Humanity seems to be afflicted with a spiritual illness. It is in our families, our schools, our religious institutions, our media, and so much more. This cancer seems to have afflicted every aspect of human society and, as near as I am able to tell, it has afflicted every society around the globe – though to various degrees and with a seemingly limitless diversity of expressions. The depth of diseases like systemic racism and sexism are only now beginning to be uncovered in a full way, and there is still much work to be done. The soul of the people is unwell and part of the vocation of the contemplative life is to be a spiritual doctor who works to heal the people.
This spiritual illness is not part of our nature. It is not who we are. Rather, it is something which afflicts us and injures our true nature. Some of our wounds are ancient and come down to us from the ages. Some of our wounds were acquired throughout the hardships of our individual lives on this planet. Some of our wounds may even be self-inflicted. All of them are illnesses which infect our hearts and minds and which we pass from one person to the next through our words and actions. We must heal these wounds in ourselves and we must heal them in our cultures. The early monks knew this and the healing of these spiritual wounds was at the forefront of all they did.
Just as would be the case with treating physical illness, the first step in treating spiritual illness is to diagnose the disease which is affecting the soul. For this purpose, the desert monks would gather together regularly and discuss the nature of various spiritual illnesses. The elders passed along very detailed teachings about the kinds of illnesses and the remedies to heal them. They knew that in order to heal diseases, they first needed to understand them. Cassian describes it like this,
“Often recognizing in ourselves many of these things, thanks to the explanations and discussions of the elders, who were themselves stricken by the same passions, we were cured without any shame or embarrassment on our part when we too learned in silence about the remedies for and the causes of the vices that were assailing us…For unless the different kinds of wounds have been investigated, the appropriate medical remedy will not be able to be administered to the sick and the means of maintaining perfect health will not be able to be passed on to the well”
The sorts of medicines which Cassian thought would help people were things like fasting, spiritual direction, talking back , keeping watch, and a rule of life. This theology of soul healing became the foundation of the Celtic tradition of penance. It was based on the ancient principle that “contraries are cured by contraries”, which you can read more about HERE. We often fail to see the nuance of how penance was understood to the early Celtic Christians. It was not about hating the body but rather about healing the soul.
It was also a system which was explicitly designed to restore harmony to the community. When a person gets out of balance in their mind or their heart they can cause chaos within a community. Penitentials (books about penance) were designed to heal individual people of their individual illnesses, but also to create a culture which is able to pass this wisdom from generation to generation.
If we wish to truly heal these ancient wounds, then we must heal them in everyone. Sin is contagious and so our spiritual health is bound up one with another. This was the purpose of monastic communities, separated from the rest of the world. Their isolation could be likened to a quarantine – a place where enough people could become well that they would be able to create and distribute medicines to those who are still sick.
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