Originally published in the May 2019 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine.
Every Friday in the church of Santa Margarita there is a worship service of healing prayer with Holy Communion. When I came to Menorca there were perhaps three or four regular worshippers supplemented by occasional visitors. Nowadays the regulars have dwindled to one or two – and still there are occasional visitors.
Why pray for people to be healed? Does it make a difference? Let’s set aside that question for a moment and look back into history at something I unearthed earlier this year concerning a female figure from the early church, Zenaida.
Like many early saints and biblical figures, little is known about Zenaida. She and her sister Philonella were born into a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus around the year 100. They are believed to have come from a well-educated Jewish family with ties to Paul the Apostle (the one who wrote letters). Zenaida’s brother Jason was one of the first bishops of the church in their native city of Tarsus, and as a result of his encouragement, the sisters were baptised as Christians. Presumably Zenaida was intelligent and well-educated, as she attended formal schooling to study medicine. And it might easily pass unnoticed in the 21st century – but she was female. While involvement of women was not unknown in the ancient world, it was rare.
Upon completion of her studies, Zenaida and her sister moved their practice to the mountains of Thessaly in northern Greece. The area was well-known for catering to the rich and affluent members of society, and Zenaida and her sister were expected to serve only those who could pay for their services. However, counter to prevailing attitudes, the sisters opened their practice to all, refusing payment and serving wealthy and poor alike. They implemented practices that were based upon modern scientific principles of medicine and confronted healers in the area who tried to make money from superstition and fear.
Medicine during this time was an odd combination of spells, chants, prayers, herbs, rituals, and instruments of torture. The Frankincense and Myrrh given to the infant Jesus by the Magi were symbols of priesthood and martyrdom, but also had value in treating common diseases. Both are known to have antiseptic properties and can aid with digestive problems and improve oral health care – and in some ways were ancient equivalents of our current use of antibiotics. The two gifts might have been worth more than the gold Jesus was given! Despite all of this, there was in the Greek and Roman empires an understanding of scientific principle that schools of medicine taught.
Zenaida was particularly known for her care of children, those with depression, and psychiatric disorders. The sisters combined a love of medicine with their spirituality and were open about applying their faith in concert with their healing practices. It is quite fascinating that nearly 2000 years ago these two early converts to Christianity applied spiritual inspiration for their work as healers together with a pragmatic recognition of the value of scientific principles in medicine.
They believed that the spiritual factor brought significant healing to their patients. To apply a scholarly approach in conjunction with Christian practice was a departure from convention. To provide this care freely was simply unheard of. As a result of their ministry, the church named Zenaida and her sister, “Friends of Peace.”
Perhaps this might be a good point to remember that Christianity has a long history of caring for the sick, especially those of reduced means. And those who were instrumental in introducing public health care often drew upon Christian origins. Nye Bevan is reported to have described the British NHS as, “a piece of real Christianity.” Tommy Douglas, who pioneered the Canadian public health system, was a Baptist minister.
Clearly the science upon which Zenaida and her sister would have based their medical practice has evolved dramatically over 2000 years. Diagnostic tools and biochemistry have provided physicians with tools that would have been unimaginable even 150 years ago. They have also placed a huge burden of education about not only physical health but technology for physicians and nurses.
But human beings are very complex creatures. We still do not understand fully how our minds and bodies intertwine to affect our physical health – or lack thereof. However we express (or suppress) it, we have a spiritual dimension to our nature, and this, too affects the health of our whole being. The term “holistic healing” has gained much broader recognition since I first encountered it in training and practising as a hospital chaplain 20 years ago. Increasingly, it is being accepted that a whole person is made up of interdependent parts. If one part is not working properly, all the others will be affected. In this way, if we have imbalances (physical, emotional, or spiritual) in our lives, it can negatively affect our overall health. In many western hospitals nowadays, chaplains are accepted and encouraged to be active members of healing teams.
So what about that sparsely attended service of healing prayer on a Friday morning in Santa Margarita? There might only be a few of us, but we are often asked to pray for a long list of people both in Menorca and elsewhere, and we take the time to do so – one at a time. Does it make a difference? Like everything else in modern life, there is always someone, somewhere who has studied the subject. Unsurprisingly, as a recent paper in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry noted: “research on the healing effects of prayer is riddled with assumptions, challenges and contradictions that make the subject a scientific and religious minefield,” and concluded that there was not really any scientific purpose in such studies.
Sometimes people are taken off our prayer list because they have recovered; sometimes because they have not. We pray for wholeness and healing, and this might be manifest in many, diverse ways. Almost always, those who have asked for prayer appreciate that we respond.