By Corrine Winter
My husband and I have been talking lately about healing, prayer and death.
Jim often insists that he is not a theologian, but he asks wonderful theological questions and often provides insight as to how well my theology stands up to life experience. Our conversations have been spurred by an accident that has placed our 34-year-old nephew in a coma. His parents and, of course, all of his family storm heaven for a miracle of healing and can’t help wondering what such a miracle might look like and whether we are praying as we ought.
The questions regarding life and death, suffering and its alleviation, are multitude, urgent, complex and ultimately beyond our power to answer satisfactorily. But our Catholic faith provides some guidance for our reflections.
First and overarching, God is love. And part of our life journey is experiencing that love in diverse ways. In my years of teaching high school and college, I have heard many stories from those who have questioned or even abandoned faith after a tragedy. They insist that a loving God would not allow someone young, or good, or important to die. Others are just as convinced that God sends the suffering for a reason; some even say that it must be good for us in some way that we might not grasp. But each of those positions represents an oversimplification that is inconsistent with faith. I wish I could now provide the right answer, but the only answer available is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all of us must struggle to appreciate fully what that means.
Certainly, it means that suffering is not reserved for those who deserve it or for those who do not pray, for who could pray more intensely than Jesus did? It also tells us that suffering and death do not have the final word; God brings new life where all seems lost. Moreover, suffering can have redemptive meaning. Indeed, in some way, suffering and death are connected with God (although we must be cautious in our attribution of human qualities to God).
That does not mean that we stand by and accept all pain as “God’s will.” At the very least, we cry out with Jesus for the pain to pass us by. And, like the bold characters in the Gospel who made their way to Jesus to ask for cures, we make use of the means available to help and to heal. That includes medicine, spiritual guidance and companionship, the comfort and encouragement we can offer one another, and at times fighting systems that are not working as they ought for the good of all. And while we do all that we can, we also leave it in the loving hands of God who says to us that his plans for us are “for welfare and not for woe.” (Jer. 29:11)
On Nov. 1 of last year, my family and I stood by my brother’s bedside as he breathed his last after a 14-year battle with ALS. Some might say he lost that battle, but we believe he won it. He lived with courage, determination, and a growing faith. As he faced death, he struggled with fears about his own sense of unworthiness in the face of God’s greatness, and he collected prayers that seemed relevant to his situation.
We read and shared those prayers as we sat with him through his last hours and after his death. And we believe that God has now healed my brother — not by providing the kind of miracle we asked for over and over, but fully. And we believe further that we have received miraculous gifts of strength and love through one another and through others.
Do we have all the answers? We certainly do not. It is an on-going process that includes nagging questions and continuing pain.
As we wait with our nephew and family, we don’t know how the healing for which we pray will come, but we cling to the belief that ultimately, there is healing and fullness of life.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)