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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Religion and Healing

This is my Stanford lecture to Professor Larry Zaroff’s medical students about religion. The focus is on how religion helps healing. This is the fourth year I have lectured the class and I have been asked back again for next year.

Religion is more about practice than belief.  The important practices of most religions deal with love, neighbors, forgiveness, compassion, sex, food, communion, worship, singing and community. Practice is worship, laws, prayer, food, clothing, sex and all the things that religious people do and the ways they act. Religions have three things in common, Creed, Cult and Code. Creed is the belief system, Cult is the way the believers worship and pray, Code is the practice or behavior held out as a path to follow.

The actions include caring for the sick, widows, orphans, the homeless, seeking justice for the oppressed and finding peace.

Jesus was a Healer. Many of the stories about him include healing miracles; the woman with the issue of blood, the blind man who is given sight and the lame man who walks.  The Hebrew Bible also has healing stories. Elisha heals a child. Isaiah heals Hezekiah. Prayer for the believer is an important part of healing.

Prayer is often very important to the sick person if it is part of his or her practice. Some people expect God to intervene to assist the medical staff cure or heal. Some patients will be mad at God for not doing what the patient wants. Others will chalk up no healing as, “Well, I guess that is not God’s will for me.”

Let me interrupt with some notions of God. Some believe in a personal all good and knowing God who is intimately involved with all we think and do. Some see this God as allowing the cruelty and horrors that we see every day in our lives and media. Others believe that God is not a being, but being itself. God is the ground of all being. Human beings are utterly depraved and utterly good. We humans act with freedom with terrible consequences some of the time. The ground of all being does not interfere in the world enforcing good or evil. God is a metaphor for all that is transcendent, awe-inspiring, holy, beyond comprehension, nature and the sense of life itself.

I always say along with the Quakers that prayer works not on God but on me. I must take responsibility to do all I can to be healed, with God’s help. If I pray for someone else, I’d better be ready to go help that person in whatever way I can.

In the 1980’s I was rector of a San Francisco downtown Episcopal Church. We had many gay members. In 1983 many were stricken with AIDS. Some died within a week of the diagnosis.  My internist said to me, “Robert, Please don’t refer any more patients to me. I don’t know what to do with them.” Funeral Directors would not care for the bodies of men who had died of the disease. Our church had 75 funerals of young gay men in five years. The sick men asked me and our church to pray for them. What else was there to do? We prayed for their recovery, healing and a peaceful death.  “Thy will be done” is always implicit in all prayer.

I pray regularly a great prayer of thanks for my wife and my life, my daughters and grandchildren. I rejoice that they are a gift to me that I do and did not deserve.  They are a grace, a free gift from God, the power of the universe.

I also confess my sins, foolishness, hurts that I have hurled at others, eating and drinking too much from time to time. That confession helps me take responsibility for my actions and behavior and helps me to change. I can forgive myself, knowing that God, the power of the universe, always forgives.

Sometimes I cry out, “help me, help me, help me.” God helps me. My spouse helps me and so do my friends when I can let myself cry out a prayer of petition – help me.

Prayer and meditation help many people become calm and release tension and relax the body. Just being quiet and giving thanks for my family works for me. Breathing, sitting in meditation is a subject in which I get an F-. I fail meditation.  People are different. Meditation or any these techniques do not automatically work for everyone. But some practice probably works for most people.

My wife and I go to church every Sunday morning. I love our parish in a poorer section of the Mission District of San Francisco. We have lesbian parents, gay parents, straight parents, divorced singles, street people, drug addicts, college professors, doctors, retired clergy, schoolteachers, fund raisers and folks from Silicon Valley and the computer world. We sing, pray, share our concerns and joys.

One doctor said “Most of you know me as a lesbian. At long last I am seeking a partner, and he may be a man.” She got a round of applause.  Then we all go to communion, eat some bread, drink some wine. We are in communion with each other. With God, Jesus or whatever we believe in or practice. We are with people each Sunday whom we ordinarily do not meet or socialize with.  Communion works on us, not on God.

There are studies about the effectiveness of prayers for the sick. A group of people will pray for Ward A to be healed. They will not pray for the people in Ward B. I suppose you can guess what the results were.  The people on Wards A and B both healed, got worse or died in the same amounts.  Prayer was of no help. God is not tricky or capricious. Prayer works on us not on God.

The laying on of hands for healing is a religious practice reaching back into the ancients. In my tradition the minister places hands on the head of the sick person. Our belief is that touch helps people feel the power, the energy of people flow into them They may feel their own healing strengths arise from within and we hope God’s holy spirit attends the patient. This action depends on the sick person’s ability to heal herself. I never do this in hospital visits unless I sense it is OK with the patient and I ask permission.

Some churches use a bit of oil dabbed on the forehead of the person seeking healing. Oils also have been used in sacred rites for healing, blessings and setting people apart like kings or queens.  Queen Elizabeth was anointed by oil signifying her role as a healer and unifier of nations.

Let me say a bit more about grace. Grace – Did you earn your hand, brain, eyesight, boy or girl friend? Most people think they have worked for everything they have. At a dinner party a woman was going on and on about how she was a self-made woman. She had earned everything she worked for.  Getting tired of her rant I said, “Did you earn your foot, your hand, your eyes?” The conversation went elsewhere.

All that we have is a free gift from God, the universe or whatever you want to call it. But we did not earn our brains, our parents or country.

In medicine, psychology and religion we are often told to care for the whole person and not just the symptoms. But in medical practice that is almost impossible in the way medicine is practiced today.

I notice how little time my doctors spend with me. They do not know me, do not treat the whole person only the bladder or whatever their specialty. The visits are short and to the point. I hate to go, I fear I am wasting the doctor’s time, I sense he waits to shoo me away.

It may well be that it will be the chaplain who listens to the patient, knows the whole person – something of the physical ailments, the emotions of the patient, something of the family life of the sick person in the hospital. The hospitalist doctor is on the run, the social worker is busy and can only help if there are specific home, financial or caretaker concerns. The ombudsman settles disputes if they arise. No one spends any time with the patients.

A Seventh Day Adventist volunteer chaplain came to see me after my left knee replacement surgery in August of 2012. She spent twenty minutes with me speaking about a wide range of topics to draw me out. She wanted to know how I happened to choose to be a priest, did I enjoy my life and work? I felt she was interested in me and listened for how she might help. She did not offer to pray with me. I did not ask. She was smart, sensitive and caring. Her religion is far more conservative than my very liberal Episcopalianism. She is also a volunteer, but with three months of Clinical Pastoral Education training before she went on the rounds unsupervised. That is part of the healing process.


The chaplain listens to the patient, listens to the story, describe the illness, her comfort level in the hospital and family situation.

The chaplain looks for the emotions. I am worried about my wife. Don’t get sidetracked on wife – yet. What is the patient really worried about? Here is where healing can happen, getting the patient to reveal an emotional truth like fear or perhaps anger at being in the hospital. Then inquire about the spouse.

Sometimes prayer or the laying on of hands seem important.  Ask permission. Don’t invade. Say a prayer and ask the patient to pray for their own needs and concerns. Sometimes strong feelings will emerge.
 The chaplain should seek medical help if needed. The relationship with the patient remains confidential.

Religion is about awe, wonder, transcendence, and worship. Where do you put your worth? What is your highest and deepest value? That is what you worship. Everyone worships something – money, power, sex, God, science – anything that we give our ultimate worth.

Religion helps people heal by getting people to be responsible for their sickness and health. Healing happens by helping people discover their real values; offering practices of calm, quiet and openness; quieting fears of pain and death; finding solace in the laying on of hands and anointing with oil.

Healing happens with medicine and surgery. Healing happens when the patient has a sense of security, wholeness and is treated reverently, as someone sacred.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sending this, Robert. A very helpful summary - the strong statement that prayer works on us is also very helpful. Though...what if prayer works on us AND works on God? Why not both? I've passed it along to Karla, as I think the CPE students at Alta Bates would benefit from reading it.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Fred Fenton said...

It's easy to see why you are invited each year to speak to Stanford medical students. You stress the need of patients to be heard, to be ministered to as whole people, without making faith-based claims about religion.

My father was a primary care physician who spent time with his patients, ignoring the clock. The overflow crowd at his funeral was filled with people who expressed their love for him. He was a Baptist who worshiped every Sunday, yet it was not his faith but his caring that people talked about when they remembered him.

I particularly like your statement, "Prayer works on us not on God." It can help the doctor as well as the
chaplain remain humble and patient centered.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Thank you, Robert for such a thoughtful piece on God, religion, healing and health. I didn't realize that you had 75 funerals in 5 years at Trinity. That is a gut-wrenching experience over and over again - it must have been pure anguish. You certainly speak from deep experience. I also appreciate how you speak from your own experience in the hospital as well. You are such a great person in this world and in my life.
Karla Droste

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