Ministering to the spirit

I’ve been known to speak of humans as if we were divided into three aspects. I speak of providing resources and support for people to have healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthy spirits. This tree-aspect view of humanity isn’t something I invented. It has been around for a very long time. Western thought on the topic is heavily influenced by ancient Greek thought, which posited that there is a life force which is more than the physical aspects of the body. Other cultures had similar concepts. Traditional Chinese medicine addresses “Qi” which is a similar concept to life force. In Yoga, the concept is called prana. Traditional Native American religion also has a concept of a human spirit.

The location of the spirit in the human body has been a matter of inquiry and ideas about it have changed over the centuries. The languages of both of the testaments of the Christian Bible (Hebrew and Greek) both speak of a connection between the spirit and breathing. Our language does the same. To inspire is to breathe. It is easy to see how ancient observers made this connection. When a living being dies, it ceases to breath. A breathing person is alive. One who does not breathe is not alive. In fact for many centuries the presence or absence of breathing was a measure of whether or not a person was living. Holding a mirror to the nostrils of a comatose person was one test applied.

It isn’t just the respiratory system, however. We have also thought of life and death in terms of the circulatory system. Is a heartbeat present? Take the person’s pulse. If there is a heartbeat, then life exists. It took quite a long time for people to become aware of how deeply these two systems are interrelated. The lifesaving technique CPR acknowledges this connection in its name and practice. Cardio for heart and Pulmonary for breathing.

In these days where mechanical respirators can take over much of the function of breathing and artificial pumps can assist with circulation, physicians often use electronic scans of brain activity to determine the extent to which ongoing life is possible.

The human spirit, however, doesn’t reside in a single place in our bodies. It isn’t just a matter of lungs, heart or brain. This, too, is not a modern idea. Many of the ancient philosophies of human nature posit the existence of a life force that is a part of everything and present in the whole beyond the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem is that whereas the human body and the human mind have been successfully studied by employing scientific method, the application of science to the study of the human spirit presents challenges. Science assumes that at least some of the variables can be controlled. It assumes that experiments can be replicated by replicating the conditions of the original experiment. Our spirits, however, don’t respond in consistent or replicable fashion. Our reactions change with time and circumstances. Virtually every medical experiment realizes that there are variables that are beyond control and that human beings are more complex than a single system. Therefore medicine has tended to focus on chemistry, which can be quantified, thus the extensive use of medicines in human health treatments. Modern medicine acknowledges that physical and chemical manipulations are not the whole story of human health, but it tends to focus on areas where success in treatment can be illustrated.

The level of precision achieved in orthopedic surgery, for example, cannot be achieved when working with a person’s spirit. There are some ancient techniques of spiritual direction which can be studied and imitated. But much of religion is more intuitive and less scientific than the field of medicine. That doesn’t make it any less real or less important, however.

I frequently counsel people who are making major life decisions. Perhaps they are considering a change in career, or perhaps a relationship is in need of attention. Often people have already made major life decisions before they come to me for counsel. They want me to affirm the choices they have already made. Still they are aware that there is a problem with their spirit. They seek prayer almost as if it were magic or science. “Give me a dose of that so I will feel better.” Prayer, however doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of cause and effect. For those of us who engage in a discipline of regular prayer, it often is experienced as a process of listening - of becoming more aware of what is going on - rather than a process of taking action or making change.

One of the human diseases where the role of the spirit is very evident is depression. The disease has obvious physical aspects. People die of depression. Sometimes the mode of death is suicide. And there are physical interventions that save lives such as limiting access to the means of suicide. There is a chemical aspect to depression. Certain medicines can ease the symptoms of depression significantly and effective treatment often involves medicines. There is a cognitive side to depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been proven to help people cope with and live with depression. But depression is more than all of these things. Depression is also a disease of the spirit. The languages of psychology and medicine fall short when it comes to depression.

I sometimes speak of depression as a reflection of vitality - where the image is reversed. I know this is an incomplete metaphor, but it can be helpful. When one experiences vitality one has physical and mental health and one experiences life infused with spirit. Depression is somehow devoid of that same spirit - or at least lacking in spirit. And unlike air and blood, which can be pumped and artificially circulated, there is no mechanical substitute for the human spirit. What renews the spirit is love.

The prologue to the Gospel of John speaks of “The Word become flesh.” Theologians call it incarnation. Spirit-infused body is essential to human vitality. The human being is the best vehicle for conveying love to others. Human community is the answer to human suffering. Within the sacred space of relationship we invite others to return to vitality and absorb the gift of love.

It is imprecise and messy and filled with awe. We still have much to learn about spirit.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!