An account of the author's training and experience in parish healing ministry, along with history, practical advice, and guidance.
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Healing in the Landscape of Prayer
By Avery Brooke
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1996 Avery Brooke
All rights reserved.
When we are open to God, we are open to the unexpected. I am seldom as open as I would like to be, but usually open enough to know when God says, "Not this way!", or "How about that?", and I find myself called to walk down an unexpected path. This book tells the story of such an unexpected path, when I found myself called to a healing ministry in my parish of Saint Luke's in Darien, Connecticut.
It was unexpected because I thought my path ahead was settled. It had taken me three years to get my heart, mind, and life into some sort of order after my husband's death. But it was done. I had decided to stay in our old Victorian house and take in house-sharers. The house-sharers helped with chores and were a companionable presence. We became a family. After spending time in prayer in the mornings I wrote, and in the afternoons I saw people for spiritual direction. I congratulated myself on working out a peaceful pattern of life. But my self- congratulations were premature.
The unexpected began simply enough. In our parish we have a quiet day during Lent. It usually lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a Saturday. A speaker makes several addresses and the rest of the day is left for silent prayer and meditation. One year the publicity announced that Franklin (Skip) Vilas, an Episcopal priest, would speak to us on spiritual healing. The day would end with a service of healing and the laying on of hands.
I had no trouble believing in the reality of spiritual healing. As a spiritual director I had seen many miracles of spiritual and psychological growth as I watched the action of God within the people with whom I was privileged to work. I had also read of many carefully documented modern physical healings, similar to those done by Jesus and his disciples. There seemed to be few of them in our times, but too many, I believed, to simply explain away But I had never felt called to further involvement with spiritual healing. My life was full and I was content. I came to the quiet day, therefore, with only mild interest, spiced with a dash of Lenten obligation.
I remember little of what was said on that Saturday eight years ago. Nor were there, to my knowledge, any notable healings. But when Skip Vilas invited people to come forward, one by one, for the laying on of hands, he also said that friends and others who were moved to join him and lay hands on the shoulders or back of the person he was praying for should feel free to do so. When it was my turn for prayer, I was therefore not surprised to feel several hands on my back at the altar rail, but I was startled to feel that one pair of hands was hot. I don't mean just warm, but hot—like a radiator. I was distracted from Skip's prayer for me. I vaguely remembered that hot hands were associated with healing. Whose hands were they? When the prayer was over, I turned around quickly and found that the hands belonged to Margaret, a woman who had been coming to me for spiritual direction.
Now one of the tasks of a spiritual director is spiritual discernment. We are supposed to be wise about prayer and open to God so that we can discern the motions of the Spirit within our directees. Margaret had been coming to me for two years, and I had had no idea that she had what I now perceived must be a gift of healing. I felt shocked and abashed.
A week or so after the quiet day, Anne Kimball, our associate rector, contacted Bonnie Brown, a Congregational minister with a vocation to the ministry of healing, and asked if she would be willing to teach a group at Saint Luke's something about healing. Bonnie told Anne that she would be happy to do so, that in fact she would very much like the experience of teaching a group of people in a liturgical church something about spiritual healing. When I heard of the group I felt that I should join.
The twelve people that Anne Kimball gathered together were all women, most of us at retirement age. No one held a full-time job, and so we were able to gather every other Tuesday afternoon under Bonnie Brown's tutelage. Bonnie is an unusual and remarkably gifted person, not only as a minister of healing but also as a teacher and therapist. She lost her faith while in seminary and chose not to be ordained. She regained it about twenty years ago through an unexpected combination of New Age meditation and Roman Catholic charismatic healing—God's unexpected action again!
Bonnie had polio as a child and is in a wheelchair. She went to the late Agnes Sanford (one of the great ministers of healing) for prayer when she was sixteen. No cure resulted, but it seems probable to me that Bonnie's innate gift of healing was enhanced through Agnes Sanford's prayer. People who are gifted in healing often do not discover it until they are older, but Bonnie remembers being known in college for the "magic back rubs" she could give her classmates.
We in the group at Saint Luke's thought of ourselves as broad-minded; certainly we felt that we were one with Christians of other denominations. But as Bonnie began to teach us, we discovered difficulties in communication. She spoke "Congregationalese," and we were strong Episcopalians. We had also thought we were broad-minded about Roman Catholic charismatic healing and New Age meditation. But they, too, have different languages. In addition to these difficulties, we had a certain timidity in learning about healing. It was intriguing, yes, but also a bit frightening. However, as time went on, these problems seemed to melt away. Difficulties in communication vanished, and we realized that Bonnie was a rather awesome and very humble Christian. She led us—ever so gently—through prayer and meditation to the laying on of hands and specific, unrehearsed healing prayers for one another.
I think that we had all come to the group with a more distant and intellectual vision of learning about healing. Although we did read books, what we learned were primarily interior and spiritual lessons acquired through practice and through Bonnie's guiding words. I remember her voice time and again saying, "Get your egos out of the way. Make room for God." We weren't even quite sure what she meant at first, but as I have learned over the years, this dynamic is at the crux of healing. It is not our compassion that heals, it is God's compassion. It is not our words of prayer that heal, it is God using our words and our hands and the energy flowing through us.
We soon found that our own hands would sometimes get as hot as radiators. Later we learned that heat and the feeling of energy flowing through our hands were not necessary for God to bring healing. Even words were not necessary, and wordless prayer was often best. But, silently or aloud, we have always held to Jesus' command to his disciples to go out and heal in his name.
These aspects of healing were not clear to us for many, many months. We only knew that something was happening within and among us. We were too shy to talk about it, but we knew the Holy Spirit was with us. We learned—ever so slowly—not to worry about the words of our prayers and to let the Spirit choose our words for us. We struggled to get our egos, ourselves, out of the way.
In a larger sense, the whole ministry of the church is healing. Working for peace and justice is healing, serving in a soup kitchen is healing, volunteering in a hospital, working with troubled youth—are all healing ministries. But the more specific ministry of healing that Bonnie was teaching us is not something we do, it is something God does. We just get ourselves out of the way, as best we can, to let God through.
Some of us didn't talk to anyone about what we were doing in the group. Would people think we were setting ourselves up as "holier than thou" if they knew we were laying on hands and praying for healing? We shuddered. We did not like to think of ourselves as "channels for God." It seemed presumptuous. It was more comfortable to be humble. But was it humility to refuse to do what Jesus told his disciples to do? The Bible is very clear on the subject:
Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:1-2)
In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus' followers did just as they were told by the Lord to do. Probably the most familiar story of healing in Acts is of Peter and John healing the man who had been lame from birth (Acts 3:1-16). My favorite story about Paul and healing is told in Acts 14, where he and Barnabas were proclaimed gods by the people of Lystra because of a miraculous healing. Protesting, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you."
Another familiar text we studied concerning healing in the New Testament is from James:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The power of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. (James 5:14-15)
We began to think more about obedience than seeming humble. Wanting to "seem humble," after all, was an inverse kind of pride. It was also ego getting in the way of God.
Perhaps because I had been professionally involved in talking about God in my writing and during my years in religious publishing, I found little difficulty in talking about my involvement in healing. And once I spoke up, I began to hear other people's stories of healing.
One was from an elderly but lively woman who seemed to radiate a health and happiness I noted as soon as I met her. She looked very much at peace with herself and her world and a sparkle of humor showed in her eyes. After I had mentioned my interest in healing, she took me aside and said she would like to tell me her story.
"Soon after the birth of my first child," she said, "my daughter was diagnosed with a serious disease. It was incurable, the doctors told us, and she would probably die soon. My husband and I were stunned. One weekday, when the baby and I were alone, I wrapped her up warmly—it was winter—and I drove to our church. I carried her into the church and walked right up to the altar rail. I knelt down there with the baby in my arms and prayed. Suddenly I felt a great force streaming through my body into the child's. When it faded," she concluded, "I realized that the baby was well."
"What did you do then?" I asked.
"I took her to the doctor, who confirmed that she was completely cured, and then I went to see my rector. He told me to tell no one, but to go and see one of the sisters he knew at the nearby convent. She became my spiritual director, and I've been going to the convent all these years. Until recently, I have told no one. But lately it has seemed right to break the silence. My daughter is now an adult and is married with a child of her own."
While on retreat I met an Episcopal priest who told me that he had had a late vocation to the priesthood. He was married and had children, and his seminary years were a difficult time for him and his family. Toward the end of his preparation for the priesthood, he developed a very bad sacroiliac and had been in quite a bit of pain. Now one leg was completely numb.
"I know it doesn't make sense," he said, "but I was terribly concerned that nothing stand in the way of my becoming a priest after all I'd put my family through. I thought if I went to the doctor about my back and leg, someone might say, 'Sorry, but you can't be a priest if you're crippled,' so I didn't go to a doctor and I arrived at my first job without having sought medical help.
"It just so happened," he continued, "that my first job was at Saint Boniface Church in Sarasota, Florida, where a special kind of healing ministry had been instituted. I called to make an appointment. I didn't tell them anything about my back, but just said that since I was new at Saint Boniface, I felt I should learn about their work. When the time came, I entered the room where two people trained in healing were waiting for me. I sat down and we said the Lord's Prayer together. We prayed for quite a while in silence. Suddenly I felt one of the healing minister's hands slip in between the chair and my back and rest on the small of my back. All was still again. Time passed and then, without warning, there was a loud crack! Suddenly, all pain and numbness were gone. I sat up and said, 'My God. It worked!' And the three of us dissolved into laughter."
* * *
During the time I was hearing these stories, back at Saint Luke's nothing dramatic was happening, though I was comforted by the fact that healing ministers at Saint Boniface trained for four years. Looking back on those early years, we can now see that small physical, psychological, and spiritual healings were occurring. But bad backs, mild depression, and various aches and pains come and go, and it was less frightening for us to think that something other than prayer was responsible for those healings. We could give God credit if it was a new pill or treatment, but we weren't ready to say that our prayers and our laying on of hands in Jesus' name had anything to do with it. We preferred to think that our words were helpful because they were comforting and our presence and concern were strengthening because they made people feel less alone, rather than to admit that God might actually be using us to heal in some way we didn't understand. And yet, we knew that something was happening to us and through us when we met.
Animals, I learned from reading, are very open to healing, as they have none of our rational defenses. When my husband died he left behind a young standard poodle named Ceildh (pronounced Kaylee). Ceildh is a Celtic word for the ancient custom of gathering together at a neighbor's house to tell stories and sing songs. We had just returned from a trip to the Outer Hebrides and the word ceildh was on our minds. But now my husband was gone and I left the house early for a long day in the city. Ceildh was lonely, and while I was gone he adopted the dog and family across the street. My neighbors were remarkably accepting of this at first, but when Ceildh not only chased cars but began teaching their dog to chase cars, they said, "I'm sorry, but something Will have to be done."
My best friends lived on the other side of town and liked dogs, so I appealed to them and they took Ceildh in. This way Ceildh would not be lonely and I could at least see him, on my frequent visits. I was very fond of Ceildh.
Some years passed and one day my friend called up. "I'm afraid I have bad news. I took Ceildh to the vet for his annual shots and he had a severe reaction. The vet said, 'Once in a great while this happens. We've done everything we can. I'm terribly sorry. You brought me a healthy dog and now Ceildh is dying. He'll be more comfortable at home so why don't you take him with you. Bring him back at the end of the week and we'll give him a shot to put him to sleep.'
"I'm going to be out, but if you want to see Ceildh," my friend continued, "I'll leave the back door open."
So late that day I went over and found Ceildh all alone in the living room. I looked down at him sadly and he lifted his tail briefly and then let it fall.
Standing there I suddenly realized that I could do more than give him a hug. Why not? He was God's creature, too. I knelt down, put my arms around him and said out loud, "Ceildh, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I ask that you be restored to full health." I left my hands there for a few moments, prayed without words, and then said, "Amen." I patted him gently and left.
The next morning my friend called and said, "Ceildh seems a bit better." Well, I thought, I'd better go back and pray some more. I did, and again Ceildh improved. I went again on the third day. By the fourth day Ceildh was well. "A miracle," said the vet.
Was it a miracle? Well, in any case it was an unexplained physical healing. I just thanked God for the healing and left it at that. Only God knew the why of it.
Not only are animals less resistant to healing prayers than human beings, often their healing persuades a reluctant Christian to follow a call into the healing ministry. Susan, who later joined our group at Saint Luke's, first realized the power of healing prayer when she prayed for a badly crippled dog who got well. Another woman, who has been a minister of healing for many years, told me that she did not realize she had a gift of healing until she was forty-five, when a puppy who had been run over by a car was brought to her for prayer. The puppy was obviously dying, badly crushed and in pain. An hour after she prayed, the dog was happily running around the house.
Excerpted from Healing in the Landscape of Prayer by Avery Brooke. Copyright © 1996 Avery Brooke. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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