomena,” severe narrowing of L2-L3 disc, “degenerative hypertrophic bone,” “mild compression, mild spinal stenosis, ossification,[and] lower lumbar facet degenerative disease.” I’m not sure what all that means, but I do know I’m four inches shorter than I was in high school. Mary Lee has had her right foot completely reconstructed. One of her shoulders is higher than the other because of scoliosis, and she has suffered from allergies and thyroid trouble.

And you know what? After walking the 62 miles of Saint Cuthbert’s Way, we still hurt. Neither my back nor Mary Lee’s miraculously straightened. My wife’s allergies didn’t go away. No amount of walking could cure the fatal disease of being human.

And yet, we returned from our pilgrimage feeling more than the rejuvenation one feels when returning from a vacation, or even from most of our retreats. We’ve bought bicycles, we’ve climbed some mountains, and recently taken up snowshoeing. I’ve tried to incorporate the walking meditation I practiced along St. Cuthbert’s Way not only into my daily walks around town but also into washing dishes, vacuuming the house, and sitting through this election’s political mud-slinging.

I think distinguishing between being cured and being healed is even more important when talking about grief. Over the years, a number of people have asked me if the pain of losing Laurie has become less. My answer lately is that my grief isn’t any less, but it’s less important. I still cry when I think of my daughter, I’m still angry at God for creating a world in which innocent children suffer and die, and I still feel irrationally responsible for her death, either because of what I did or what I didn’t do.

But at the same time, I am no longer consumed by anguish. I no longer base my identity on being Grieving Parent. My sadness, anger, and guilt have become enveloped, maybe even embraced, by something larger. I am more whole now than I probably have ever been, even if I’m not cured of wanting to watch my daughter become an adult, of talking to her on the phone, or of seeing her interact with my grandchildren, maybe even with children of her own.

Hell, I’m not cured of wishing I were 6’2” again.

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Locked in the Garden of Gethsemane

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They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John…. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. …. He came and found them sleeping … for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14: 32-40. NSV)

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“I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear falling on my ear

The Son of God discloses.”

The singers, a tour from some place like the Second Baptist Church of Wayward, Georgia, stood just inside the filigreed iron gate set in a wall of cream-colored stone on the side of the Mount of Olives. Trying to be unobtrusive, my wife and I walked by them, down a row of olive trees to a bench, where we sat and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Old City.

I listened to the distant voices—“And He walks with me, and He talks with me”—and to the birds singing, watched the sun play upon the leaves of ancient olives trees looking as if they’d been carved from stone and on cedar trees pointed toward the sky. Overhead, the sky was cloudless blue and it wasn’t yet hot. Mary Lee and I talked for a while about the purple flowers growing around the cedars (clematis, maybe?) and then simply sat savoring the silence. This, the part of the Garden of Gethsemane across the road from the Church of the Agony, was the first peaceful place we’d been since we’d arrived in Jerusalem two days earlier.

The folks from Georgia left, leaving us the only people there, and I don’t know how long we sat—maybe twenty minutes—before we got up to leave. We hadn’t yet been to the church across the road and we were planning on hiking to the top of the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Ascension.

But when we reached the gates, they were locked.

I remember thinking, “‘Locked in the Garden of Gethsemane,’ what a great title for a poem!” I may have even laughed. I wasn’t really worried; another tour would be by shortly (There’s always another tour coming by in Jerusalem). So Mary Lee and I found another bench, and I tried to imagine what I might write. I thought about the death of my daughter ten years earlier from cancer, about how I’d locked myself away in a den to drink myself into oblivion, about the way some of the people I called friends disappeared from my life when I needed them most, about how I’d felt like Handel’s Messiah, “despised and rejected … a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” But I kept humming “In the Garden,” and enjoying the view of golden domes across the valley, the music of birds, the smell of cedars, and the feel of sun. After fifteen minutes or so, the gate opened for a tour of Spanish nuns.

That day I felt no sense of suffering, no feeling of betrayal. All I recall is a little heartburn, some sweat as the day began to heat up, and sense of failure, not for getting locked in, but for feeling like a tourist and not a pilgrim. I couldn’t make the experience—the history, the holiness—part of me. I was an outsider, an onlooker, there in body but not in spirit.

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In the woods across the road from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky is Walker Hancock’s sculpture of Jesus and the three disciples in that garden from which the Trappist monastery takes its name. As you walk along the path through the woods, you first encounter Hancock’s depiction of Peter, James, and John sleeping on some stones, hands folded or stretched out peacefully, their bodies curled up comfortably, their faces smooth and serene. You have to walk further—possibly around a corner, I don’t remember—before you behold Jesus, kneeling on a stone, his head thrown back, his hands over his face, his body wrenched backward as if he were a bow waiting for an arrow. Standing in front of this larger than life figure, you can see tension pulling at his chest and throat.

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            Looking today at the photographs I took ten years ago, I note the distance—both physical and emotional—between the disciples and Jesus. I think of the morning I was locked in the Garden of Gethsemane, and I find myself sympathetic to Peter, James, and John. Like them, I could not grasp the significance of what was around me.

And it also strikes me that the years after my daughter died, when I felt alone, betrayed by friends and family and colleagues, reveal the vast chasm that exists between those who grieve and those around them.

Grief is the most isolating of all experiences. At least it has been in my life, both when I’ve grieved and when I’ve tried to comfort someone in grief. Even if I know what it is to lose a child, when I’ve been called upon to support another grieving parent, I remain, as Mark tells us Peter, James, and John were, not knowing what to say. Even if I’ve experienced what it feels like to suffer deeply, when I know someone else is suffering, my first response is to curl up and close my eyes.

All I’ve learned over the last twenty-plus years is the importance of at least physically narrowing the gap between the person grieving and myself. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80 % of compassion is just showing up—staying awake, listening, and trusting that the gates will eventually become unlocked.

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