Ps. 6: Prayer & Healing

Jerome E. Groopman, M.D. is the Dina and Raphael Recanati Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of Experimental Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and one of the world’s leading researchers in cancer and AIDS. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New Republic. He is author of The Measure of Our Days (1997), Second Opinions (2000), Anatomy of Hope (2004), How Doctors Think (2007), and with his wife, Dr. Pamela Hartzband, Your Medical Mind (2011).

 

For more than four decades, I have cared for very ill people with cancer, blood diseases, and AIDS. And for several years during those decades, I also experienced my own medical illness in the form of prolonged pain from failed spinal surgery. The words of Psalm 6 speak deeply to the psychological core of patients’ fears, and to how prayer can surmount fears and provide focus and direction when we are most bereft.

Regardless of the precise diagnosis, all who are afflicted with a life threatening malady, like the author of this Psalm, imagine at minimum two wrenching terrors: to be in unrelenting pain, and to be abandoned. Those two fears are intertwined and can be felt both physically and emotionally. The sick worry that even the most adept physician may fail to relieve the visceral agony of the illness, and that this failure will prompt the physician to retreat from the bedside in frustration, surrendering patients to prolonged suffering that will only end when death arrives. Illness is frightening to the healthy, and not uncommonly friends and family find it increasingly difficult to sustain bikur cholim, visiting of the sick. As Susan Sontag wrote, the ill often live as if “in a different country.” In a metaphor from our tradition, illness may be experienced as galut, exile, alienation from all that centers us, including our faith. We may feel abandoned not only by friends and family but by Ha’Shem (“The Name,” God). And, given how often disease is linked in the Bible to divine punishment, this ideation multiples the misery of isolation. Listen to the voice of the Psalmist cry “O Lord, do not punish me in anger...”

King David was, of course, a warrior, and it is not surprising that this Psalm attributed to him uses the imagery of “enemies...” While warrior metaphors for facing disease are controversial among literary scholars, most notably again Sontag, in my experience as a hematologist-oncologist, many patients find them meaningful. In the setting of AIDS, the enemies were more than HIV attacking the immune system; they were prejudice against gay men and xenophobia against Haitians and Africans, “enemies” that threatened to prevent society from mobilizing against the epidemic and “enemies” that stigmatized the sick and worsened their psychological plight. Now in the midst of the COVID pandemic, we hear the xenophobic trope of the “China virus” to deflect attention away from the failures of government to effectively address the spread of the infection. 

As a person of faith and as a physician-scientist, I have long thought about the place of prayer in the setting of severe illness. I don’t conceive of disease as divine punishment, but as a natural consequence of our being mortal creatures living in a natural world. And the idea of prayer as a magical incantation that will erase illness in a moment defies the realities of treatment and recovery that I witness at the bedside. What then might prayer for healing accomplish?

A true story I cherish from years ago: My patient, an older Italian woman from Boston’s North End, a devout Catholic who regularly attended Mass, was hospitalized with advanced breast cancer. Every morning at the close of rounds, she would grip my hand and say “Doctor Groopman, I am praying to God.” I felt uncomfortable, unsure what to offer in reply, assuming she was praying for a miracle cure, which was understandable but unlikely given how widespread the cancer had grown. So I was mute. Then, one morning, I mustered the courage to reply, “What are you praying for?” My patient looked at me warmly. “I pray every day for God to give my doctors wisdom.” I nodded and intoned “Amen.”

My patient’s prayer reminded me of the famous maxim of the Kotzker Rebbe “Where is Ha’Shem? Wherever He is allowed in.” In the agony of illness, with physical and emotional suffering, it can be difficult to open up space for faith. Psalms do that. This Psalm speaks to me directly, having been a patient and being a physician. We want to be healed and to heal others. And we want that healing—soul (nefesh) and body (guf)—as rapidly and completely (sh’leimah)—as can be.

The gift of Ha’Shem to possibly make that happen is found in another prayer, the Amidah, where we ask God to bestow “da’at, binah, v’haskel”—knowledge, understanding and discernment—each vital in making an accurate diagnosis and choosing a treatment that has a maximum chance of success and is customized to the individual patient. It is rightly said in our tradition that God works through the healers. And in an age of advancing powerful technologies, of genomics and protein crystallography and computer modeling, prayer tells us we have the divine gift of concerted thought to solve the most complex diseases, to turn to science and create cures, to make hope a reality. 

 

Read more about the PsalmSeason here & subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

A new book, “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,” by Omar Mouallem, may meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims.
For Christians, Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas and beyond. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes that perhaps fasting during Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season.
Interfaith holiday events can be a great way to show respect for others and make everyone feel included. Need some tips? Our IFYC colleagues have you covered.
Studies show that American religious diversity will only continue to grow and that Thanksgiving dinners of the future will continue to reflect this “potluck nation.” We all bring something special to the table.
IFYC staff members share what they're listening to, watching and reading that inspires an attitude for gratitude this season.
How can you support Native Americans and understand important issues and terminology? This Baylor University sophomore is here to help.
Aided by an international team of artists, author Salma Hasan Ali turned her viral blog about Ramadan into a new handmade book.
A symposium hosted by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago focused on the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological education as well as efforts to uncover truth and bring healing.
This week's top 10 includes stories on faith and meatpacking in the Midwest, religion in the metaverse and an interfaith call for peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The two lawmakers appeared at "Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights," the inaugural event at Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice.
Religion & Politics journal interviews the author of a new book on the impact of growing religious diversity in the American Midwest.
Five interfaith leaders share readings and resources that inspire them, give them hope and offer solace in turbulent times.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” mental health counselor Shivam Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
The author, a Hindu and a Sikh, notes that faith plays a subtle yet powerful role in the show -- and creates space for more dialogue.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary.
The average congregation these days is small — about 70 people — but the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
Decades of silence, stigma, and structural barriers to treatment and testing have allowed the epidemic to spread, claiming the lives of far too many of our Black friends and families.   
Mawiyah Bomani, a Tarot reader in Louisiana, used to make her own Tarot cards until she found a deck celebrating spiritual practices throughout the African Diaspora. "I hoped and wished to find a deck with me in it," she says.
In this week's round up, a Buddha gets a paint job, a Black interfaith social media account goes viral, and Indigenous activists speak out.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.