Faith based traditions have prayers for the ill that focus on praying for healing. This term, healing, is fraught with assumptions. While there is a value to hope in the face of illness and death, there is also the inevitability that we will not recover from all illness and that death will occur eventually. As such, how do we use the word healing in regards to the chronic illness or death. For spiritual care providers, this question arises on a daily basis. In the Jewish prayer for healing, the Mi Sheberach, there is a request for both physical and spiritual healing. In reflecting on this prayer, often the answer is we are praying for the potential hope of some healing, whether physical or spiritual, regardless of the ultimate outcome. In a recent article in Tablet Magazine, A Prayer for Pandemic Times, Allison Lerman-Gluck presents a perspective on this prayer from her own living experience dealing with chronic illness.
Now, during the global pandemic, the world around me is suffering from illness with no full recovery in sight, and many people are expressing feelings of helplessness. These are big feelings, and the question at the core of them is profound: How can you hope to recover when the illness facing you has no cure?
Living with chronic illness, I have some experience with taking ownership over these big feelings and learning what it means to heal, even when the wound remains open.
The comparison of chronic illness to a virus with no immediate cure is powerful. Within both, the need for “healing” may very well be more spiritual and psychosocial than physical, at least from the standpoint of not having cure. How does one grasp with the permanence of limitations and refocus the words of healing prayers?
Through reclamation of the word “healing,” I’ve been able to take back the Misheberach. I learned from my chronically ill community about the “spoon theory,” which provides a device for explaining our minute-to-minute physical and mental statuses and abilities. This taught me that healing is a daily journey with mountainous valleys and peaks, and that my goal is not total physical wellness. My goals are acceptance, with a healthy dose of motivation to take the best care of my body and mind.
I also want to reframe the idea that a return to able-bodiedness is a necessary finish line for the journey of healing. We all deserve the type of care that people emit when saying healing prayers. I hope that shining that light of loving attention on chronically ill people leads to further action on the part of able-bodied, well people. If you’re saying the same prayer for someone, week after week, how long will you keep saying it? How long will you remember them? And what can you do as a tangible act of support for them after you say the prayer? Being well-thought about is a form of healing from societal ableism.
Healing is a journey like all journeys, with peaks and valleys. In reflecting on this idea, I am mindful of my own chronic ailment, gout, that comes and goes. Most of the time it is an academic ailment that exists but is not experienced. Yet, when gout hits, it reminds me very clearly of its existence as a part of my life. While not the same as more regularly invasive chronic illnesses, it is always lurking, waiting. As such, I hope for continued sense of “healing.”
In regard to the current pandemic, while COVID-19 is an acute illness:
But on a societal level, the pandemic is a chronic condition: There is no known cure. There is no vaccine. There are no tried and true treatments. There is a big difference between having an acute illness that affects just you, and possibly your family, and having an illness that will affect the whole world, at different times, potentially over years and years. This is an illness that has shut down our economy, shone light on deep structural racism and economic inequity, and kept many of us inside, scared, lonely, with our lives shaken to their core. Physical healing will come for many who get sick during this time. But this is a pandemic that has no end in sight. Our societal healing has barely just begun, as we start to mourn the lives lost, even as more lives are lost still. Looking toward the future does not bring relief. There will be more illness, more loss, more death, global instability, loss of income, loss of health care, iniquity and oppression on a wide scale.
It can feel pointless to pray for healing when there is currently no definitive end in sight to the illness and suffering all around us. But it is not pointless.
And what are we praying for:
Healing comes in many forms. Here are some of mine: For me, healing means accepting my limitations but also knowing my strengths, and celebrating both, because they contribute to the holiness of my body and spirit. Healing means finding solidarity with others who live with chronic illness and disability, through the silliness of sharing memes or through the quietness of telling someone “I see you” when they’re bed-bound in a darkened room, and they cannot see themselves. Healing means surrounding myself with people who are able to meet me exactly where I am each day and cutting out the people who say things like “you’re too young to be this sick” or “but you don’t look sick.” Healing means taking in every good moment as a blessing, and holding on to those blessings for all the bad moments still to come. Sometimes, healing means sitting with a hard moment and really seeing it, really experiencing it, not trying to distract myself from it. And healing means action, working for change when structural inequity is revealed, because all oppressions are connected, and our liberation is bound together.
We find ourselves praying for the small healings of the moment. We pray for people to recover, for people to find spiritual strength, healing of the soul of society, etc. The healing we are looking for is a return to the lives we lived, recognizing it might not be the same but hoping some things can return to a semblance of “normalcy.”
To conclude, the author shares her version of the Misheberach adjusted for this moment
Misheberach translates to “the one who blessed.” May the one who blessed our ancestors bless and heal those who are sick, suffering, and dying. May the one who blessed our ancestors give me strength to continue on, day by day, one foot in front of the next, with my intention set on doing everything within my power to contribute to the process of global healing. May that healing come in whatever forms are most needed. May we all be blessed. And let us say: Amen.
As we continue to adjust to the changes during the next phase of our confronting COVID-19, let these words be a guide, a refocus on taking things as they come and hoping each step we take leads to our healing.