Faith Healing: The Unexpected Spiritual Journey of Illness

By Scanlon, Leslie | U.S. Catholic, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Faith Healing: The Unexpected Spiritual Journey of Illness


Scanlon, Leslie, U.S. Catholic


When the doctor told Mary Fierro two years ago that she had breast cancer, she was waiting for it. Three of her nine sisters had the disease. She was scared, but she'd been expecting it. Her body wasn't ready, but her heart was prepared. She cried only once.

But Fierro, who's 54 and lives in Arizona, also was ready because this wasn't the first time she'd looked trouble straight in the eye. In 1991 she got divorced, and after three years of crying and therapy and 12-Step programs, she turned for real to God.

Instead of asking, "Why me?" Fierro began to ask, "Why not?"

"God loves us all the same," she says. "Whatever happens to us is just the way life happens, I think. If I won a million dollars, would I say, 'Why me?' Heck no. There are good things and bad things in our lives, and we have to accept both. If we don't, we are not truly loving Jesus."

She began to promise Jesus every day: "I'm not leaving you."

Right before she was diagnosed with cancer, Fierro had had a hysterectomy. People asked her, "'How do you do this?' I said if it wasn't for the Lord, I wouldn't make it. I wouldn't. You just have to trust that you're going to be OK. And if you're not, you have to trust you're going to be with him, one way or the other."

Fierro is not alone. When people find out they are sick, they worry about what's happening to their bodies, how much it will hurt, what they can do to get better. They're afraid they will die.

But getting sick, especially with a chronic or life-threatening illness, also begins for many people an intensely spiritual journey. Many of them--from Catholics who go to Mass every day to those who doubt there is a God--do sense connections between the mind and the body and the spirit. In the quest for healing, the boundaries between science and faith get blurred.

One of those studying the link is Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University.

According to Koenig, there have been hundreds of scientific studies conducted over the last 25 years showing that people of religious faith who pray and go to worship regularly are less likely to get sick and that when they do become ill they do better.

Those who are active in a faith community, "especially those going to church regularly, at least once a week, seem to have better immune systems," Koenig says. They are more likely to recover from surgery and are less likely to die during surgery. "They live longer, are able to fight off illness, lead healthier lives, and are less likely to abuse substances."

Religiously active people also cope better with stress, experience less depression, have a greater sense of well-being, more optimism, more hope, and are more willing to forgive, Koenig says.

Some of the research is controversial and certain studies have been criticized; not all scientists buy in. Even more elusive are clear results from the relatively few studies of intercessory prayer, where people pray for the healing of another person.

But Koenig contends that the explosion of interest among medical researchers about spirituality and health--more than 1,100 studies were published between 2000 and 2002--already is starting to change medical treatment. "Even though there is still a tremendous amount of resistance against addressing religious or spiritual factors in patient care, that resistance is slowly beginning to weaken," he says.

Body, mind, spirit

Ripples from this research also extend into everyday life. People are paying more attention to the spiritual components of illness. Congregations have started parish nursing programs, often working with the elderly, whose loneliness and isolation can contribute directly to a decline in health. Some Catholic priests specialize in healing ministries, and some parishes hold special services for the Anointing of the Sick.

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