Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In Search of the Deeper Healing


"The healing intention has taken many forms throughout history. It has been voiced in the prayers and invocations of countless generations of priests and shamans. It has been carried by the men and women who sought out the substances present in nature and those produced by human ingenuity that help to ease the pain of sickness and hasten the return of health. It continues to find expression in the skill and precision of those dedicated surgeons who daily exercise their art."
                                                                                                   Introduction: Holism and Complementary Medicine. Origins and Principles



I have in recent days had cause to accompany a family member on a visit to a specialist clinic at Saint Vincent's Hospital, one of Melbourne's larger public hospitals. This experience has brought me into deep and intimate contact with the invisible pain that fills both the world and the lives of so many throughout the world.

Even before arriving at the hospital, the journey itself became a revelation. I had spent the previous night in one of the outer-flung suburbs of Melbourne and travelled into the city along the Eastern Freeway, a heavily trafficked tollway very different to the narrow winding roads around the Victorian coastal community where my wife and I live.

Though it had been some years since I had travelled on that particular freeway, I found myself thinking similar thoughts to those that had often arisen on previous trips. With 10 lanes of cars stretched endlessly before and behind, I imagined this scene repeated in every major city in a world that carries over one billion motor vehicles, with hundreds of millions of cars undertaking the same daily pilgrimage from home to workplace and back. Seeing smoke pouring from the exhaust of one of the numerous heavy trucks that muscled its way along the freeway, I reflected further on the inexorable thickening of an already-burdened atmosphere whose carbon dioxide levels have steadily risen over the past three years from 397 parts per million in July 2013 to over 401 parts per million in July 2015. So sad. So silly. So much for the increasingly desperate calls of James Hansen and Bill McKibben over the past 7 years.

While such notions were gently coursing through my mind, the eTag sitting on the windscreen gave an audible beep - the first in over a year - as I drove under a toll point situated above the freeway. I imagined a symphony of such beeps sounding in the cabins of every vehicle on that tollway and every other tollway operating in the world, and of the automatic siphoning of a dollar or two from bank accounts everywhere with each beep. It brought to mind the old saying, money makes the world go round - yet another of the many lies that help prop up dying empires.

It also vividly reminded me of the vast and invisible networks of humanly-made and modulated electromagnetic fields that track our motions, broadcast our voices, texts and images, guide our airliners and smart bombs, direct silent-gliding nuclear submarines with their calculated arsenals of ballistic missiles, and steer our spacecraft through the cold and empty reaches of interplanetary space.

The road then began to descend as the lines of cars on the freeway snaked towards the entrance of the Melba tunnel, a massive one and a half kilometre long marvel of engineering built in 2008. And I wondered: Is this what we came here for? To move at high speed along bitumen corridors? To pride ourselves on marvellously wrought feats of engineering? To spend our days travelling to and from the maze of towering citadels that canyon the business districts of cities throughout the world?

St. Vincent's Hospital Melbourne
Soon enough, we arrived at the end of a long queue of cars that slowly inched its way from the end of the freeway into the tangle of streets and humanity at the edge of Melbourne city. After finding a parking spot, with its own hungry meter devouring coins in exchange for an allotted time of respite from the army of eagle-eyed parking officers looking to further empty the pockets of those who didn't return to their cars on time, we made our way to the Daly Wing, one of the older sections of St. Vincent's Hospital, originally conceived through the vision of 5 nuns, Sisters of Charity who raised enough money over a four year period to purchase a large terrace house on Victoria Parade and set up a cottage hospital of 30 beds in 1893. It is now a sprawling multi-storey teaching complex of 400 beds that occupies several street blocks near the inner city.

As we passed through the hospital entrance, I noticed the presence of a cross carrying an image of the crucified Christ on the wall. I felt reassured by this powerful reminder of a love and an innocence that had endured unspeakable pain. It added a certain grace and depth to a morning that had otherwise been punctuated by the ubiquitous triumphalist monuments of a thoroughly secularised technological civilisation.

Medieval Hospital Ward
It also reminded me of the fact that a distinct lineage can be traced between the healing ministry of Jesus when he walked the streets and deserts of Palestine 2,000 years ago and the formation of the first hospitals in Europe by monastic groups and Christian communities. When the Emperor Julian took the throne and sought to re-paganise the Roman empire in 360 AD, he directed that State-funded hospitals or xenodochia be established in every city in the empire in order to counter the influence of the numerous healing ministries and houses of healing set up by early Christians. A decade later, Ephraim, Bishop of Syria set up a facility with 300 beds for those afflicted by the plague that hit Edessa in 372 AD. Most recently, the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta has shown how fully the work of healing - even when all hope of physical survival is lost - is integral to the Christian mission.

On arrival at the reception desk, we were surprised to see so many people in the waiting area. Virtually all of the 70 or 80 seats were occupied while many other people were standing along the walls and in the corridor. A nurse with a clipboard was working her way through the room occasionally announcing in a loud voice that it was an unusually busy morning and that there could be some very long waits. Many were visibly disappointed and frustrated. It seemed that this was not the first time they had experienced such delays. One woman approached the nurse directly and was told that her appointment would probably be three to three and a half hours later than the scheduled time. The woman said she had another appointment in the afternoon that could not be put off and asked if she could book another time. The nurse informed her that the next available appointment would be in mid-October - some 8 weeks away.

I realised then how thin was the veneer of efficiency and sufficiency of the public hospital system in Melbourne - and probably most cities in the developed world. And this at a time of relative steadiness and stability. So if one is unwell or suffering from a disease, how is life to be lived out in the Sudan or the Congo? Or in Gaza, or Syria or other places afflicted by war and oppression? The certainties within which we live are all wafer thin. Yet we build our dreams and empires upon them.

Inside an MRI machine
It had been 7 years since I had last accompanied our younger daughter to St. Vincent's hospital. My remembrance of that time relates more to the technological hardware that is now integral to the biomedical project than the experience of individuals awaiting specialist medical care in the context of a public hospital. That occasion was also my first contact with nuclear medicine and the first time I had witnessed the sophisticated technical mastery embodied in a bone-scan machine. I will also never forget the late-night visit to the basement where the hospital's two MRI scanners costing between one and three million dollars apiece were operating constantly. Reaching the MRI suite through the basement corridors was a surrealistic wander through a labyrinthine network lined with large variously-coloured cables and pipes that vibrated to the sound of a constant low hum.

I began to understand how deeply the technological project had permeated virtually every aspect of biomedicine, the practice of which is now fully locked into technological civilisation beginning from the manufacture of drugs, to the analysis of blood samples, to the many visualisation technologies from fibre optiscopes to PET scanners, and the altogether extraordinary armamentaria routinely used in surgical procedures. Such a long, long way from the original vision of five prayerful women of action, the five Sisters of Charity who first opened the doors of Saint Vincent's Hospital in 1893.

Of Finer Fields and Gentler Ways


Yet there are some things that will never change.

As has been suggestively voiced so many times before, we do not live by bread alone. In the same way that the body has its sources of nourishment, so too do the soul and the spirit. This understanding would have been central to the mission of both the nuns and the small group of honorary physicians and surgeons who helped to staff St. Vincent's, the first Catholic hospital to be established in Melbourne. Apart from providing for the medical needs of patients, the hospital was also a place of prayer, a place where the transience of human life was consciously acknowledged, a place where the interpenetration of birth, life and death was experienced, a place where healing was sought not only from the administration of drugs and surgical procedures but from the power that invests the invisible world in which we live and move and have our being. We sit comfortably with the notion that the world is charged with invisible energies that connect us through our mobile phones and direct us through GPS devices. Yet there are many who would demur at the notion that intelligent, intentional energy in the form of spirit plays any part in the story of being human, that we participate in an entire nexus of influence of which the material world with all its man-made fields and man-made powers are only a small part.

Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza
The healings performed by Jesus during the time that he walked the earth 2,000 years ago are not historical fantasies designed to placate the hopes of the credulous and the gullible. Such healing power has ever been one of the gifts of the Spirit described by Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. This has manifested historically and continues to manifest daily in such places of pilgrimage as Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, and Medjugorje in Bosnia. There is no shortage of documentation of such phenomena for those who would care to search it out. Yet, to paraphrase Bernadette Soubirous, the seer of Lourdes whose waters have over the past one and a half centuries brought healing to tens of thousands of individuals, there are some for whom no proof is sufficient while there are others for whom no proof is necessary.

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina not only brought about numerous remarkable healings through his own charism, but in the immediate post-World War II period personally oversaw the funding and construction of a large modern hospital, La Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza that has recently been described as "one of the best equipped hospitals in all of Europe." Despite the fact that he was intimately familiar with the reality of divinely-mediated healing, he never ceased to encourage those who would be healers to not only make use of all the material fruits of human ingenuity made available through technology and medicine, but to ceaselessly draw their inspiration from divine reality. In his Prayer for Healers, Padre Pio says:
Illuminate our intelligence in the pursuit of an understanding of the pain and difficulties caused by the numerous afflictions that can assail our bodies until, by skilfully availing ourselves of the findings of science, the causes of sickness no longer remain hidden to us. By your grace, may we be neither deceived nor mistaken regarding the nature of our patients' symptoms, but with sure judgement, select the best remedies or treatments that have been made available through your Divine Providence.
But there are times when powers other than those carried in the best remedies and treatments manifest in human reality.

Healings at Medjugorje


The video clip below offers an extraordinary personal account of two dramatic healings that have occurred at Medjugorje in Bosnia. The testimony offered by Polish priest Fr. Peter Glas challenges to the core the world-view that systematically denies the existence of divine power or of a miraculous dimension capable of acting upon human reality. It also offers considerable insight into the charism that can be made manifest when priests truly become priests. Try not to be put off by the first couple of minutes with its American style talk-show introduction. A remarkable tale from which much can be drawn is told by Fr. Peter Glas in the 25 minutes that follow.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., N.D., M.H.Sc.
Inverloch, August 2015