Self examination of body and soul

Daily Office readings for Sunday, October 28:

Psalm 63, 98 (Morning)

Psalm 103 (Evening)

Ecclesiasticus 18:19-33

I Corinthians 10:15-24

Matthew 18:15-20

Ecclesiasticus 18:19-33 (NRSV:) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent. Let nothing hinder you from paying a vow promptly, and do not wait until death to be released from it. Before making a vow, prepare yourself; do not be like one who puts the Lord to the test. Think of his wrath on the day of death, and of the moment of vengeance when he turns away his face. In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord. One who is wise is cautious in everything; when sin is all around, one guards against wrongdoing. Every intelligent person knows wisdom, and praises the one who finds her. Those who are skilled in words become wise themselves, and pour forth apt proverbs. Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites. If you allow your soul to take pleasure in base desire, it will make you the laughingstock of your enemies. Do not revel in great luxury, or you may become impoverished by its expense. Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money, when you have nothing in your purse.

One of the things that comes from having practiced medicine for over two decades now is seeing how “what goes around comes around,” and one of the places that is evident is in opinions of the practice of self-examination, particularly as it relates to breasts or testicles.

For ages, no one would have ever suggested that a person examine their own delicate parts on a regular basis as a screen for cancer. Physicians were quite skeptical of the ordinary mortal’s ability to recognize changes in his or her own body. Why, how could they know what to find? If they found something, most physicians thought at the time, it would just cause undue anxiety over harmless findings and create a society full of neurotics, fondling their private parts. Frankly, the medical community was pretty smug and paternalistic about it.

But then, in 1971, along came a book–“Our Bodies, Ourselves.” It wasn’t a medical book in the traditional sense, but it changed medicine all the same. Women began exploring their own bodies, as well as their own cycles of life and the feelings they had about it–and guess what? They didn’t become any more freaked out or anxious, and they started taking control of their own health prevention in a new way, including breast self-exams. High profile women like Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan helped to make talking about lumps on breasts a matter-of-fact occurrence rather than a secret shame. To some degree, over time, men followed suit with testicular self-exams after Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Examining our delicate parts became not only normal, but an expected part of personal self-care.

These days, with advanced acceptance of mammography as a screen for breast cancer, and better ultrasound and other forms of radiologic imaging, self-examination, in some ways, has become less important. Physicians have swung back to the opinion that self-examination has no benefit in terms of outcome. In fact, I’ve heard that old saw of “Oh, it just makes patients overly anxious” used again. But what was different this time was that we discovered some other subtle ways that self-examination opened patients up to seeing their doctor more, and at earlier stages in a disease process. It wasn’t just about “doing the exam and doing it correctly,” it was about being receptive to doing the right thing, self-care wise, in terms of preventive medicine. We discovered that patients that self-examine are more likely to interact with the health care system at large, and thereby save lives and dollars in other areas of health care.

Our reading in Ecclesiasticus talks about another kind of self-exam–that of our motives, our actions, and our desires–as well as the potential cancer that sets up in our souls if we don’t. Our Gospel reading today illustrates a mechanism of how that can, within the setting of a body of believers, be put to use in the business of reconciliation. Our Epistle reminds us that one of the things we might discover in that process of self-exam and appropriate intervention of problems within our faith community, is that we are all one body through the sharing of one bread. Those people we don’t like that are so difficult? They still share the banquet at the Eucharistic table same as us.

Self-exam is a deep root in our Anglican heritage, as well. One of the scandalous propositions Thomas Cranmer posed in the earliest versions of the Book of Common Prayer was that the laity was perfectly capable of self-examination of one’s own fitness to receive Communion.

For many of us, spiritual self-exam can be daunting at times–every bit as much as scrutinizing one’s breast or testicle can be. We’d so often prefer to have an authority figure pass judgment on us and get it over with. But sometimes in the self-examination of our soul, we discover that something eating away at us wasn’t cancerous at all. Other times, just as the lumps we might find on our delicate physical bits need the attention of a physician, we discover that we need the healing touch of the Great Physician. Over the space of time and prayer and worship, we might realize that we engage in that relationship between ourselves and God more than we used to–and we feel healthier.

What is the delicate part in your soul that is dire need of self-exam?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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