Allopathy treats illness by introducing substances different from those that cause the disease. The central idea is to use a substance that is designed to combat and kill the disease. Western medicine is largely based on the philosophy of allopathy. We are all immensely grateful for antibiotics.
Homeopathy treats illness by introducing small amounts of the very same toxin, which in larger amounts is the cause of the disease. Homeopathy aims to use the same toxins as those causing the affliction in order to strengthen the body’s tolerance and resistance, eventually enabling recovery. Many Western medical practitioners remain skeptical of homeopathic philosophy, yet the action of a vaccine as compared to an antibiotic operates in a very similar way to homeopathic principles.
I’m fascinated by the story in Numbers 21:4-9 about the infestation of the Israelite camp by venomous serpents. It seems that in response to their endless grumbling, God’s patience yet again comes to an end. God punishes the Israelites by sending an infestation of poisonous snakes among them with the result that many of them die. What really fascinates me is the implication of this story for a holistic understanding of spiritual-emotional-physical healing.
It’s an image of fighting fire with fire rather than deluging it with water. As is often the case, it doesn’t take God long to relent from his hasty acting out of anger. God instructs Moses to cast in bronze an image of the snake and raise it up at the heart of the camp. Anyone with snakebite has only to look up at the image, in order to be healed.
The real snake kills. The image of the snake of bronze heals. Fighting fire with fire rather than with water.
Numbers 21:4-9 is a graphic example of spiritual homeopathy. The same toxin has both the power to kill or to heal. The bronze image works like a psycho-spiritual totem. Healing is mysterious in the sense that while it may be impossible to trace the links in the steps of cause and effect – something the scientific mind likes to do, the effect produced is nevertheless real. Totem is the spiritual term that describes the bronze serpent.
A totem is a natural object believed to have spiritual significance. The totem of the bronze serpent raised in the heart of the Israelite camp exploits the matrix within which the poison that kills is now associated with the image that heals.
As a brief aside, it’s interesting to note that the caduceus, the double or sometimes single-headed snake symbol also known as the Rod of Asclepius is the symbol of Western medicine, the origins of which we trace back to classical mythology. But it also seems plausible that the imagery of the bronze serpent in Numbers draws from a larger tradition common across the fertile crescent of the ancient Middle East, eventually emerging into Greek mythology.
Some weeks ago in my post On the Loss of Transcendence, I drew upon the fundamental connection between joy and suffering. From within the matrix of self-transcendence both joy and sorrow flow. This is the paradox of human spiritual and emotional life; positive and negative feeling, weakness and strength, are but the double sides of the same coin.
This Lent we have been journeying in our daily program with the Gospel of John. On Tuesday evenings we have been exploring our experience of the daily program. St Martin’s folk, like most middle-class Westerners schooled in rationalism, find directly reflecting on spiritual experience to be challenging. Temperamentally we prefer to know about, rather than know directly. Therefore in the interests of balance, in the Sunday adult forums, Linda+ and I have been presenting on the historical and communal context that gave rise to the unique theological themes of John’s Gospel.
The Gospel for Lent IV is drawn from John chapter 3, where the writer we know as John draws explicitly from Numbers 21. In so doing he forges an astonishing theological connection between the totem of the bronze serpent raised up in the midst of the Israelite camp and Jesus, raised high upon the cross.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world …. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Jesus is raised on the cross, not as an allopathic (combative) condemnation of sin, but as a homeopathic source of healing. As we gaze on an image of suffering, John’s core theological theme of God is love connects joy with sorrow, love with fear. Like joy and sorrow, love and fear are both manifestations of the same emotional matrix. Within the shadow cast by the totem of the cross, the impulse of fear that erupts in hatred is transformed into new energy for love.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is a life not worth living. The season of Lent is akin to a laboratory for honing our capacity for spiritual reflection on the deeper currents that flow beneath the surface of our lives.
Beneath the surface of our day-to-day living, lie the toxins of shame, guilt, and the pain of relationship loss and failure –
that which the Irish poet John O’Donohue in his poem A Morning Offering calls the dead shell of yesterdays. But here also we find the grace of restoration and liberation or to draw from O’Donohue again to do at last what we came here for and waste our heart on fear no more.
Mostly, we try to manage this process of self-reflection by ourselves. But we can’t always manage it alone. We are relational beings, and so there is a limit to how far we can get by simply talking to ourselves or even talking to God within the privacy of our own minds. When we can’t make progress on our own, what is needed is to be able to share our struggles with a trusted person within a larger context of God’s grace.
On page 447 of the Book of Common Prayer, many Episcopalians are surprised to discover the section called the Reconciliation of a Penitent. Reconciliation is one of the objective sacraments of the Church. It sets out a process designed to aid us when we feel emotionally or spiritually stuck, as when we sense that something is blocking the reworking of the toxin of pain and confusion. Unlike modern counseling which brings a psychological framework to bear on self-examination, Reconciliation brings a forgiveness framework to bear on our internal struggles.
The challenge of forgiveness is not whether God forgives us, but can we forgive ourselves!
Self-forgiveness flows from the grace of knowing we are already forgiven. We encounter that grace when we come to stand in the shadow of the cross.
Infected by the venom of life’s snakebites, feelings of self-condemnation, feelings of shame and sorrow, we come to stand in the shadow of the cross. Here we discover that our sorrow brings us to a deeper appreciation of joy.
The principles of spiritual homeopathy show us that sorrow and joy form parts of a single matrix.
Standing in the shadow of the cross we come to also face those inarticulate longings of the deepest regions of our heart.
In the shadow of the cross we come:
haunted by the ghost-structures of old damage – to be blessed by the longing that brings us here and quickens our soul with wonder – and the courage to listen to the voice of desire – the wisdom to enter generously into our own unease and to discover there the new direction our longing wants to take. (My paraphrasing from O’Donohue’s poem For Longing)
The Episcopal Church best sums up access to the sacrament of Reconciliation as all may, none must, but some should. Some people find in the Reconciliation of the Penitent a valuable and regular part of their spiritual formation. For others, it is a homeopathic healing action, taken at a particular time in pursuance of a restoration of an emotional and spiritual balance and health. Either way, this Lent why not consult with a priest near you?