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Writing in the Sand: Jesus & the Soul of the Gospel

by Thomas Moore

The following excerpt is taken from the book WRITING IN THE SAND: Jesus & the Soul of the Gospels by Thomas Moore. It is published by Hay House (May 2009) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com

Chapter 5


In the Kingdom One Responds to Suffering

Jesus called the twelve to gather and gave them power and authority over all daimons and to heal illnesses. He sent them to speak publicly of the kingdom of God . . . They set out and went through the villages spreading the good news and healing in every place.

— Luke 9:1–2, 6

The good news is that we are creating a new world order in which the first task is to heal each other.

The Buddha begins his teaching with the simple observation that there is suffering in the world. Jesus similarly focuses on the sickness of soul that affects people individually and socially, physically and spiritually. This perception of sickness is central, and healing is his signature activity. Jesus does not teach how to be virtuous, how to be saved, or how to be a good church member. He says nothing about memorizing dogma or following a strict set of moral rules. Instead, he continually demonstrates how to be in this world as a healer.

I know a Christian minister who is an instinctive healer. Everywhere he goes, he sees need when it is present. Where others overlook a person in distress, he stops to find out what is wrong. He has a Gospel instinct and knows intuitively that the role of minister is to heal.

I know several ministers who don’t have this gift. It doesn’t come with ordination. I do have a Buddhist friend who responds similarly, and, to my mind, his healing reactions place him in the kingdom Jesus envisioned. He is a Buddhist by affiliation, but his way of life is precisely in tune with the way Jesus taught. He found his way into the kingdom through the Buddha.

The Gospels use several words for healing, but the main one is therapeia, “therapy.” Plato used this very word in the dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates defines it as “service of the gods.” When you heal, you are doing sacred work. The Gospels appeared 400 years after Plato, and yet they, too, emphasize this word therapeia, a word so important that it could identify the Gospel spirit wherever it appears. If you want to live the Gospel philosophy, you have to know what it takes to be a healer.

I understand that this word healer sometimes seems romantic, but in fact it represents a cold, clear, harsh reality. People suffer—emotionally, physically, spiritually, and relationally. They need help. From time to time we are all in need of healing, and we are all called to be healers.

There was a time in my life when I needed healing. I had just gone through a divorce. I was fired from my job as a college professor—the only career I wanted at the time and one in which I had invested years of study. I was so upset that I felt sick and sores appeared in my throat and mouth. In reaction, I became too dependent on a few close friends, and many people around me pitied me and told me, essentially, to grow up. But another friend, James Hillman, a Jewish man who had written many things critical of Christianity, visited me and gave me some food, a glass of wine, and some thoughtful, friendly counsel. I have never forgotten his generous response. From my point of view, he was the healer in the spirit of the Gospel.

Healing is an altruistic action, in the root sense of the word—other. You think about the other person’s welfare. You are profoundly convivial, meaning that you “live with” others, not just for yourself. You heal because of your empathy for the suffering of the other.

In the Gospels, Jesus never frets about himself. He is always in response mode, noticing suffering of all kinds and responding to it with a healing word or touch.

The Spiritual in Illness

The sick are similar to the poor and rejected, who, Jesus says, are honored citizens in his new kingdom. Again we run into the mystery by which the afflicted have a special entry into the kingdom. They are not in an ordinary, unconscious condition. Illness has taken them out of default reality and put them in a liminal place. They are somewhere between life and death and are therefore ready for the kingdom.

Illness makes you aware of your dependence on other people, the fragility of your life, and your mortality. Quite naturally it inspires you to ask the great questions: What is important? What does it mean? Where can I turn for help?

Illness is a spur to consciousness, and, as the religion scholar Mircea Eliade says, it is an initiation. You can look at illness purely as misfortune, as something gone wrong, but without denying any pain and suffering, you can also see it as a turning point and even an opportunity. Illness is the tunnel you go through on your way to a new level of awareness. That dark tunnel is also a birth canal.

It isn’t the body alone that gets sick. Some illnesses manifest a sickness at heart, an emotional failure or setback. Some reveal a failure in spirituality and meaning. Even those illnesses that seem to come from genetic issues, organ weakness, or pollution or contagion affect the entire person and so are amenable to spiritual intervention.

In the context of modern science and technology, Jesus’ way of dealing with illness may seem strange. With a word or touch he banishes the illness as though it were an invading spirit. He doesn’t treat sickness as a problem of microbes or physiology, but as a spiritual condition.

Jesus’ way of healing is sometimes explained as a response to problems that are psychosomatic (the body affected by the psyche) or psychogenic (illness caused by the psyche), a modern way of making sense of his healing powers. But the Gospels ask us to reimagine illness and healing as involving soul and spirit. Perhaps we, too, could heal miraculously if we addressed the whole person in this way.

For two years I visited Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, monthly as a consultant. With a chaplain and the hospital’s head of integrative medicine, I interviewed workers in all parts of the hospital, as well as patients and their families. Everywhere I heard people say that this hospital stood out for its special attention to patients. Patients told me that they always felt like real persons, individuals, and not just another body to take care of. I asked about the source of this special attitude and was told about the Catholic sisters from France who founded the hospital. I read their story and found that they were simply implementing the Gospel teaching. They were being healers and not just technicians.

As a therapist, I have seen many people get better physically and in every other way just through intimate and open conversation. I don’t judge them and I don’t tell them how they should live. I listen to them and in their suffering welcome them into the human race. We all suffer. I help them get a perspective on their pain and I laugh with them about how we complain and wish for an ideal life. I have no doubt that the body can be healed by spiritual compassion.

Spiritual Melodrama

Jesus’ approach to healing, taken superficially, translates into a kind of “faith healing” that has convinced many followers to focus on melodramatic cures rather than simple care of the sick. Let’s digress for a moment and consider it more closely.

The word melodrama means drama with music, melody, and soaring violins in the background. It involves emotions and situations that are exaggerated yet empty. We turn religion into melodrama when we detach it from genuine life and stuff it with inflated vocabulary and grand gestures. Melodrama rises from the combination of worthlessness and extravagance.

When we relieve the Jesus figure of its melodrama, the way is clear to show how his teaching applies to real life. Agapic healing is not a flashy display of superhuman powers that impress and convince; it is a thoughtful, grounded effort to relieve suffering and deal with disease. It might be more appropriate to convince a corporation not to pollute a river that supplies water to families and children than to put on shows of magical cures. The real miracle is to convince those in power to live by agape and then to enjoy a healthy world.

So, when we talk about Jesus as healer, we might emphasize healing of body, soul, and spirit rather than the superhuman flair of his methods. He doesn’t ask that we bow down in worship before his powers of healing, but rather that we find our own ways of doing the same. In every case his healing is motivated by compassion rather than a desire to impress. He models how to be responsive to community in its distress.

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