Do any of our Seven Principles offer Unitarian Universalist a unique response to sickness and suffering? Is our response to sickness and suffering centered in our identities as Unitarian Universalists? I mean the Unitarian Universalist Principles do speak about compassion in human relations, acceptance of one another, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, so I think we can draw some inferences from our Principles. And the sources from which we draw for spiritual inspiration and sustenance might, might center us as we seek a common response: Our direct experience [of awe and wonder]… which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which… instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. There are humanistic teachings and the world's religions that can give us some ideas, but drawing from so many sources with so many different perspectives doesn't really center our responses in an identifiably Unitarian Universalist perspective or point of view on illness or suffering.
And as for offering prayers and compassion for those who have been diagnosed with HIV, what is in the nature of that offering? How might we define it? These questions have been on my heart as I prepared for the National Week of Prayer for Healing HIV/AIDS. HIV has killed 32 million people worldwide and still impacts the lives of so many, particularly here in Miami. Over 25,000 people are living with HIV here in Miami, that's 47 people in every 10,000. And thousands more are newly diagnosed each year (data from 2018; AIDSVu). Miami has the highest rate of HIV in the country. How does that impact our lives? What’s our Unitarian Universalist response to that?
HIV is just one of many illnesses that people are managing around us. How many of us or our family members or friends are managing some sort of long-term medical condition? Hypertension, Diabetes, Heart Disease, Psoriasis, some form of Cancer, Epilepsy, Alzheimer's, Arthritis, Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The list goes on and on. What the heck are we called--as Unitarian Universalists, as people who care--to do in response to those—in our family, with our friends, fellow congregants, co-workers, other human beings-- who are diagnosed with and sometimes suffering because of a particular illness? What are we called to do in response to our own illness or suffering?
Sometimes when I re-evaluate what I should be doing for people in need, I reflect on someone like Mother Teresa. "In 1950, Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation that had over 4,500 nuns and was active in 133 countries in 2012. The congregation manages homes for people who are dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. It also runs soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children's and family counselling programs, as well as orphanages and schools. Members take [a] vow – to give 'wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.'" (Wikipedia) While I don't see myself ever being a Mother Teresa, reflecting on her and others work in the world, opens me to options/ideas/commitments as I wonder, what am I doing to help the sick and the suffering and does what I'm doing need to change or be fine-tuned every now and then. Does it need an occasional check-up to make sure what I am doing still has efficacy?
What am I called to do? Is it the same as what I was called to do, say 10 years ago? 5? Pre-pandemic? Tomorrow night at 7:30 PM, I am hosting an Interfaith Prayer Service for Healing and Hope for HIV/AIDS. What are my expectations about this service? Will it help those who are ill, suffering? I hope so, although I have wondered what that might look like. I know there are some Unitarian Universalists who might say prayer does nothing tangible to help those in need. We've all heart it and we know exactly what it means when we do hear it: "I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers for whatever!" It's easy to say, I've even heard myself say it when someone was in pain or suffering wanting them to somehow magically feel better when they hear it. Is tomorrow's service offering more than that? Well, I am still committed to doing this service for a few reasons. I believe that more people need to be aware of how many people have HIV, especially here in Miami. I believe that people need to know what resources are available for diagnosis and treatment for HIV, and I believe that people of faith, particularly Unitarian Universalists, can be a non-judgmental guide to those community resources. There is more to be done and those of us who are proactively plugged in can help. I also believe prayer gives voice to the stirrings of my heart; prayer connects my heart to those who are listening to my words.
Giving voice to stirrings our hearts affirms our interconnectedness, strengthens our empathy, and sets our intentions—intentions that can result in actions that have a positive impact—if we follow through on those intentions with action. Expressing the stirring of our hearts through prayer can offer emotional and spiritual healing to another person. I know this can happen, because I've done it, and I've seen the results.
Perhaps you wonder about the efficacy of healing prayers or meditations. There are healing prayers and meditations from all the world's religious traditions. Some that might resonate with you, that you might use when you are ill or suffering or when you are with someone who is ill or suffering. I tend to resonate with the Buddhist tradition and wish to share this Buddhist prayer/meditation for healing with you. I invite you to notice as you listen to how it affects you. Take a deep breath, let your eyes rest or close and turn your attention within yourself:
Feel or imagine or sense that you’re floating above the Earth in the stillness of the clear air and luminous sunlight. After a minute or two, allow yourself to gradually descend. Set your intention to descend into a sacred and beautiful Temple, a place of great wisdom and healing and love. Allow the Temple to take whatever form it will. Sense how you feel being in this Temple. What does the energy of this healing place feel like to you? How does it affect your body and spirit? As you sense yourself in this Temple and feel how its energy is affecting you, allow yourself to become aware of the wounds you carry that require healing. As you feel your body opening to this healing touch, explore your sensations. Is the touch warm or cool, hard or soft? Let your awareness be gentle, as if learning the loving touch of Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, or Jesus or our common humanity. Feel your wounds, fears, and difficulties touched by pure sweetness and openness. Now expand the healing touch beyond you, to others you know are in need. To others you don't know who are in need. To all living beings. As long as diseases afflicts any living beings may you as a doctor, a medicine, a nurse who restores them to health. (Adapted from a healing meditation by Jack Kornfield, https://jackkornfield.com/the-temple-of-healing/)
May you be well, happy, and peaceful.
May your parents be well, happy, and peaceful.
May your relatives be well, happy, and peaceful.
May your friends be well, happy, and peaceful.
May indifferent persons be well, happy, and peaceful.
May unfriendly persons be well, happy, and peaceful.
May all beings be well, happy, and peaceful.
What did you notice? Does it feel like this prayer could have a place alongside other more tangible modes of healing the sick and suffering? Personally, I think offering healing prayer and meditation is important, if not essential. It helps the psychological and emotional impact that illness can have. In other words, the suffering. And suffering exacerbates any illness. And suffering reduces our resilience when trying to cope with illness.
I believe as Unitarian Universalists, we often think primarily about the practical things we can do to help those with illness, and for good reason. We first learn more about the disease; we help people find the resources they need—medicine, testing, financial resources; we lobby for laws that reduce discrimination or provide more resources; we welcome people with HIV into our community, without the stain of stigma. Here, you are loved and affirmed just as you are. All these things are necessary. However, I think many of us are less quick to help with the psychological and emotional impact that having a life-long dangerous, potentially fatal disease can have. And while psychotherapy is one resource for this, there are other resources that should be considered as effective healing modalities. Prayer and meditation can be one of those. Not just saying I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers, but sitting down with a person with HIV or any disease and offering to journey with them thoughtfully, prayerfully, in whatever form that may work for them and you.
When I was working as a Chaplain in the Memorial system of hospitals in Houston some 17 years or so ago, I remember walking into a patient's room for the first time. The person was dying from lung cancer and he wanted someone to pray with him. I simply went back to my Catholic roots and just said the "Our Father". While he seemed to get some comfort from this prayer, I really didn't feel I offered the best possible prayer for him. And for that matter it didn't feel right saying a prayer I no longer believed in. I talked with my Chaplain supervisor, and she said I needed to bring my authentic self and my own spiritual beliefs to my visits with patients and I needed to consider how I would also honor the patient's spiritual beliefs and needs. This meant two things: I had to figure out how to pray in a way that was authentic to me, consistent with the Unitarian Universalist Principles and my own personal spiritual beliefs. And I had to communicate with the person who was ill and/or suffering, to ascertain their beliefs and needs, to be able to offer a healing prayer for them. I knew for instance I couldn't and wouldn't ask for a miracle, even if the patient wanted me to. I knew I couldn't and wouldn't say the illness was God's will and the patient should understand their illness in the context of some bigger picture. I could offer a non-anxious presence. I could offer my belief in a divine presence that is ineffable. I could offer the healing energy that I believe is in all of us and in the universe. I could acknowledge their understanding of divinity without feeling as if I were compromising my own, because you know what, it really isn't and shouldn't be all about me.
We each will have to decide what resources we can commit to those with HIV or other long-term illness, and/or to those who are suffering and struggling. Some of us may decide that we can do the more practical things that are needed and that's excellent and much needed. And perhaps some of us will focus our healing energies on the suffering. Helping those who suffer can be emotionally taxing, scary, and challenging, but it can also be fulfilling, wonderful, and life-changing. You may find yourself as a doctor, a medicine and also a nurse who helps someone find the grounding, peace, emotional and spiritual strength that they are yearning for. Just as you are.