Part 4: At the Heart of Healing Prayer
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 26, 2014)
The following is the fourth in a five-part weekly series:
In last week's installment of this series we looked at two ways in which the healing power of Jesus Christ is at work in His Church: the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the special charism of healing. However, you do not need to be a member of the clergy or have a special charism of healing from the Holy Spirit in order to participate in our Lord's healing ministry. The fact is that every Catholic is invited to take part in the apostolate of healing prayer whenever the need arises.
This form of healing ministry is simple, natural, and straightforward. Our Lord does not require you to use fancy words or theological jargon. Rather, just open the door of your heart to all that He wants to do through you and your prayers for those who are ill. It can be used by loved ones at the bedside, accompanied by the laying on of hands, or by healthcare workers — it can even operate "at a distance." I like to use the simple prayer I learned from the Anglican community of St. Luke the Physician:
Lord Jesus, may your healing hand rest upon________. May your life-giving power flow into every cell of his/her body, and the depths of his/her soul: cleansing, purifying, restoring him/her to wholeness and strength, for service in Your kingdom.
Two questions naturally come to mind about all of the forms of healing ministry that we have discussed in this series so far.
The first is: Why don't people always get well when we sincerely pray for them in one of these ways? Why doesn't Jesus always cure them, if He has such compassionate love for them?
No doubt there are several reasons, and we do not always know which ones apply in any particular case (after all, we do not have the capacity to read the secrets of human hearts or see what's best for everyone in every set of circumstances — only God can see all that!).
Sometimes, there is a lack of faith — that is, a lack of deep trust in Jesus — that acts as a kind of blockage or barrier to the flow of His healing love. Remember how many times in the gospels Jesus said to people He had cured, "Your faith has made you well" — not that they were healed by faith alone, but it acted as an open door, so to speak, through which Christ's healing power could flow.
Often it is not a lack of faith on the part of the one praying or the one being prayed over, but a lack of forgiveness — some festering resentments against others deep in the heart, or even a lack of forgiveness for ourselves — that bars the way. Sometimes God wants to help us get to the root of these deeper, spiritual ills first (indeed, sometimes these spiritual ills are the very cause of our illness to begin with). When the spiritual maladies have been remedied, then the way is clear for physical healing to happen. Notice the close connection in the Sacrament of Anointing between physical healing and the forgiveness of sins. We find the same thing in the gospels.
Remember the story in Mark 2 of the healing of the paralytic, the man who was let down through the roof on a stretcher to bring him to Jesus. The man may not have had much faith himself; it was his friends who brought him to our Lord. In any case, Jesus quickly discerned what his first and underlying need was: "My son, your sins are forgiven." It was only after that — and in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees — that the way seemed to be clear to say to him, "Rise, take up your palette, and walk!"
Most often, the effect of our healing prayers does not take place fully and instantly, but only gradually. There is a kind of "soaking prayer" — a regular soaking in the Holy Spirit, day after day — that often seems to help. And sometimes the Holy Spirit does not heal the sick individual completely, but only partially. Sometimes He brings relief and comfort but not the complete cure for which we had hoped. He knows what He is doing, and we just need to trust in Him who knows what is best for each one of us on our journey toward heaven.
At St. Therese School of Faith and Mission two years ago, we had a lovely, full-time student who came to us legally blind (from childhood). At the start of the year she could only read her school textbooks by holding them two or three inches from her face. But over time, through a half-year of prayer, retreats, spiritual direction, friendship and loving Christian community — soaking in the Holy Spirit in all of these ways — she was gradually, partially healed. One evening she came in from a walk in the snow and told us all with joy: "I just saw the stars for the first time in my life!"
Sometimes we do not find the healing that we think we need because our Lord knows that what we really need instead is to become more humble. So He strips away our pride and self-sufficiency by enabling us to patiently bear an ongoing "thorn in the flesh." Remember that this is what St. Paul himself experienced, and he said it kept him from being puffed up with pride and helped him realize that even though he was weak, God remained strong and at work in his life (II Cor 12:7-9).
Sometimes no healing happens in response to our prayers because God is calling us to do something important with our pain. He may be asking us in a special way to use our sufferings to carry the cross with His Son, offering up our sufferings in union with His Passion in order to obtain graces of conversion and sanctification for others. This is what St. Paul tells us he often did: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I make up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is the Church" (Col 1:24). In his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Dolores (Redemptive Suffering), St. John Paul II urged Catholics to remember that some people have a real vocation from God to share in our Lord's work of redemption in this special way. For some, it may be a lifetime vocation, for others a temporary one. But in every case, the floodgates open to many graces that He wants to pour out upon souls, and it sanctifies the one making the offering with the gift of pure, selfless love. As St. Faustina wrote in her Diary (entry 57): "Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Savior; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering the purer the love."
Also, there is another kind of "healing" that we must not forget. Some years ago, I started saying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for everyone I knew who was grievously ill. Much to my dismay, almost every time I did so, the person I was praying for died. My wife started calling me, as a joke, "The Grim Reaper of the Chaplet"! But was this really a defeat for the Chaplet and for healing prayer? Or was it all the result of my weak faith? I don't think any of these explanations applied. I think it may have been that the Lord knew better than me when it was time for those people to come home. After all, the death of those who abide in faith in the merciful heart of Jesus is really the final healing, for in heaven "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes ... neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:3-4).
Whenever we pray for someone's healing, we simply entrust them into the loving care of Jesus and ask for healing, because we know in general that health and wholeness is good for God's children. But we trust that He knows what is best for each person at every moment along their journey. My guess is that if our hearts were really open to the Holy Spirit, we would find that it is Christ's loving plan to heal broken bodies and wounded emotions far more often than we think. After all, during His sojourn on earth, He healed people far more often than He left them carrying the cross of illness! But in every case, in His merciful love for us He knows what is best in each situation. We just need to lie still under His loving hand.
"Jesus, I trust in You" is at the heart of every authentic form of healing prayer.
Read the series in full:
• Part 1: Is It for Real?
• Part 2: Yesterday and Today
• Part 3: Nope, It's Not 'Faith Healing'!
• Part 4: At the Heart of Healing Prayer
• Part 5: Modern Medicine, Healing Prayer Can Work Together
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.