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Faith in the Healing Experience
Deanna dent

Pathways to Healing

Spirituality and science often collide on the road to recovery

By Marilyn Hawkes

I’m a skeptic when it comes to spiritual healing experiences. But as I walked through the stone labyrinth at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., an unexplained calm surrounded me. I began to anticipate each turn of the gravel path. I thought about the arc of my life—both the good and the bad.

When I reached the center, I took a deep breath and listened to the bees humming in the desert underbrush. The sun warmed my skin. I walked out of the labyrinth refreshed and more balanced.

Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks walked their circuitous paths, which lead to a central place of reflection and insight. The pathway is often lined with stones and hedges to guide spiritual seekers to the center. Unlike a maze, which has many paths heading to the middle, a labyrinth has only one route.

Long considered places of spiritual healing, labyrinths are sprouting up at healthcare facilities across the country. More than 120 hospitals, clinics, cancer centers and treatment facilities have labyrinths where patients and staff can walk to center themselves spiritually and mentally.

Healthcare and spirituality have been intertwined throughout history. From the healing rituals of ancient Greece to today’s hospital labyrinths, faith and science have coexisted—but not always peacefully.

Medical Miracles

LabyrinthDeanna dent
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Judith Gadau, 8, of Tempe, plays in the center of the labyrinth at the Fransiscan Renewal Center.

Many in the medical community promote the idea that faith and healing go hand in hand. According to Dr. Christina Puchalski, an associate professor of medicine at The George Washington University School of Medicine, more than 65 percent of medical schools now include courses about religion, spirituality and health. Prominent universities, such as Duke and Minnesota, have established centers dedicated to studying the intersection of faith and medicine.

Dr. Allan J. Hamilton, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Arizona, has written extensively about the spiritual and medical connection. In a recent article in Spirituality and Health magazine, he recounts a story about a colleague named Hank (not his real name), who found himself in the emergency room with a thumping, erratic heartbeat. The doctors tried various medical interventions. As a last resort, they told Hank they’d have to cardiovert, or shock his heart.

Hank asked the doctors for a private moment to pray. As soon as he finished, his heart rhythm returned to normal. It has remained steady for two years.

Was it divine intervention? Or did the act of praying calm Hank enough to slow his racing heart? Dr. Hamilton thinks it might be both factors. “It was interesting that it [praying] had a dramatic effect. Prayer makes people more spiritually connected to something bigger than themselves.”

Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the Duke Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, believes that prayer plays an important role in the healing process. “Prayer and other forms of religious coping help people adapt to difficult life circumstances, and because it helps with their psychological coping, it may have physical health consequences.”

At nearby North Carolina Memorial Hospital, the pastoral department promotes wellness and helps patients cope with illness by providing a “more humanistic healing environment.”

One of their healing programs includes walking through a labyrinth. Patients who are bedridden or unable to walk are given hand-held labyrinths they can trace with a finger.
Studies conducted by Dr. Koenig and his colleagues show that religious patients who become depressed after a heart attack take less time to recover from depression. “Religious people also have larger support networks and live healthier lifestyles, as well as making better choices that are more pro-social and less self-destructive, which affects recovery from serious illness,” Koenig said.

Scientific Skeptics

LabyrinthDeanna dent
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George and Anne Tindall walk along the labyrinth at the Fransiscan Renewal Center.

But many in the scientific and medical community disagree. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University and author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, doesn’t dispute the fact that sick people turn to religion and spirituality for comfort. But he does question the quality and methodology of studies that show a link between religious involvement and beneficial health outcomes. Sloan said that many of the studies lack scientific validity because they’re often based on anecdotal observations. “It illustrates the precedent of dogma over data.”

Dr. Kenneth Freedland, a professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, said there’s conflicting evidence as to whether religious involvement affects health. “Church attendance has been linked to all sorts of positive health outcomes. A very likely explanation is that people who are too sick can’t attend church. Consequently, people who attend church tend to be healthier than people who don’t, simply because the sick people are home in bed.”

Caring Communities

Many religious communities have integrated faith and health. Temple Chai, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Phoenix, has a resource center devoted to “healing, learning and wholeness toward enhancing peace of mind, body and soul.” The Deutsch Family Shalom Center at Temple Chai sponsors educational programs that teach congregants the art of visiting the sick and sponsors support groups for people with cancer. The center holds fitness classes, including yoga and tai chi, and offers healing and meditation services.

Temple Chai also supports a Caring Committee. About 100 active volunteers reach out to congregants who are sick or have lost a loved one. Director Sharona Silverman said the Caring Committee doesn’t deal with the physical pain of illness. Instead, “our focus is letting our congregants know they’re not alone.” The volunteers do so by making phone calls, cooking meals for fellow temple members and visiting congregants in healthcare facilities.

At Chaparral Christian Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., clergy and church elders often visit congregants in nursing homes and hospitals. “We spend time with folks to let them know that their community of faith cares about them,” said Frank Shirvinski, a former aerospace engineer who is now the senior minister. The clergy also administer prayers of healing and hold healing services for ailing congregants.

Shirvinski said faith plays a role in the healing process. “I think the person is more than just a biomechanical machine, and you have to deal with the spiritual side if you’re going to be holistic in your approach to medicine and healing. Churches and synagogues should be involved in wellness. Are you eating right? Are you exercising?”

Congregants can walk through the church’s permanent labyrinth at any time. “The labyrinth helps your mind heal your body,” Shirvinski said. “Whether that’s relieving stress or tension, hatred or fear, it integrates the body and the mind.”

Unlocking the Mind

The trend of incorporating labyrinths and healing gardens into healthcare facilities is gaining popularity as a way to meld spirituality and science. Molly Scanlon, a San Diego architect with an interest in self-healing, said design plays a major role in creating quality space for healing. Scanlon recommended doing a site analysis before picking a location for a labyrinth or a healing garden. You don’t want to put it between two buildings where “it’s like you’re in an observation lab,” with people staring down at you, or next to a busy freeway. “Design can influence the level of your experience,” Scanlon said.

Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, Ariz., places a portable canvas labyrinth outside once a month, and the staff teaches anyone who’s interested how to use it. “It’s a walking meditation,” said Kimberly Murman, the director of Spiritual Care. “It allows your mind to settle.”

Murman told the story of a stroke patient who began walking through the labyrinth first with a walker, then a cane. Eventually she navigated on her own. The labyrinth isn’t a substitute for medical treatment or physical therapy, but it helps patients let go and shed their concerns.

Faith or Science?

People will always disagree whether labyrinths, prayer and other articles of faith aid the healing process. “You have to believe for it to work,” said Dr. Hamilton of the University of Arizona Medical School. He posed this question: If there are two patients with the same medical problem—one has a positive attitude, strong family support and spiritual orientation, while the other has no family and is lonely and depressed—who do you think will experience the better outcome?

But Dr. Freedland, the psychiatry professor at Washington University Medical School, sees it from a more clinical perspective. “When I’m seriously ill, I’d much rather put my faith in the best available scientific evidence and the best available doctors than in faith, faith healing, snake oil or any other nonsense.”

He also objects to faith-based healing because too many Americans know too little about the scientific basis of medicine. “Our interest in bogus remedies like crystals, homeopathy and faith healing is a personalized manifestation of an anti-scientific perspective. Other countries are surging ahead of us in science and technology. We can’t afford to be so ignorant.”

As a spiritual skeptic, I pitch my tent firmly in Dr. Freedland’s scientific camp. But can healthcare facilities afford to overlook alternative healing methods that might make a difference in someone’s life?

Meditate on that for a while.

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