Toward a Spirituality of Health Care: Part II

February 3, 2016

This weekly series of posts is from Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, a ministry of the Province of St. Joseph centered at St. Catherine of Siena Priory in New York, NY. Untitled Reflections on Ethics, Faith & Health Care Toward a Spirituality of Health Care: Part II By Fr. Jonah Pollock, O.P., Associate Director, Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York Christian revelation tells us that seeking what is truly good – and seeking the one who is Truth and Goodness – is not just something we do, but something God does in us. It is only by the power of God’s grace, with which we must freely cooperate, that we are made able to attain the goal for which we were created, which is God Himself. This means that ethics in general, and medical ethics in particular, is closely related to what we might call “Christian spirituality.” Studying what is good for us to do, it turns out, has everything to do with how God is acting in our lives and leading us more deeply into relationship with Himself. For Christians, doing what is good is always about cooperating with God’s grace. We recognize that in our weak and fallen state we cannot direct ourselves toward God through our own feeble efforts. We need the transforming power of God’s grace in order to do the good that will lead to true happiness. Infused with God’s grace, our good deeds transcend the limits of our natural capabilities. Our actions are no longer limited to what we can do on our own, but are elevated by what God can do in us. In the light of Christ, ethics opens out into spirituality; human action is infused with the Spirit of God. St. Thomas Aquinas gives us an illuminating way of understanding this dynamic when he says that charity is the form of all the virtues. Now charity, for St. Thomas, “is the friendship of man for God” (Summa Theologiae II-II q. 23 a. 1). It is “the movement of love whereby we love God” (ST II-II 23.2). Charity is the love that God creates in us, which elevates our ability to love and so makes us capable of loving God truly. It is therefore charity above all that makes us able to attain our ultimate goal, which is God Himself. In St. Thomas’ words, “The ultimate and principal good of man is the enjoyment of God . . . and to this good man is ordered by charity” (ST II-II 23.7). This means that charity is not only the greatest of the virtues, since it directs us to our greatest good, it is also the form of all the other virtues, because “it is charity which directs the acts of all other virtues to the last end” (ST II-II 23.8). What this means for us is that every good action we perform can be an act of love for God. When our souls are enlivened with charity, all our virtuous deeds are informed by our friendship with God and contribute to the attainment of that perfect enjoyment of God that is our principal good and ultimate end. This is not to say that our good actions are any less ours. What God does in us by his grace does not cancel or diminish the freedom God has given us as integral to our human nature. Rather, the grace of God elevates and perfects our God-given freedom, making it capable of the love for which God made it. In addition, to say that charity is the form of all the other virtues is not to say that those virtues lose their distinctiveness or their distinctive importance. The diverse virtues that order different human actions toward their common goal remain diverse. The virtue of chastity, for example, by which we do what is good in matters of sexuality, is not less important for being informed by charity, but more important. We would be wrong to think, “It doesn’t matter so much if I’m chaste as long as I love God.” The correct conclusion is rather, “Chastity matters more to me because being chaste is one way I can live in friendship with God.” Applying this to the practice of health care, we can conclude that our daily activities matter much more than we might have previously thought. When our actions are right and good, we don’t just serve our patients well, we also render to God acts of supernatural love and advance toward our ultimate purpose. Conversely, when our actions are unjust, unkind, or poorly considered, we fail not just to be good clinicians, but to love God and to advance on our way toward Him. By the grace of God, we have the opportunity each day to care for others in a way that can have eternal importance both for them and for us. This should motivate us to come to the practice of health care with both generous hearts and ethically informed minds. For when we care for the health of others in a way that is truly good – caring, competent, and ethical – our seemingly mundane actions can be elevated by the infusion of divine love to become deeds of supernatural consequence. When we allow God to work in us and through us, ethically informed practice becomes a spirituality of health care. When we do what is good in our everyday actions and decisions, we can recognize with eyes of faith the presence of the Spirit of God, who elevates our human actions beyond the limits of human achievement and transforms them into expressions of divine friendship.

Image: Albert Anker, Die Andacht des Grossvaters, 1893

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