A Reflection on the Spiritual Practice of Health Care

Rev. Edward M. Smink, BCC, MA

The three readings chosen for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time allow us to pause and reflect on the actions of God's Spirit in salvation history. They reveal God's action in both the individual and in the community. In particular, the readings direct us to Ezra and members of the Jewish community, to Jesus and his reading from the prophet Isaiah, and to St. Paul and his teaching of the Body of Christ. Each reading, while different, reveals common threads that form a unity of belief: A person is empowered by God's spirit, is called by the community to speak, takes a stance and reveals a truth that is salvific. What has been handed on by God's Spirit to the Jewish community is revealed in Jesus and then handed on to members of the Christian community.

While each of these themes reveals essential components in living out one's faith, they are particularly pertinent for each individual called to the health care ministry. The health care ministry reveals once more, often in simple and ordinary ways, the compassion of a loving and merciful God. Participating in the healing ministry of Jesus becomes a spiritual practice that incorporates the common threads of this Sunday's readings. First a closer look at the readings and then secondly, their implications for each of us called to the health care ministry as a spiritual practice.

Common Threads
The first reading is from the Book of Nehemiah, which recalls how the Jewish community came to understand God's Word as revealed in the Torah. Anointed by God's Spirit, Ezra is selected by the community to stand before them and read the Word of God. Ezra recognizes that a tradition has been handed on to him to transmit to the community, a tradition that is in itself energizing. What God revealed at Sinai is now revealed in the Torah and God's teachings are accepted by the people, the community of believers.In accepting God's Word, they experience the joy of the Lord which becomes their strength (Neb. 8:1-18). 

Luke wastes no time in announcing that although the Spirit of the Lord has been given to the Jews it is now given uniquely to Jesus. Jesus, who is filled with the power of the Spirit, returns to Nazareth and enters the synagogue. Jesus not only stands and reads from the prophet Isaiah, but asserts that the prophesies foretold by Isaiah are now being fulfilled in their hearing by himself (Lk 4: 18-21). God's Word is revealed not only in the scriptures, but in the Word made flesh in Jesus. He is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, stands before the assembly, and proclaims the fulfillment of God's promises.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians further develops the theology of the community of believers as being the body of Christ. As Paul has been anointed by Christ in becoming his disciple, he stresses that those who form the body of Christ, the community of believers who are grounded in God's Word, form the living Body of Christ. As there are many parts of a body that form a unity, so too, the Body of Christ has many members but the same Spirit, with a variety of gifts and services but the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4). What has been handed down to Paul by God's Spirit, is also handed down to each member of the Body of Christ. A call, a stance, an anointing by God's Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises of God are made alive and real.

Implications For Us Today
CHA members across the different ministries are daily given the opportunity to incarnate the healing presence of God though their actions. The Word of the Lord becomes fulfilled in its hearing. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today in the personal interactions each caregiver undertakes with each resident, patient, and client. Good news is brought to the poor, those in captivity are released from their bondage, those who do not see or understand gain insight and wisdom, those who are oppressed by illness find comfort, support and experience the freedom of healing (Lk. 1:18-19). In commenting about Luke's Gospel, Biblical scholar and author Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller said, "Today brings its own set of circumstances, some of them not clearly understood and clearly not anticipated. "What is promised becomes fulfilled.What is hoped for becomes real.In extending the healing ministry of God's love revealed in Jesus, the miracle is that each caregiver participates and makes real again God's love.

A Spiritual Practice 
Health care then becomes a spiritual practice because each participant is challenged daily to respond to the cry of the poor, as revealed in those who suffer, are ill, elderly and dying. In one sense the art of caregiving may be viewed as a spiritual practice in which technical skills are interwoven with compassion and care. A spiritual practice is a form of asceticism and discipline such as meditation, yoga, ritual prayers, singing or chanting. There is a unique intention by and a goal for the practitioners that require a firm purpose of character, strength of will and determination. The dancing of the whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition of Islam is such a spiritual practice that seeks union with the Divine. Dancing becomes the ritual and discipline.Meditation, through the repetition of prayer beads or knotted threads in the Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu and Islamic traditions, is another example of a spiritual practice where repetition and concentration lead one to a deeper meditative and prayerful state.

In a similar way, the practice of health care, while following guidelines for the scope of practice, becomes a discipline and a spiritual practice. Excellence in practice and best outcomes do not occur randomly in health care. Excellence in service, quality and safety protocols along with expertise in treatments and technical skills require focus, attention and commitment. Healing is enhanced by the expertise of the caregiver and the therapeutic relationship that supports them.

The dedication of many health care professionals requires a certain altruism and self-sacrifice in order to respond to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of those who are ill. Dedication requires foresight, determination and purpose. Building relationships between caregiver and the one served can be argued to be spiritual because of the unique therapeutic relationship that develops. Indeed the art of healing, while not consciously always seen or experienced consciously as such, is a spiritual practice.

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