Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Cup of Salvation.

It being the feast of Ss Cosmas & Damian, who were doctors, here's a wee thought on healing.

Through such glorious deeds of the holy martyrs, with which the Church blossoms everywhere, we prove with our own eyes how true it is, as we have just been singing, that precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints; seeing that it is precious both in our sight and in the sight of him for the sake of whose name it was undertaken. But the price of these deaths is the death of one man. How many deaths were bought with one dying man, who was the grain of wheat that would not have been multiplied if he had not died! You have heard his words when he was drawing near to our passion, that is, when he was drawing near to our redemption: Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

On the cross, you see, Christ transacted a grand exchange; it was there that the purse containing our price was untied; when his side was laid open by the lance of the executioner, there poured out from it the price of the whole wide world.

But from where could they give back the same kind of thing, if the one who made the first payment had not given them the means of giving something back? What shall I pay back to the Lord for all the things he has paid back to me? I will receive the cup of salvation. What is this cup? The bitter but salutary cup of suffering, the cup which the invalid would fear to touch if the doctor did not drink it first. That is what this cup is; we can recognise this cup on the lips of Christ, when he says, Father, if it can be so, let this cup pass from me.

(from a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo)

The relationship between pain, healing, wholeness and self respect is a bafflingly complex one. Pain is a problem for theology: it happens. Obviously, it is a normal and natural and sometimes healthy thing- the pain of muscles aching after vigorous exercise, toothache telling us something is wrong with a bit of our body. But we (and possibly this is a very 20th century product of medical advances and increased access to health care) tend to assume we ought to be immune from pain, be it physical or emotional. We should "feel good", it's one of our human rights. Yeah, right.

But the world view of previous centuries was just as wonky. Pain is part of the human condition, ergo is ordained of God. God the Sadist. Nope, that fails to fit either. God said women should feel pain in childbirth as punishment for their part in the Fall and all sorts of devout heidcases opposed the introduction of anesthesia in the mid 19th Century. Until ,of course, Queen Victoria let slip she'd had it whilst dropping a Royal Sprog and the thumbs up from the Supreme Governor of the C of E made it suddenly acceptable!

Pain can be good. The process of healing, be it of mind or body can be painful as bits knit together. But there is a difference between passive acceptance of pain as a judgement from God and recognising it for what it is: a natural phenomenon, sometimes the consequence of unwise or unhealthy actions, but always of itself morally neutral.

This understanding matters. It mattered terribly in the 80's and 90's when the fundies were walloping on about AIDS being God's judgements on Gays ( I always wondered what the monkeys had done to deserve getting it first). It matters for the mental health of any patient that they see illness as a phenomenon and not as a judgement. And it matters when politicos (not usually the brightest knives in the lunchbox of theological discourse) suggest that terrorists get cancer as a judgement from God. Yes, MacCaskill Minor, that's you I'm talking about! Silly boy, the Deputy 1st Minister of Northern Ireland seems horribly healthy, doesn't he? Maybe Tory Blur was right when he let Alistair Campbell say: "We don't do God"

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