Healing Our Fevers
An ancient and revered prayer is the following, penned by John Henry Newman:
"Oh, Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen." (BCP, p. 833)
One of the strengths of that prayer lies in the fact that life quite often is feverish. The prayer helps us to acknowledge that reality. In fact, one of the ways that the stresses of life can be felt and known is in literally getting a fever.
Writing in the fifth century, St. Jerome said, "Every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers."
It is helpful to think of our "fevers" —the stresses of life which can take us out of the flow of life and creativity—through a particular lens. That lens is the lens of chronic anxiety. At the same time that anxiety can have helpful effects in terms of basic survival and the development of habits useful in playing sports, protecting our young and others close to us, anxiety can also become chronic to such an extent that creative thinking is impaired, relationships become damaged, and our bodies become less healthy. In certain schools of the healing arts, "chronic anxiety is understood to be the primary promoter of all symptoms, from schizophrenia to cancer from anorexia to birth defects." (Friedman, Handbook of Family Therapy, p. 140)
If this is true, it certainly deepens our understanding of the constant concern throughout Scripture voiced in the often, repeated command: "Be not anxious," and "Do not fear."
If we use the term "fevers" as a poetic or metaphorical image for those conditions removing us from the creative and loving flow of life, and if we understand that our fevers are at least promoted, if not by our chronic anxiety, then what can lift us back into the flow of life? I think today's gospel lesson brings us great good news.
After leaving the synagogue one day, Jesus and his disciples go home with the brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Now Peter's mother in law was in bed with a fever, so Jesus' followers told him about her at once. Here comes the crux of the matter. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted Peter's mother in law up. Then the fever left her. The cure for our fevers, the cure for our chronic anxieties, the cure for our incapacitating stresses, the cure for that which takes us out of the creative flow of life—is to be touched by the Source and Author of creativity and life.
A few years ago, Bill Moyers published a series of video interviews and examinations of the art and practitioners of healing called Healing and and The Mind. In the series and the subsequently printed book of the same title, Moyers interviewed Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at the Commonweal Cancer Help program in Bolinas, California. Specializing in the care of individuals and families with life-threatening illnesses, she is a former Crohn's disease patient herself. Her comments about healing expand my gratitude and understanding for the encounter between Jesus and Peter's mother-in-law in today's Gospel. (See Healing and The Mind for comments.)
The cure for our fevers is to be touched by the One who has been tempted in every way as we are—with all the stresses and chronic anxieties that we experience and yet has persisted in being an agent of life—abundant life and of evoking the will to live. What better description of Jesus than the one who evokes the will to live?
St. Jerome continues in his sermon on this text, "...let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand; for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees. "
But we would not be true to the story were we to omit the final phrase in this story. Mark's gospel reads, "Then the fever left her and she began to serve them." The good news is that "life after fever"—or perhaps more realistically stated, "life between fevers"—is a life that in turn promotes, encourages, and supports spreading the healing touch of Jesus throughout our environment. Being healed from the fevers of life are not ends in themselves. We do not take our healing and turn into isolates—not cured, now made whole. Rather, being lifted from fevers are invitations from God to join a community of healers. God reaches out to us in a variety of ways to heal us and then to invite us into the service of spreading that healing to all we meet.
The Very Rev. J. Edwin Bacon