Fitness and faith: the sins of the flesh?

This morning the Sunday service on Radio 4 came from Ireland where Pope Francis was mid Papal visit, and the crowds (smaller than in past years), had gathered for a festival in celebration of the family. I listened with hope and positivity, hoping for something that would edge towards the reconciliation with Rome that is the dream of many Anglicans. There were a few glimmers, but I was left disappointed with the paternalism and authoritarianism of the message. I was told that my desires were not to be led astray by the individualism of society today, and I had the feeling that the Bishop may have been talking about the desires of the flesh, though he left the listener to decide on the exact desires which were to be avoided. Of course an individualism which excludes community, love for the poor, and a desire for God is not the Way of the Cross, but the history of the church and its theology surrounding the body is not without complication and perhaps could have done with a little ‘fleshing out’.

So, I am pondering the degree of my ‘sin’ as I sit blogging in the gym cafe on a Sunday evening.  There are other things I could be doing - running the home, sewing labels on my kids’ school uniform, spending time with my husband, calling my parents, watching the TV - like many working mums it is a high rope balancing act to hold it all together. But I have chosen to prioritise my fitness, my flesh, over other demands on my time.

In January, the Guild of Health and St Raphael is running a day conference on ‘Faith and Fitness’ exploring the links between our body and our spiritual life. It is an area that for me has kept demanding my attention. When I was depressed, it wasn’t prayers, or therapy, or drugs, or the spiritual masters that pulled me out of the hole - it was running. I feel better, more connected to creation, when I am in it, sweating and pushing my body to its limits. Whether it is on a treadmill, running the streets around whatever conference I am on, or on the water in a boat or canoe, or body boarding with the kids (and with little success) - the spiritual connection hit is awesome. 

And it is not just me - I have been collecting stories from the faithful and agnostic alike. A trail running agnostic cosmologist, a Christian philosopher, a personal trainer inspired by the Rocky films, a one legged divorcee who hated the world and got me to teach him to sail- all have told me that somehow, being in creation and using their body has led to previously unimagined spiritual depths. And the converse is true, I have collected a much more difficult bunch of stories that when people have gone through trauma involving spiritual abandonment, their reaction has been to abuse their body. There is something here, something important that the Church and theologians skip over to the detriment of God knowledge. We are created body and soul, and a 2000 year history of favouring the latter over the former, has led to spiritual paucity and stunted growth. 

So, I am getting fit for ‘Faith in Fitness’, and exploring what I learn on the way. So, its time to quit the cafe and hit the gym. I have booked a personal trainer session, and I will blog here as I explore  this ontology, the theology and the practice. Wish me luck! Or join me in this journey 

If you want to book on the Faith and Fitness click here

 

Gardens and healing: the theory behind the sense

Originally published in The Church Times, May 2018 

We all know it: Being in a garden, or a natural green space, makes us ‘feel better’. I regularly go to my favourite green spaces, habitually seeking something that make me feel ‘more me’. And even if I can’t get outside, a memory of a warm summer’s day in my childhood garden with the bees buzzing drunkenly by while the breeze shifted the leaves in the copper beach, is sometimes enough to lift my mood and heal my soul.

But is there wisdom and true knowledge beyond this common human experience? Do gardens really heal?

Firstly, let’s not be so quick to dispense with our emotional experiences of the garden. The chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi wrote that humans are not merely outside observers of our universe but part of it, and if we wish to understand the physical world there is true knowledge to be found in our experiences of being here. The philosopher Fiona Ellis recently wrote that it is indeed in the ‘ambiguities of human experience’ that knowledge seeking should begin. So, what of that experience that gardens give us – can science tell us anything that can bolster our deep instinct to go there to find health?

Our modern medical health care system can trace its roots back to the monastic communities of the Middle Ages many of which built gardens for the ill. For the monks, enclosed gardens were seen as important for the healing of the patients. Indeed, hospital and hospice architecture today often uses natural spaces and gardens deliberating in their design.

Over the last forty years, there has been a growing body of evidence presenting the healing effects of nature at a psychological and physiological level. The idea of a ‘therapeutic landscape’ was first coined by medical geographers who recognised places which had a reputation for facilitating healing in body, mind or spirit.

Studies have shown that it is at the neurological level that gardens can promote healing. For example, when people are stressed and distracted as a result of modern life, gardens bring about positive changes by shifting our mind into a more meditative mode of thinking. Research into recovery times have shown that looking out of a window at a natural scene helped patients to recuperate more quickly than having an artificial environment. And if you can actually get your hands dirty, then the healing benefits only increase: recent work has linked gardening and health improvement particularly in those with dementia and those who have symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the research linking healing and gardens is not just focussed on the psychological benefits. A long term study in Japan looking at the physical effects of ‘forest bathing’ (i.e. spending time near trees) and found that spending time with trees had a measureable impact on the human immune system, linked to the inhalation of chemicals naturally released by the trees.

The body of evidence supporting the physiological and physiological impact of gardening is growing. Not only is this a satisfying metaphor, but it gives a firm foundation for the Green Health Awards. Churches lie at the heart of communities across the country, and there is real potential that church green spaces might be developed into a myriad of garden oases with the potential to make a tangible difference to the health of the church and the community it seeks to serve.

Premier FM Podcast of "Unbelievable? Can Faith Survive Cancer and Science?"

Rev Gillian Straine is an Anglican priest with a background in science. She tells the story of how she dealt with the spiritual and medical challenges of being diagnosed with cancer aged 21, as told in her book 'Cancer: A Pilgrim's Companion'. 

She also shares news of a free public lecture by internationally renowned physicist Marcelo Glasier in London on Tue 22 May.

Atheist guest Alom Shaha is a secondary school physics teacher and engages with Gillian on the question of faith, illness and science. He shares his story of rejecting his Islamic upbringing after the death of his mother and how he fell in love with the world of science. Alom has recently authored a book of practical science experiments for kids 'Mr Shaha's Recipes For Wonder'.

 

Dinner with a neurologist

My research interests lead to an healthy enthusiasm to talk about illness, healing and medicine whenever I get the chance. In medical science, there are some fertile cross over areas where the physiological study of, for example, the brain, pain, personality and genetic randoness lead ‘naturally’, I would argue, into discussions with philosophy, faith and theology.

On a girl’s night out recently, I found myself sat opposite a medical doctor who had specialised in neurology. So, between the starter and main course, we discussed M.E. and happened on to a favourite question of mine: ‘What does it mean to be healed?’

M.E. is a particularly controversial illness as it is a disease where the arguements over its cause, treatment and management are incredibly partisan and, at times, political. There are few specialists in the U.K. and people who suffer with it are often isolated and unable to access treatment and help, with doctors divided over whether it is a purely psychological condition or one with physical origins. 

My friend did have an opinion over what causes ME, but what was startled me was that she didn't believe I was asking an important or relevant question. While she conceded that the origin of a disease might help to find the cure, she expressed huge frustration that patients fixated on the question, ‘Why?’. She catalogued diseases that they could cure but no one knew the reason for the illness, and contrarily diseases which had a clear origin but remained incurable. The patient’s pesky desire to know why the disease was affecting them was not a question of interest to her as a physician trying to cure bodies and minds, or relieve suffering.

This radical physicalism was a shock to me. As someone with cancer cured by drugs, but healed through an investigation into the origins of my disease, my story and my faith (See ‘Cancer, a pilgrim companion’, SPCK, 2017), I found it deeply shocking that a doctor would have this brief, concise dismissal of a patients desire to know ‘Why?’. But it was a useful shock and one I use now as a timely reminder of the power imbalance that can exist in the dialogue between science and religion (here medicine and faith) to the detriment of those who ask these questions, and search for deeper understandings of life. 

As a Christian, I believe that I am made in the image of God and charged with dominion over the created order as described in Genesis; Humans exist to care for and handle the earthly things of life, including bodies and minds. Therefore questions about disorder and disease, and how they fit in with our theological understandings of ourselves and our relationship with the God of love, are urgent. Whether an academic, pastor or sitting in the kitchen making tea for someone lost in grief for the disease they have been diagnosed with, these are our questions too - why do things go wrong with our body, and what does disease and healing mean? There is a danger that we are simply dazzled by modern medicine power to explain, and bow down to the questions that they deem as relevant. 

The doctor’s power to heal is usually limited to the physical, and they daily have to deal with enormous questions of life and death, and their power and powerlessness. They have a heavy burden to bear, and must develop ways to deal with contingency of life and death, of randomness and uncertainty.  

But, there is a higher healing that we have the potential to access: spiritual healing where the central aim is not the health of the body and mind. Christian faith promotes peace despite the state of the body, the potential for reconciliation with the Creator even for the diseased and incurable. Cure and health are not ruled out of course, but it is not the only outcome that spiritual healing aims to provide. God’s spirit provokes us to continues to ask those questions that frustrate the physicalist, because we are created not just with a body, but with a mind and a spirit too. Further, we not only ask these questions but find answers too. The cure may be found in the hospital drugs and the physicians skill, but healing is found in reconciliation with God and God’s love for the beloved who asks ‘Why?’, and finds healing in the answers that echo back.