I met a woman who was modest and quiet in her professional demeanor, so much so that, sadly, I’ve forgotten her name. But it was her meekness combined with a mighty spirituality that I admired.
As social worker and counselor to patients at one Duke medical center, this woman offered compassion and practical ideas for recovering patients and their families.These were enormously helpful to a friend who was afraid to leave her husband after surgery for another important obligation. The wife had no family nearby and felt all alone. The social worker was attentive; she listened lovingly and well.
Did the patient’s wife have a faith community to rely on, asked the social worker. Would the wife appreciate knowing about visiting nurses who could come in each day and cleanse the surgical sites properly? Yes, the wife had a faith community and called a church friend for prayerful support. The friend accepted this request willingly. The wife also hired a well-trained visiting nurse while she was away. The social worker’s tender concern and practical ideas relieved the wife’s fears and solved the problem. The patient’s recovery was now underway.
The spiritual qualities of the social worker, plus the spiritual perspective of the church friend’s prayers, were effective. They did much to make this experience less of an ordeal and more of a deeply meaningful experience in which the patient and his wife felt loved and cared for. You could say that both mental and physical well-being were positively affected by spirituality.
But what is spirituality? Basically, it’s a state of mind that recognizes a higher power and that calls forth the expression of such qualities as compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and selflessness. These qualities give meaning to life and are usually, but not exclusively, taught and encouraged in faith communities like churches, temples, mosques and other worship places. I found a fine description of the power of spirituality from one hospital chaplain, Rev. Matthew Rhodes of Princeton HealthCare System, who writes about his career helping people to healthier outcomes through spirituality. He makes these five points and more:
1. Spirituality has been shown to “enhance recovery from illness and surgery.”
2. Spirituality or religion has been useful to 90% of hospitalized adults in one survey alone.
3. Spirituality or religious practices may increase length of life, according to research.
4. Spirituality helps in end-of-life questions, regrets and important decisions.
5. Spirituality impresses the AAMC* as vital for “high quality, holistic medical care.”
*Association of American Medical Colleges
Over one hundred years ago, another health seeker and spiritual pioneer wrote of similar conclusions. After her own long medical research and experiments, she noted that people are often “divinely driven to a spiritual source for health and happiness.” (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 152)
If prestigious medical institutions are recognizing that spiritual approaches improve health for their patients, should more of us pay attention to our spirituality even before we become sick?
To chaplains, patients, medical practitioners and others, it might be a good idea.