Opinion: for many, health of the spirit is every bit as important as physical and mental health

Covid-19 has come to us at a time when the old bastions of the western world seem very fragile. The land of the Free and the home of the brave seems to offer only fear, rage and division. Talk of walls and hard borders and broken treaties sweep away good will and compromise.

As public health systems throughout the world creak at the seams, health concerns beyond the purely physical are gaining ground. Experts increasingly refer to the mental health fallout from shrinking social circles, job instability, income insecurity, limited opportunities, fragmentation, isolation and loneliness.  

It is interesting in the midst of this to hear author Mike McCormack talk of the 'spiritual health issues' that arise when we come up against the seemingly insurmountable. In many traditions, health of the spirit is every bit as important as physical and mental health. They are all mutually supportive, the boundaries between them blurred. Holistic approaches to medicine and nursing regard spiritual care as a life-enhancing factor and a coping resource, which helps patients to deal with adversity.  

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Leap of Faith, the spiritual inspirations from running 3,100 miles, the challenges for those observing Ramadan during the pandemic and we hear what is keeping Pope Francis busy in his period of isolation.

Various studies demonstrate that a person’s immunity can increase significantly in response to spiritual care practices. In the Covid-19 context, South African health science researchers have been vocal on this issue, writing that "during this transition from the physical clinical setting to the virtual one, the importance of spiritual care should not be lost or forgotten because it forms part of the holistic approach to deal with the body–mind–spirit aspect of the population". In the United States, palliative care experts have issued an urgent call for spiritual care specialists ‘to address spiritual suffering...caused by this pandemic.’ 

But talk of spiritual issues can be tricky. Most of us are private about our spiritual lives and we keep them to ourselves. On the other hand, the inner life has as much to do with spirit as with mind. Coping with change, uncertainty and loss, like any truly human activity, emerges from inside. It comes from one’s inwardness. As we live and interact, we project something of our spiritual health onto those we engage with, and how we relate to them.  The entanglements we experience are often the convolutions of our inner lives. 

Viewed from this angle, Covid-19 holds a mirror to the spirit. If we are willing to look in that mirror and not run from what we see, we have a chance to gain self-knowledge and knowing ourselves is crucial in times of complexity and challenge. "Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom". says Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and this wisdom is the centre of true power in the face of adversity.  

Perhaps this is the gift of Covid: the imperative to allow the spirit the space to breathe, the time to listen to the less obvious side of ourselves

Quaker educator Parker Palmer writes that charting the inner landscape requires the taking of three paths – intellectual, emotional, spiritual. By spiritual, he means the diverse ways we answer the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life. Although grounded in the inner terrain, it constantly leads to the outer worlds of community and otherness.  The inward quest becomes a journey for outward relationship. 

The path of the spirit requires that we know the threads of our own stories, the desires of our hearts and what truly gives us joy.  At home in our deepest selves, we become more at home with each other and with the world around us. This is the road less travelled, more difficult but ultimately more resilient to the forces that converge and threaten to overwhelm. 

As a nation of dreamers and storytellers, we have traditionally gathered to talk, listen and know that we belong. Without the space to do this, the spirit can feel lost, abandoned, caged. Perhaps this is the gift of Covid: the imperative to allow the spirit the space to breathe, the time to listen to the less obvious side of our selves. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1, Sister Colette fromthe Poor Clares in Galway on their number one bestselling book Calm the Soul: A Book of Simple Wisdom & Prayers

Our Celtic ancestors had a great respect for the mystery and depth of the soul and human spirit and that instinct is still powerful among us. Look at Calm the Soul: A Book of Simple Wisdom and Prayer, a 2013 bestselling book by the Poor Clares, an enclosed order of nuns, which draws from the rhythm of their monastic lives and suggests simple practices to help nourish the soul, find calm, and achieve a sense of well-being in today's world.

This year, Eckart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, an international bestseller for the past 20 years, is enjoying a considerable resurgence of interest. The moment you realise, writes Tolle, "that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind", you begin to awaken.

Living in a Covid world is living with complexity, uncertainty and loss. It demands that we dig deep in order to craft a response. The spiritual side of human nature asks us to pay attention to our own interior lives, as much as to others around us and the world we live in, as part of that response.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ