One of the significant benefits of belonging to a faith community is knowing that we have a place in the larger human story that also connects us with the Divine calling toward healing and wholeness. Finding a community where we belong can be a powerful remedy for the experience of isolation and separation that are inherent in the human condition, but when our shared belief systems equate healing with cure, the desire for healing and wholeness can paradoxically leave people living with incurable illness or disability feeling isolated in a faith community.
In the Christian tradition it is easy to read the call to pray for healing in the gospels as an invitation to pray for the restoration of physical health. Whilst a desire for physical health is normal, it is an equally normal human experience to live with illness. Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes the art of healing involves knowing and doing what we can to ensure that we participate in behaviours and treatments that seek to restore health to the whole person, body and soul. Healing is therefore a process of persistently responding to the needs of the body and maintaining the integrity of the whole person. Understanding healing as a fluctuating process rather than a fixed outcome, leads to an appreciation of the unique qualities of every human body. We learn to see illness and disability as part of the normal spectrum of human experience.
When we pray for healing we are anticipating that something may change as a result of our prayer (Matthew 17:20). As a person living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I have asked for healing prayer and been deeply blessed in the experience. My original request for healing prayer was deeply embedded in a strong desire for cure. When it was evident that I was still unwell, I wondered what this said about the faith we had expressed in prayer. I worried that people might interpret the presence of illness as a lack of faith. Having travelled with this illness and the healing power of prayer for the past 10 years I am fortunate to be able to say that the chaos and disruption that are part of living with MS have become for me a reminder that the body is a site for continuity and change. This crisis in my body has been an invitation to become more aware of the needs of my soul.
Theologian Paul Fiddes suggests that we experience movements of divine life coming, turning, flowing, and burning in the body itself. To pray for healing in the spirit of participation, repetitively and with anticipation, even in the absence of a cure can lead to an awareness of divine life in the body that is turning, flowing and even burning with neuropathic pain. The repetition of the prayer is a mode of perception that turns my attention toward the life of God that is inherent in my embodied experience in the world. In this way, it is possible to say that if we have faith we will be healed even if we are not cured, because it is in faith that we participate in the life of God and God’s life participates in the body.
Art making has been an important part of my healing process. Ellen Dissanayake claims that making art offers the opportunity to engage with the art of repetition to elaborate on our experience of desire, instilling a sense of belonging, meaning and competence in ourselves and in other people. Art can also redirect our focus away from ourselves, enabling us to pay attention to the movement of God. Art can therefore function to engage our bodies, enabling us to be aware of ourselves and attend to our bodily presence whilst refocusing our attention toward God in whom we ultimately belong. In this way making art can be considered a prayerful movement toward healing that leads us to the acceptance of what it means to live in a human body, fully engaged and participating in the life of God, in sickness and in health.
When the experience of disability was new for me, finding ways to continue working as an artist were important. Hope on the Horizon II, is an oil painting that is largely bound with plaster bandages. The thin line of transparent green oil paint that is the horizon emerges from beneath the bandages, as a reminder to carefully respect the unseen process of healing that is at work in the presence of serious illness.
Figure 1. Libby Byrne, (2011). Hope on the Horizon II, Mixed media on canvas, 1530 X 920mm.
Art Therapist Shaun McNiff says that, “Art heals by accepting the pain and doing something with it.” When Jesus approached the blind man Bartimaeus he did not presume to know what the man needed but asked him “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:42-52). The question was an open invitation for Bartimaeus to participate with the healing process by recognising and naming his deepest need. Healing was not something that was done to Bartimaeus. I would venture to suggest that it was not even something that was done for him. Rather it was something that Jesus did with the full participation of Bartimaeus who wanted his sight restored and expressed his desire directly with Jesus.
So, what is it that you want? In naming what we really want we are open to the fullness of our humanity and we are vulnerable because we are not sure what will happen next. It is important to not presume to know what a person living with illness and disability might want. To live in ways that are healing, we must encounter the whole contingent experience of living with, in and through our uniquely able and differently abled bodies. We don’t all need to be cured of disability – but we do all need to live in ways that are healing, as we navigate the human condition.
Libby Byrne, PhD, works as an artist, art therapist and theologian to address the nature and significance of art within the process of healing that enables human flourishing with illness and in health. Libby teaches in the Master of Art Therapy Program at La Trobe University (Australia) whilst developing a growing body of research in the emerging field of Practice-led Theological Inquiry. She works as an Adjunct Lecturer and Honorary Research Associate with the University of Divinity (Australia) and is a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP). For more information, www.libbybyrne.com.au Dr. Byrne can be reached at: E.Byrne@latrobe.edu.au