So, this week's blog post is a bit late, because I wanted to share with you some brief insights from the Episcopal Clergy Association of Pennsylvania clergy conference from which I have just returned. I was asked to come to the conference to present a workshop yesterday afternoon (and also to repeat it this morning) on social media, which focused, not too surprisingly, on YouTube. The workshops were well attended and received--and I had a great time doing them--but I was most uplifted by a series of talks by the keynote speaker, Sara Miles, from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Regrettably, I was not able to stay for the whole conference to hear all of her talks, but the session on healing prayer this morning was particularly moving, and I'd like to tell you why.
Blessing a prayer blanket in the summer of 2007.
When I first contemplated becoming an Episcopal priest, I attended a parish that attracted a lot of people who were hurting in one way or another. Some came to us, because they were dying from cancer; others were recovering alcoholics; and still others were lonely. All of them had a need for some kind of healing. Memories of these sisters and brothers flooded my mind as I listened to the presentation; and I found myself taking copious notes while Sara was speaking about what healing was and wasn't. It's almost as if I had gone back to some very important roots in my vocation, roots to which I hadn't paid much attention in recent years. Sara explained, for example, that healing does not promise a cure, or comfort, or an absence of pain. In fact, Jesus is pretty clear in asking: do you want to get well if it's going to be painful? Or would you rather stay the same? If you're going to be healed, it's probably gonna hurt. After spending many weeks myself in physical therapy for my broken hand, you'll get no argument from me. Healing hurts like hell sometimes. Healing, Sarah argues, is essentially a mending of the woundedness of alienation, isolation, bitterness, resentment, fear and other existential voids. Healing is a bringing of the person back into relationship with others, so that the broken and wounded pieces of himself or herself may be held and loved together with the whole and healthy bits. And in healing others, we are healed ourselves; it is always a two-way street. The three foundations of healing, Sara elaborated, are relationship, truth, and meaning, and none of these can be obtained on our own. They aren't always experienced in this order, but they are always present at some point.
Holding hands during prayer - I'm on the far right :)
After the first half of her talk, we took a break, and then observed Sara and a few others demonstrate how healing prayer is done at St. Gregory's. Finally, we gathered into circles of 4 or 5 people, joined hands, asked if there was someone within the group who wanted prayers for healing, and then took turns praying for the person. We could then ask if he or she wanted to be anointed, and where the person would like to be touched with the holy oil. The really interesting thing for me is that the moment I joined hands with others, I felt my body stiffen, my shoulders raise in anxiety, and my pulse quicken. What was going on, I wondered? I immediately realized, "oh, we just initiated intimacy, and I felt vulnerable. This is not what I'm used to in church." Once I had acknowledged that, I was able to relax and be present to the prayers and the people with whom I was praying. It not only proved Sara's point that healing happens reciprocally in relationship, but it also jolted me into a renewed awareness of the critical role of physical touch in healing and all sacramental activity. The stiffness in my shoulders alerted me to the fact that we don't do nearly enough sacramental touching in the Church, and yet Jesus never hesitated to touch the diseased limb, the tongue that could not speak, or the eyes that could not see. Perhaps we feel that the broken bits of ourselves and others are gross, unworthy of love, and need to be hidden, rather than be held and loved. If I'm really honest, and I go back to those early roots of my vocation, then I have to confess that I, too, came to the church, because I was wounded and needed healing. I sought a place to overcome anger, alienation, hurt, and fear. I sought hands that could cradle my brokenness and bless it, consecrate it to God's use, and then pass the blessing on to others.