Are you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy? We are fairly sure what good physical health is: a lowish heart rate and decent blood pressure, proper levels of nutrients, and organs operating according to their purpose in the survival and propagation of the organism. It’s harder to identify emotional, mental and spiritual health. In fact, they tend to meld into each other so that we end up with one large glob we might call “inner life.” Let’s try being clearer. The ancient map of the inner life as an interplay among the mind, the heart and the will is helpful. By this way of seeing, what we call “mental health” really has more exactly to do with emotional health. “Mental illness” and “mental health issues” refer normally to difficulties not of the mind, but of the heart. Depression, to take the most common example, is a loss of hope, faith and love. The “heart” (in the emotional sense) is the seat of imagination. When life’s beauty and energy seem to be more of a burden than a delight, we say that we have “lost heart.” To hope for eternal life requires powerful imagination. Likewise, we must be able to envision or imagine the idea that our wrongs can be forgiven. Once we do that, we “take heart.” Properly speaking, health of the mind refers to intellectual health. Do we think clearly? Education plays a part, but what counts for intellectual health is knowing the right facts for the work at hand and knowing how to apply them. This is known as prudence, or wisdom. A high school dropout who knows how to build a stairway may be more intellectually healthy than a Ph.D. who writes books that nobody reads. So, if emotional health refers to the heart/imagination, and mental health to the mind/intellect, spiritual health refers to the will. I may know how to build a stairway (mental/intellectual health) and I may want to build it well because I can imagine the joy it will bring (emotional health), but I still have to get out of bed and build it. What I need is the will - spiritual health. A parallel with intellectual health is helpful here. To apply one’s mind to the building of a stairway requires slavish obedience to the laws of physics, as well as to the customs (and laws) of society. (We live in a culture where the rise and tread of stairs is well-established. Disobey that custom and people will get hurt.) An intellectually healthy carpenter follows these laws. So it is with spiritual health. We need to obey the moral law; spiritual health is moral health. One of the great lies of our time is that there is no moral law and that each of us gets to make up our own morality as we go. Do that, and people will get hurt. And as with the stair-builder, there are also social customs that may not themselves carry the force of moral law, but which need to be followed in gratitude for the blessings of the civilization we all enjoy. This is not what we first might think. Spiritual health might commonly be thought of as active connection to God through prayer and other religious practices. Awareness of the divine, or of the giftedness of all reality, might seem to count as adequate spiritual health. That’s what we mean when we say, “I’m a spiritual person.” But everyone is spiritual. The only question is what sorts of spirits operate in your life: spirits in accord with goodness, or malignant spirits. Prayer is the means for connecting with God, but the test of “spirituality” is morality. And morality is established not by the self but by another, by God. Recently I visited a determined middle-aged man whom I baptized on his deathbed two and a half years ago. He’s still in the hospital and still in fragile health. A respiratory therapist was explaining why he needed a certain therapy: “It’s what we have to do to keep him ... comfortable,” she said, pausing. The word she declined to say was “alive” — to keep him “alive.” As the therapy started, she apologized to him: “I know this isn’t very comfortable,” she said. I said, “I don’t think comfort is Rick’s priority; if it were, he’d be dead long ago. His priority is healing.” Here’s the analogy: Like physical healing, spiritual healing is not first about comfort. It’s about getting well, about the reorientation of our wills. Spiritual health is virtuous living: honesty, faithfulness, courage, humility, kindness, diligence, generosity, equal regard, purity and sobriety, all in accordance with the moral truths of the universe. The Rev. Douglas Taylor-Weiss is the rector of The Episcopal Church of SS. Peter and John in Auburn.
What is spiritual health — and how do we find it?
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