“The Church is a hospital.”
Those opening words of the priest’s sermon caught my attention. I tend to associate church with a place of worship, of prayer, of community, of reflection, and of faith, but not usually with a hospital, at least the way I typically see and feel about a hospital. Although his statement had a thematic and contextual relevance (as I learned that Sunday, the weeks after Pentecost are devoted to celebrating the miracles of healing), I was simultaneously interested and anxious to hear his explanation of such a metaphor.
The anxiety stemmed from my deep, lifelong aversion to hospitals, and for that matter, any place resembling a doctor’s office. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way, since from a young age we typically go to the hospital or the doctor’s office when we are sick or to see someone who is ill, perpetuating a negative connotation. The waiting rooms. The coughing. The magazines to distract us from our discomfort as we wait for our name to be called. The sanitary yet seemingly contaminated rooms and corridors. The endless forms and information. The white coats. The examinations, the diagnosis, the treatment. The co-pays, the bills, the follow-ups. Most importantly, though, the suffering. That’s what keeps me away and puts an empty feeling in my heart. And it’s not my own suffering that hurts; it’s seeing others in pain. From children to the elderly, the sense of helplessness is palpable every time I step foot in a hospital. Innocent people struggling to hold onto their lives, and there is little that I can do to help.
The key aspect of a hospital though, which cannot be ignored despite any aversion one might have, is the healing. It is the devotion and expertise (which I wholeheartedly admire) displayed by selfless people at all levels – assistants, nurses, doctors, surgeons – that allows the healing to take place. This healing, though, is not unique to a “hospital” as we tend to think of one, or to the physical ailment we are dealing with. As the priest explained in words that transcend sects, denominations, and religious beliefs as a whole, healing is a lifelong process. We are constantly being called to our hospital, whether that is a church, a gym, an art studio, a yoga class, a job, or something else, to confront our issues, to grow as people, and to heal.
The priest went on to describe the basic Judeo-Christian concept found in “Genesis” of the Old Testament: humanity being created in the image and likeness of God. Yet his explanation of this phrase shed tremendous light on the healing process and our journey through life, which are one in the same. An image is a representation of something. Although it is similar to what it portrays, it may often be blurry or skewed. No matter how many pixels, how high the resolution, how new the lens, an image can never be as good as that which actually exists, as that which the image is trying to capture.
In this way, we are an image: we reflect something great yet we are not quite there yet; we are not perfect. The difference between the image and the likeness is that of potential and the realization of that potential. The process of doing the latter is the healing we experience everyday. That healing is not an overnight process; in fact, it is lifelong. Each day we are getting better, confronting challenges, learning from mistakes and experiences to build character and the foundation to “weather the storms of life” (as the priest put it) that present themselves in so many different forms, from relationships, to professions, to illnesses. Healing is not just the alleviation of a physical ailment; it is the improvement, growth, and development of the mind, body, and soul.
A few days after hearing these words, my brother who had just begun medical school, sent me an article, Envisioning an alternative future for medicine, and his application to a program on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The program – Integrative Medicine Oncology Initiative – seeks to combine eastern methods of relaxation, meditation, yoga, and other practices with traditional medicine in order to treat cancer patients from a holistic level. This lower cost approach has already shown beneficial effects for the patient, who is undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments to treat the bodily illness. Combining that treatment of the body with methods to heal the mind and soul, which are undoubtedly aching along with the body, is an interdisciplinary approach that may foster the healing for patients at multiple levels. For these patients, although they are in a hospital, they are being called to a different one – such as a yoga session or a guided meditation – where they can free themselves of their bodily pain and begin to heal their mind and souls as well.
Whether it is faith that one finds at church, physical activity that one experiences at a gym, creativity one displays in an art or musical studio, or a combination of all those and many more, these places are hospitals for us, calling us to them to deal with our discomfort, our hurt, our ailments, and allowing us to heal. Just as I am averse to going to a hospital, it is not easy to deal with life’s challenges. It is a difficult process, often leaving us in discomfort and pain. But going to that hospital – whatever and wherever it may be for each of us, and as hard as it may be to do so, allows one to heal. That healing continues throughout life as we deal with both lingering and new challenges. The process of changing from the image to the likeness, from potential to actualization, is an incredible journey. It is the journey, regardless of its destination, that defines life. And along the way, we get better. We heal.