How to be with sick people

I did a class for the Circle Course Community yesterday on how to be with sick people, and the basic idea in it seemed important enough that I wanted to write it up here.

I think as Course students we often find ourselves caught in a dilemma. Do we just go along with the appearance of sickness, offering our sympathy and condolences, and end up feeling that we have betrayed our spiritual principles. Or do we swing to the other extreme and try to help the sick person understand the spiritual principles that could help heal the sickness, and end up being callous and preachy? A friend of mine calls this “platitudinal healing,” which I think captures it perfectly.

The Course’s answer, I believe, is to worry less about what we say and more about how we see the other person. That perception is the real source of what we say and do. That is what will be subtly communicated by our words and deeds. And that perception can either reinforce the sickness or lift the person out of it.

How do we see sick people? The answer, says the Course, is to see them as not sick, as whole, as in the Kingdom rather than absent from it (T 7.II.1:2 3). We see the light in them, refusing to let our sight be blocked by “the density of the fog that obscures it” (T-12.II.2:1). And we see them as one with us, for it is their belief in separateness that has made them sick. We don’t join with their dream of sickness, but we do, however, join with them (T-28.IV.2:5).

This sight of the other perception as healed, whole, and not separate is the actual force that heals. It is not, therefore, a matter of saying the right words. It is the simple presence of a person who has this perception that is the healing factor. The Manual talks about patients who “do not realize they have chosen sickness” (M-5.III.1:6). Then it says that the remedy is not telling them that they have chosen sickness. Rather, it is the presence of a mind who sees things differently:

To them God’s teachers come, to represent another choice which they had forgotten. The simple presence of a teacher of God is a reminder. His thoughts ask for the right to question what the patient has accepted as true. As God’s messengers, His teachers are the symbols of salvation. (M-5.III.2:1-4)

The teacher of God, then, represents or symbolizes. His thoughts ask the patient to choose differently. His simple presence reminds him there is another way. Notice how in each sentence, it is not the teacher’s words that heal. It is what the teacher’s state of mind stands for.

So the first thing is to cultivate and then protect that state of mind. But once we have done that, how do we express that state? True, this state will heal even without expression, but it will often do far more good if it is expressed. The following story from Helen’s early notes, I feel, is the perfect example of how to express this other state of mind.

The story is that a friend of hers named Dave Diamond was dying of brain cancer and she wrote about a visit to him in his final days, at a time when she was being particularly careful to ask for guidance from Jesus about what to do:

I went into the room (under instructions), and spoke to Dave, who was very groggy. Everytime he opened his eyes I said, “we all love you, so don’t be afraid.” Not aloud, I prayed that he would be able to love everybody in return, (this too was under instruction), having been told, (I think on Great Authority) that his only real danger came from lacks in this connection.

Notice that she acts on two different levels. First, there is the physical level. She visits Dave’s room (“under instructions”) and then says to him whenever he opened his eyes, “We all love you, so don’t be afraid.” If you can imagine being Dave, this would be a very comforting thing to hear. There is no metaphysical profundity to it, but neither is there sympathy. Helen manages to avoid both poles in what she says to him. She instead finds a middle ground composed of simple loving comfort and relief from fear.

Second, there is the mental level. On this level, she is able to be more direct, to speak more about the real issues, to say the things that would simply be too direct to be helpful if said out loud. Jesus tells her that Dave’s “only real danger” comes not from others not loving him, but from his own lack of love. She is therefore guided to silently pray “that he would be able to love everybody in return.” This is what Dave really needs in order to heal; he himself needs to replace his lovelessness with love. But it would not be particularly comforting to tell him this on his deathbed.

Thus, in addition to the role Helen plays on the outward level, she plays an equally active role on the inward level. And this second, undercover role is something we can flesh out by looking at other instances in which she reports praying for people. One is an impassioned prayer for Dave, recorded earlier in her notebooks, and the other is a prayer for her husband Louis, recorded right after the above story.

Both prayers show this same undercover role in much greater detail. In both cases, her prayers are acts of speaking not to God, but directly to the other person at an unconscious level. She addresses the unconscious beliefs that are the real source of his problem and tries to persuade him to let those beliefs go. Because the entire communication is aimed at bypassing the person’s conscious defenses, in both cases, she receives the idea that the prayer will work better if the person is asleep while she prays. And just in case this can sound like Helen forcing her agenda onto Dave or Louis, it is clear that she is simply passing on thoughts that she is receiving from a higher source. In Louis’ case, she even says that Jesus joins her in the prayer so that both of them are praying together for Louis.

Here are excerpts from these prayers, first for Dave and then for Louis:

Please, Dave, don’t identify with your brain. Know your own immortality.

We [Helen and Jesus] told [Louis] that he should forget about the Alexandrian library [the past-life transgression he is punishing himself over] and all the rest, because it does not matter. He showed a lot of love this time, and should claim his forgiveness.

How can we be with sick people? We can focus first and foremost on how we see them. Do we see them as sick, damaged, and separate from us, or as healed, whole, and at one with us? If we can see them as the latter, our simple presence will call them to turn their minds in a new direction.

How, though, do we actively express this new perception? On two levels. On the outward level, we avoid both sympathy and metaphysical preachiness. Instead, we say things that express love, that relieve fear, that bring comfort. The point is not to lay hard lessons before the sick person, but to relieve burdens.

It is on the inner level that we can speak directly to the real issue, saying things that just would not be appropriate to say out loud. Our prayers can speak to the person at an unconscious level, addressing the unconscious source of the sickness and trying to persuade the person to let it go. We should not impose our own agenda, but should try to let our prayer be guided, inspired. Given that the whole point of this is to bypass conscious defenses, we may even want to time these prayers for when the person is asleep and more open to our prayers of persuasion.

Here, I believe, is a way to stay completely true to our principles while being both truly helpful and wholly harmless. What more could we want?


  1. Christine Crescenzi
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    As an aside: Really the old man who taught the Course, in my previous comments, gave me a sense of security that I felt nowhere else but at my grandpa’s house. This is a high complement for at grandpa’s apartment I felt, no matter what I did, I’d be welcomed back to their tenement sanctuary. (Perhaps this is a childish fantasy because my mom told me that grandpa put a severe limitation on whom he would accept as a son in law, my Dad was the benefactor of this very pointed direction.) Well anyways, for me as a child, there was no spoken restrictions at all, my grandparents love for me and each other were the guide posts on the steep winding road of my childhood, teaching me the simplicity of loving devotion. I guess grandma and grandpa were my first demonstrators of unconditional love, teaching the spirit of the Course before I ever laid eyes on the book..

    Every morning grandpa would greet me in the same precious way, with a big smile, he’d say, “good morning sunshine”. Returning from his daily walk to buy the newspaper, he’d lay on the kitchen table a small paper bag. Inside was a special breakfast treat of pomegranates or Pilot crackers meant just for me. The crackers were thick enough to sustain a lengthy dunking in a tall glass of cold whole milk. Soon after breakfast grandma would start preparing lunch while grandpa read her the daily newspaper. She beamed with pride that her husband could read. He’d take the time to explain the content if her brow wrinkled with unspoken questions.

    Well anyways as my affection grew for the old man, I told him the story of being with him each morning learning the course, was like being at grandpa’s house. Every time I saw him, I’d feel safe in his company. This safety grew in conjunction with my growing affection for God, reestablishing a firm foundation that had wavered in times of duress. It felt so good to be home, open to learning with another of my Father’s friends!


  2. Christine Crescenzi
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    When I think I deserve sickness, guilt, punishment, God can be so convincing that this is not true. Not by preaching to me, opposing my opinion that I know better than He does, but by placing someone in my life who removes whatever is blocking the light of inclusion and forgiveness.

    An older man was teaching the Course every week day morning. I was the only person who came to class regularly. I was very willing to attend because I was plagued with self hate because a friend of mine had committed suicide and left a note where he blamed me. When I’d come to class the old man would listen to my tale of woe without opposing my view. He just listened to me, his eyes very focused upon my face.

    The guilt I felt was palpable and I spoke so convincingly of the wrong I did, tears streaming down my face week after week but each time the older man remained vigilant to keep silent. When I was done crying, we’d go over the Course lesson for the day and the old man talked about the application of the lesson in our lives. The hour would pass so quickly. I’d leave the class heavy hearted still but diligent in my attendance each day. I knew something was going on which I needed very badly.

    When I’d get home, I kept recalling the sparkling gleam in the old man’s blue eyes. The memory of those loving eyes stayed steadfast by my side all day until I saw him again the following morning. And again if I spoke about my guilt, the old man didn’t oppose my lingering persistent attraction to it. He just waited for me. Little by little, day after day, week after week, he’d wait for my morning news until one day the news was very different. There was evidence of a change in me.

    Imagine a very large tree that casts a shadow on a little seedling which needs the light to grow. Well this man was a kind of farmer, a gardener that recognized the seedling needed to be replanted away from the long fingers of the shadow. The seedling needed exposure to the sun, without anything interfering. Day by day, the old man’s love transplanted me into good soil. The lessons were the prescription of the right nutrients to support his expressions of consistent love.

    Eventually the love, so slowly, where I hardly noticed what was happening so I could not oppose its coming, pushed the darkness of the shadow aside little by little. Week after week, day after day I’d feel his love penetrating my belief in deserving this life of unhappiness, by belief that I deserved blame instead of love.

    His eyes spoke, keeping faith, ever twinkling, waiting for me to realize Who was looking out for my welfare all along. Months passed until one day I started to doubt the validity of my judgment of myself. I began to smile and laugh again. As you can imagine I was so relieved to have this burden lifted, I’d walk happily to each meeting. He was such a careful thorough gardener, he taught me to be sensitive to the shadows I cast upon myself or upon another and to remove them so the garden of love can grow. He held safely in an attitude of faith my place, to have the courage to take my place as one of the equal sons of God, until I stepped into my place and stood up unashamed claiming my right to be there with all of you.

    luv chris

    PS I reposted this comment because it was absent from the comment lineage. sorry if you already read it. It was intended to be read before the comment about grandma and grandpa.

  3. Robert Perry
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    Chris, what a beautiful story. A great example of what I was trying to say in my piece.

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