How is it possible for love, which is essentially spiritual, to have a transforming effect on the human body, which is corporeal and the natural object of scientific intervention?
"Love and Healing" develops the theme of healing as removing that which is alien to the human being. This notion of healing is consonant with two aspects of love: affirming the self in its proper or authentic state, and restoring the wounded self to that state. Christianity owes much to the contributions of the ancient Greeks on this subject, but greatly surpasses them in its recognition of the critical importance of the body and the supreme value of love.
On June 21, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to directors, employees and patients at the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (the "Home to Relieve Suffering"). The Pontiff recalled the words of St. Padre Pio, when the hospital opened in 1956, that "the commitment of science in treating the patient [must] never be separated from a filial trust in God, infinitely tender and merciful". The saint of Pietrelcina also noted, on the hospital's first anniversary (May 5, 1957), that in the Casa Sollievo "the recovering, doctors, priests will be reserves of love, which, inasmuch as it abounds in one, the more it will be communicated to others".
Benedict made the comment that, "Each time one enters a place of cure, one's thoughts turn naturally to the mystery of disease and pain, to the hope of healing and to the inestimable value of health, which is often recognized only when it is lost".
The relationship between an atmosphere of loving care and the process of healing brings into focus a critically important issue that has captured the attention of philosophers, theologians, and members of the medical profession throughout the ages. How is it possible for love, which is essentially spiritual, to have a transforming effect on the human body, which is corporeal and the natural object of scientific intervention? The answer to this timeless question, at least in part, is related to the integral wholeness of the human person and the natural affinity human beings have for each other.
Love, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has described it, is the "affinity between being and being". It is moreover, a radical affinity that makes possible the blending and mending of human souls. In this sense, love is the great equalizer, having the inherent potential for being expressed between any one human being and any other. Love, therefore, is an affirmation of the other, regarding the other in his wholeness. This affirmation rests on the recognition that a person's wholeness constitutes his original state, the state in which he is most himself. This original state is a person's fundamental good and, as such, is a natural object of love. In the case of people who are severely debilitated, this inner value may be difficult to perceive. In this regard G. K. Chesterton has made the insightful and witty comment that "It is strange that men should see sublime inspiration in the ruins of an old church and see none in the ruins of a man".
None of us, needless to say, exists in a state of primal wholeness. Nor is any one of us unblemished. Consequently, the second phase of love is restoration. Here, love operates as the desire to help others return, as much as is possible, to that original state of wholeness. The simple observation of a mother bathing her child and restoring that child to cleanliness exemplifies these two phases of love. By definition, restoration implies the original state which is the one that is affirmed. Restoration operates on a state that cannot be affirmed in itself. Love is intolerant of imperfection.
It is important to note that in most European languages, for example, the words health, healing, wholeness, and holiness are all etymologically related. Healing is a restoration of health or wholeness. We speak of "physical health" on a bodily level, "mental health" on a psychological level, "integrity", referring to the moral dimension, and "holiness", referring to spiritual wholeness.
The process of healing for Plato, therefore, is the removal of that which is alien to a person in the interest of restoring him to wholeness.
Healing is rooted in love insofar as love desires the other to be restored to wholeness, and this restoration process presupposes the primary and primal significance of wholeness. Disease, depression, sin, and alienation are all impediments that compromise wholeness. Healing involves the removal of these impediments.
Plato regarded all impediments to wholeness as "alien" factors that do not belong to the human in which they have lodged themselves. In the third book of his Republic, he refers to all such impediments as "evil" and specifies such evil as "an alien thing in alien souls". Evil is that which does not belong in a person and inhibits his proper functioning. Consequently, it should be removed so that the person can be truly himself again.
The process of healing for Plato, therefore, is the removal of that which is alien to a person in the interest of restoring him to wholeness. Plato's conception of personal wholeness is evident throughout his many writings. In his dialogue, Charmides, he insists that healing must always begin in the soul. Accordingly, he writes as follows:
. . . if the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul – that is the first and essential thing: and the cure of the soul . . . has to be effected by the use of certain charms, and these charms are fair words, and by them temperance is implanted in the soul, and where temperance comes and stays, there health is speedily imparted, not only to the head, but to the whole body . . .'Let no one persuade you to cure the head, until he has first given you his soul to be cured by this charm. For this . . . is the great error of our day in the treatment of human beings,[namely,] that men try to be physicians of health and temperance separately.'
Plato's view of healing is based on his recognition of the integral wholeness of the human being as well as the notion that the highest level subsumes the lower levels. Thus, for Plato, healing begins by curing the head. Norman Cousins, that indefatigable student of the relationship between mind and body, shows some affection for the Platonic model of healing in his 1989 book, Head First: The Biology of Hope. He contends that "The major advances in modern science give substance to the principle that the mind of the patient creates the ambience of treatment. Belief becomes biology. The head comes first" (p. 281). Cousins is a strong advocate of psychoneuroimmunology, a new branch of medicine that explores the interaction of the brain, the endocrine system, and the immune system.
In the Symposium, Plato's celebrated dialogue on love, the great student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle speaks of the essential role that love plays in medicine. Referring to the expert practitioner of medicine, he writes as follows:
Yes, gentlemen, he must be able to reconcile the jarring elements of the body, and force them, as it were, to fall in love with one another. Now, we know that the most hostile elements are the opposites – hot and cold, sweet and sour, wet and dry, and so on – and if, as I do myself, we are to believe these poets of ours, it was his skill in imposing love and concord upon these opposites that enabled our illustrious progenitor Asclepius to found the science of medicine.
And so, gentlemen, I maintain that medicine is under the sole direction of the god of love . . .
Plato's reference to Asclepius, the god of medicine, is significant. Just before he died, Socrates remembered a debt. "I owe a cock to Asclepius," he said to Crito. "Will you remember to pay the debt?" These were the last words Socrates was to utter. The father of moral philosophy was referring to the Greek custom of propitiating the god of medicine following medical treatment. The cock is a poor man's offering. It is believed that it was made in behalf of Plato who, being ill, was unable to be with his dearest friend when Socrates drew his final breath.
It has become traditional to identify modern doctors with a long line of historic greats reaching back to the impressive Hippocrates . . . But sometimes it is forgotten that medicine owes its greatest debt not to Hippocrates, but to Jesus.
In Plato's hierarchic vision, the physician stands in the middle between the body which he endeavours to heal and an ideal which he seeks to imitate. The mind can heal the body because knowledge of sickness does not itself confer sickness. At the same time, the mind needs an ideal so that it can resist being infected in such a way that evil becomes a property of the soul. Plato, of course, knew nothing of the immune system or bacterial infections. His view of medicine seems, to the modern physician, unacceptably idealistic. Nonetheless, Plato made important contributions to the love/healing discussion and even today, physicians are referred to, in certain quarters, as Aesculapians.
According to Greek polytheism, Asclepius was just one of many gods. Hence, the love and healing that he represented was not universal among the gods. By contrast, Christianity is monotheistic and the love that is attributed to God is thoroughly divine. In fact, for Christians, God is identified as "Love". Jesus, the Son of God gave central importance to love and healing during his brief ministry on earth. Of the 3,779 verses in the four Gospels, 727, or nearly one/fifth, are related specifically to the healing of physical and mental illnesses and the resurrection of the dead. In most cases, Jesus combined the speaking of words with touching. His practice of touching began a tradition which survives to the present of the "laying on of hands". In three instances Jesus uses saliva in exercising his healing. Nor was his healing ministry constrained by social conventions. At least six of his healings took place on the Sabbath.
Plato philosophised about healing. Jesus put it into practice. With the rise of Christianity, many Aesculapian shrines were transformed into Christian Churches. Writing about the great transition from the Greek to the Christian view of love and healing, J. W. Provonsha, MD, makes the following observation:
It has become traditional to identify modern doctors with a long line of historic greats reaching back to the impressive Hippocrates . . . But sometimes it is forgotten that medicine owes its greatest debt not to Hippocrates, but to Jesus. It was this humble Galilean who more than any other figure in history bequeathed to the healing arts their essential meaning and spirit . . . Physicians would do well to remind themselves that without His spirit, medicine degenerates into depersonalized methodology, and its ethical code becomes a mere legal system. Jesus brings to methods and codes the corrective of love without which true healing is rarely possible. The spiritual "Father of Medicine" was not Hippocrates of the Island of Cos, but Jesus of the town of Nazareth.
Nonetheless, something of the philosophy of the ancient Greeks survives. Morton T. Kelsey states in his book, Healing and Christianity, and writing from a Christian perspective, that "As this Spirit resides in us we build up defences against alien forces so that they cannot so easily attack and possess us." Kelsey goes on to say that "Love is an invitation to God's Spirit" which serves to protect us from "alien domination". He sees Christ's command to love one another as more than an ethical maxim. It also carries profound healing implications.
Kelsey may have been echoing the thought of St. Augustine who, in one of his Sermons wrote: "When Christ was first preached to the few who believed, he was mocked by multitudes. Nevertheless by the power of the cross, the blind saw, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed so that all might come to know, that even among the powers of this world, there is nothing more powerful than the humility of God". 
The Christian approach to love and healing accepts the fundamental importance of the wholeness of the person and that evil is something alien. In this regard, it owes much to Ancient Greece. But it goes far beyond these ancients roots in that it holds love to be unequivocally divine, expresses love in a more personal manner, and understands the appropriateness of ministering directly to the body.
Plato, idealist that he was, failed to appreciate the supreme importance of the body. Modern research on the therapeutic value of touching would have been an eye-opener for him. The healing power of touch is so natural to human beings that it can be observed among pre-mature babies. The University of Massachusetts Memorial, for example, has co-bedded at least 100 sets of multiple birth preemies. Observing the practice over a period of five years, the hospital staff there has not found a single case of twin-to-twin infection. In addition, clinical studies have shown that premature twins enjoy substantial benefits when they are placed in the same bed together. Researchers Gayle Kasparian and Mary Whalen, report the following benefits:
- Decreased number of sleep apnea problems.
- Improved blood-oxygen levels.
- Increased weight gain.
- Better feeding.
- Greater temperature regulation.
- Decreased agitation.
- Decreased length of hospital stays and likelihood of re-admission.
Someone has said that we need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. This may not be entirely accurate, but it does illuminate an important truth about human beings: "We touch therefore we are" is incomparably more revealing of the nature of human beings than "I think therefore I am".
Plato, though not to his discredit, knew nothing of the immune system. Had he become acquainted with this natural marvel, he would undoubtedly have radically altered his views on healing and fully accepted the importance of the corporeal.
Of all the mysteries of modern science, the immune system's capacity for distinguishing between the self and the non-self must rank at or near the top. In order to protect itself against foreign substances, the immune system generates 100 billion (1011) different kinds of immunological receptors. No matter what the shape or form of the enemy invader, there will be some correlative receptor to recognize it and effect its elimination.
"Self," in this context, refers to the person solely on a physiological level and does not include, per se, the psychological, moral, and spiritual dimensions of the human person. The "non-self," therefore, is also understood on this same physiological plane. At the same time, the human person is a moral, spiritual, psychosomatic unity, and what transpires on one level may have an effect on another. Although the human person is, indeed, an organic entity, it is possible to distinguish these different levels.
On a philosophical level, truth safeguards the self and allows its development, while persistence in error can have a disintegrating effect. On a spiritual level, the binary opposites involve being and nothingness, theism and atheism.
Added to the mystery of how the immune system distinguishes self from non-self is its ability to recognize foreign carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and proteins amidst those which exist within the organism that are exceedingly similar to them in structure and shape. When the immune system is functioning properly, it never gets activated by self substances and unerringly responds to those that belong to the non-self. When it is not functioning properly, the distinction between self and non-self is blurred and diseases of autoimmunity occur.
The functioning of the healthy immune system in protecting the self against the non-self serves as a prototype of the binary manner in which higher levels of the integrated person operate. For example, on a psychological level, hope is consonant with the overall health of the self; despair acts as something alien to that good, and consequently as self-destructive. Karl Menninger, psychiatrist and co-founder of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, views "hope" as one of the "sublime expressions of the life instinct". Norman Cousins speaks of hope as a "powerful prescription".
The immune system, by nature, is not relativistic. It firmly values the self and just as firmly disvalues threats to the self. It sees no middle ground. Needless to say, the immune system operates below the plane of consciousness. But it is both a prototype and model for all the higher levels of the self.
The self on a moral level relates to the person's "authenticity" and is related to freedom. This is a favourite theme among a myriad of existential personalists from Kierkegaard to Karol Wojtyla. It is possible for a person to choose to be estranged from himself. In trying to be what he is not, he allows a "non-self" to displace his authentic self. We know that pride precedes a fall. Because pride is the temptation to be what one is not, it is potentially ruinous of one's authentic personality. On the other hand, through conscious effort, one can freely choose humility which casts out pride and restores the authentic self. The proud person is inclined to insist, for example, that a particular wrong idea is right simply because it is in his head. He tends to lose his ability to make the more important judgment that the idea does not belong there. He no longer sees the alien idea as part of the non-self. In other words, a proud person tries to become something other than who he truly is. His egoism fails to dispel the ideas that do not truly belong to him. A more humble individual will be less inclined to believe that being in one's head is all that is required to validate an idea. He wants his ideas to conform to truth. He knows that such truthful ideas belong to him as part of his authentic self. Humility is consonant with his real identity.
In considering another of the Deadly Sins, lust, we find the same transition from self to non-self taking place. A person who is driven by lust may welcome this potentially ruinous disposition because it is convenient or because it promises pleasure. But lust fractures the personality, allowing one part to dominate or even displace the whole. Temperance, on the other hand, is the moral virtue that holds the self together. It ensures that various desires and inclinations are brought into harmony with each other. It honors the value of human wholeness.
On a philosophical level, truth safeguards the self and allows its development, while persistence in error can have a disintegrating effect. On a spiritual level, the binary opposites involve being and nothingness, theism and atheism.
We may envision the immune system as the base of a pyramid. This is the broad base of the physiological level that affirms the self and opposes the non-self. Above that we find the psychological level that accepts hope and rejects despair, the moral level that welcomes goodness and eschews evil, the philosophical level that embraces truth and shuns error, and finally, at the apex of the pyramid, the spiritual level that unites with God and avoids the abyss of nothingness.
Healing is needed on all these five levels of the person if he is to attain maximum wholeness. Moreover, these different levels can, as Plato noted, have beneficent effects on the lower levels. World famous immunologist, Depak Chopra, has shown that even looking at a picture of Mother Teresa can strengthen the immune system by producing additional T cells. Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy, has written about a condition he refers to as "noögenic neurosis," a psychological disorder that is caused by alien ideas. Norman Cousins and his medical associates have reported instances where patients, once they were freed from depression and despair, showed an increase in the number of cancer-fighting immune cells.
Because the human person is essentially one being and not a multitude of conflicting factors, it is not surprising that healing on one level can have salutary effects on other levels. It is equally true that a disharmonious condition on one level can have a deleterious effect on other levels.
Love embraces the whole person. This presents an additional reason for the physician to concern himself with all the various levels of the patient's personhood. For good work in one area can be quickly undone because of neglect in other areas. The old adage of a sound mind in a sound body should not be viewed in a dualistic fashion. Rather, we should see the soundness of mind and the soundness of body as aspects of the same integrated person.
In his Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas responds to the question whether pain and sorrow can be mitigated by the compassion of friends ("Utrum dolor et tristitia mitigentur per compassionem amicorum?). He gives two reasons to support his affirmative answer. The first reason is that sorrow has a depressing effect, like weight from which we try to unburden ourselves, so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others are bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen the weight. In this way, the burden of sorrow becomes lighter. The next reason, which Aquinas regards as the better one, is because of the pleasure he receives when he experiences the love of his friends, since every pleasure assuages sorrow.
Aquinas'response is based on his underlying conviction that love has the capacity for positive, healing transformations. This understanding of love is rooted in the "being-to-being" affinity that exists between human beings. Aquinas amplifies this point in another passage of his Summa where he states that "another's actions, if they are good, are reckoned as one's own good, by reason of the power of love, which makes a man to regard his friend as one with himself". Love unifies, and in this unifying process, heals. Even the transition from loneliness to community is a form of healing.
Every human being has a healing potential. If love does not provide a healing cure, in certain instances, it nonetheless can relieve suffering. The ideal of Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza should be shared by all: physicians and patients, priests and parishioners, saints and sinners, parents and children, neighbours and strangers.
- Plate, Republic III, 409c, tf. Paul Shorey.
- Plato, Carmides, 157a-b, tr. Benjamin Jowett.
- Norman Cousins, Head First: the Biology of Hope (E. P. Dutton: New York, NY, 1989), p. 281.
- Plato, Symposium, 187a, tr. Michael Joyce.
- Plato, Phaedo, 118, tr. Hugh Tredennick.
- J. W. Provonsha, "The Healing Christ," Current Medical Digest, December. 1959, p. 3.
- Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity (Augsburg Books: Minneapolis, MN, 1995), p. 51.
- St. Augustine, Sermones Novi Testamenti, Sermo CCXXXI, tr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR.
- Ibid., pp. 41-54.
- Meredith OBrien, "The Rescuing Hug: The Benefits of Co-Bedding Infant Twins," www. my-happy-heart.com.
- Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., "Recognizing Self from Nonself," Science, Vol. 248, No. 4961, June 15, 1990, p. 1273. "When the immune system is working well it never gets activated by self substances, but unerringly responds to the nonself substances. When the system is not working well this distinction gets blurred and diseases of autoimmunity occur."
- Cousins, Op. cit., p. 287.
- Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (Simon and Schuster: New York, NY, 1967), pp. 43, 67, 76, 122, 183, 209, 217.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 38, 3.
- Op. cit., I-II, 32, 5.
Donald DeMarco. "Love and Healing." The Linacre Quarterly vol 77, no. 1 (February 2010): 43-52
The Linacre Quarterly is the official journal of the Catholic Medical Association. Continuously published since 1934, The Linacre Quarterly is the oldest journal in existence dedicated to medical ethics. The Linacre Quarterly provides a forum in which faith and reason can be brought to bear on analyzing and resolving ethical issues in health care, with a particular focus on issues in clinical practice and research. To learn more and see Linacre Quarterly resources online, please Click Here.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2011 Donald DeMarco
back to top