Consider the Lilies and Covid-19: Attentive Presence for Health and Healing

‘It was as though where Jesus was, God’s will to make whole sick and suffering people asserted itself spontaneously’

This is, perhaps, the loveliest description of Christian spiritual healing that I have read. It was written by John Barton in Love Unknown: Meditations on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus (revised edition, 1999, Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, p 23), a short book based on a Holy Week sermon series, that I have been reading this Lent. The way he wrote of God’s will asserting itself spontaneously is a beautiful description of the activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, acting in and through Jesus. The sentence is part of an explanation of Jesus’ rejection of the, then prevalent, assumption that suffering was a manifestation of well-deserved divine judgement.

At this time of high anxiety about Covid-19 and the impact of its spread on all aspects of society, this part of Barton’s book shone a ray of hope into the gathering gloom and despondency; and provides inspiration for Christians who are keen to do something to help, which is why I want to share it widely. The passage is as follows:

‘In the ancient world there were people (as there still are) who could heal others by means that medical science could not explain satisfactorily, and Jesus was clearly such a person; we do not even have to see his healing gifts as signs of divinity, for others could and can do similar things. But we can certainly see them as signs of his compassion for suffering humanity, and his refusal to accept any idea of suffering as a God-given punishment.

‘Healing the sick was not, it seems, the primary concern of Jesus’ ministry, for obviously he left far more people unhealed than he had time to heal; yet it was a natural part of it, almost as if healing just flowed out from him – indeed in one story in the Gospels [that of the healing of the woman suffering haemorrhage; Luke 8, 42-48] [Jesus] does speak of it as power that went out of him even without his deliberately intending it.’

And here we have that insightful sentence:

‘It is as though where Jesus was, God’s will to heal and make whole sick and suffering people asserted itself spontaneously. Just as some people trail clouds of gloom with them, poisoning the air about them and making people feel hurt and injured, Jesus carried God’s positive and health-giving power with him, bringing more exuberant life and making people flourish.’

As Barton wrote, Jesus is not the only one through whom God’s Holy Spirit brings healing to others. There were, and still are, people who heal others by means that are not explained by modern biomedical science. The ability to bring healing and enable people to flourish is one of those charismatic gifts that is bestowed on us by virtue of our baptism, being manifest in different people to different extents. Gretchen Stevens is one such highly gifted person, the effectiveness of whose loving, attentive presence and gentle touch has been evaluated and published in authoritative journals (see, for example: Weze C, Leathard HL, Grange J, Tiplady P & Stevens G. Evaluation of Healing by Gentle Touch. Public Health, 119(1), 3 – 10, 200). As our world and country confront the problem of the rapidly-spreading corona virus, Covid-19,  it is perhaps timely to remind ourselves of the possibility of the Holy Spirit working through each and every one of us, enabling us to be lovingly and attentively present to bring help and healing to those who are suffering, as much with anxiety about infection as with the infection itself.

It is important, too, to remember that viruses are a natural part of God’s creation, just as we are; and that they will only spread so far; and infect only a small proportion of people to the extent that they become seriously ill or die. At the same time, it is important to take precautions against spreading the infection to people who are most vulnerable. So, as we follow our Christian vocation to bring hope and healing to people who are suffering at this time, we will avoid going out and about coughing over people and leaving potentially infectious residues in our wake. We will be responsible for washing our hands thoroughly and disposing of used tissues safely. But what about visiting and caring for people who are already home-bound and lonely, in need of companionship?

The is an abundance of evidence that what I call ‘attentive presence’ can make a substantial contribution to holistic care (Leathard HL & Cook MJ 2009 Learning for holistic care: addressing practical wisdom (phronesis) and the spiritual sphere. Journal of Advanced Nursing 65(6), 1318–1327. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04949.x). So, while concerned about the spread of Covid-19, should we continue to visit, or should we desist? Manifestly, we need to use common sense. While we have no symptoms, we can continue to visit unless government guidance changes. If it is inappropriate to visit in person (because someone is potentially infectious, particularly vulnerable or being cared for in a restricted environment), we can use the telephone (being aware that many elderly, vulnerable people might not have familiarity with or access to internet and social media): chatting for a while with people who are isolated, and maybe praying with them too. Before phoning, or calling on, anyone, it is a good idea to have some helpful resources at hand: prayers, poems or short passages from books or scripture. I offer this excerpt from John Barton’s book as a useful way of talking about our faith in Christian healing as a contribution to those resources.

Revd Prof Helen L Leathard

Trustee of the Guild of Health & St Raphael