When I first started working as a medical intern I used to place a prayer book in my bag for work. At the time I thought I might have the opportunity to say a prayer for a sick patient or share a prayer with a family if they asked. Unfortunately a hospital is a busy place, and being an intern even more so. I put prayer and spirituality to one side, focusing on the material, scientific healing I was trained to practice. But maybe that is an excuse and I, like many of my colleagues, don’t put enough stock in the effects of spiritual healing.
O thou distinguished physician! … Praise be to God that thou hast two powers: one to undertake physical healing and the other spiritual healing. Matters related to man’s spirit have a great effect on his bodily condition. For instance, thou shouldst impart gladness to thy patient, give him comfort and joy, and bring him to ecstasy and exultation. How often hath it occurred that this hath caused early recovery. Therefore, treat thou the sick with both powers. Spiritual feelings have a surprising effect on healing nervous ailments.1
While medical training might not give attention to spiritual healing there is increasing evidence that at least some established diseases have a strong connection to our psychological, social and spiritual well-being. For example both psychosomatic and somatoform disorders are physical illnesses that are either caused or aggravated by mental health. These are well recognised to have a large component derived from anxiety and depression, of which spirituality can have a strong bearing. While other disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia are more controversial, they have responded to psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.234
You may not have ever heard of some of those disorders so you might be surprised to hear that they may be relatively common. A study looking at patients in twenty-two general practices in Switzerland found that 15.1% of patients presenting with a physical complaint met criteria for a somatoform disorder5. Other research suggests it might be as high as 30%6. These conditions often present as symptoms that are difficult to explain medically and often occur alongside anxiety or depression (sometimes undiagnosed).
So it is reasonable to say that we, as a society and as a medical profession, under-recognise how much of our physical health complaints and unexplained symptoms have some connection to our psychological, social and spiritual well-being. Doctors often either prescribe a drug in the blind hope it might improve things or, worse yet, some tell their patients their unexplained symptoms are “in their head”.
However, there is change stirring. Slowly the medical community is recognising that individuals truly do experience these symptoms, should be treated with respect and that more effort should be made to identify psychosocial factors that are playing a role. This is a slow process. There are still large gaps in medical training and deficiencies in how our consultations are structured.
I take heart in these words of Shoghi Effendi:
Abdu’l-Baha does often state that the medical science will much improve. With the appearance of every Revelation a new insight is created in man and this in turn expresses itself in the growth of science. This has happened in past dispensations and we find its earliest fruits in our present day. What we see however is only the beginning. With the spiritual awakening of man this force will develop and marvelous results will become manifest.7
Once the medical profession recognizes there are important psychosocial factors impacting on a wide range of physical symptoms, the next step is to acknowledge the need for spiritual healing. Abdu’l-Baha says:
Illnesses which occur by reason of physical causes should be treated by doctors with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means. Thus an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed more effectively by spiritual rather than by physical treatment. Hence, both kinds of treatment should be followed; they are not contradictory. Therefore thou shouldst also accept physical remedies inasmuch as these too have come from the mercy and favour of God, Who hath revealed and made manifest medical science so that His servants may profit from this kind of treatment also. Thou shouldst give equal attention to spiritual treatments, for they produce marvellous effects.8
Physical disease, especially those in critical condition in hospital, will of course not respond to prayer alone and it is important to note Abdu’l-Baha explicitly encourages the use of physical treatment in the quote above. It is, though, heartening to know that everyone can play a role in spiritual healing, not just medical professionals – whether it be with prayer or by showing love and compassion:
We should all visit the sick. When they are in sorrow and suffering, it is a real help and benefit to have a friend come. Happiness is a great healer to those who are ill… This has greater effect than the remedy itself. You must always have this thought of love and affection when you visit the ailing and afflicted.9
There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the treatment of physicians; the second consisteth in prayers offered by the spiritual ones to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practised.10
So maybe I was on the right track all those years ago and I shouldn’t have neglected my instincts. I’m also sure there are other methods of spiritual healing that you can think of and share in the comments below.
- Abdu’l-Baha. Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, sec. 130, pp. 150-151 [↩]
- Shirazi et al. Irritable bowel syndrome treatment: cognitive behavioural therapy versus medical therapy. Arch Med Sci 2012 Feb 29; 8(1): 123-129 [↩]
- Bennett R & Nelson D. Cognitive behavioural therapy for fibromyalgia. Nature: Clinical Practice Rheumatology, August 2006 2(8) [↩]
- Behavioural therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Accessed 13th February 2016. http://www.webmd.com/ibs/guide/behavioral-therapy [↩]
- Hartgoli et al. Patients presenting with somatic complaints in general practice: depression, anxiety and somatoform disorders are frequent and associated with psychosocial stressors. BMC Family Practice 11:67, 2010 [↩]
- O’Sullivan. “You think I’m mad? – the truth about psychosomatic illness”. The Guardian: Health & Fitness, Accessed 13th February 2016. http://tinyurl.com/pkc4au [↩]
- In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to two believers, 14 January 1932 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, sec 133, pp. 151-52 [↩]
- The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by Abdu’l-Baha during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 2nd. ed. (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 204 [↩]
- Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, sec 133, pp. 151-52 [↩]