Religion Healthy Enough to Die With

Years ago, while I was serving as a volunteer co-medical director for Hospice of Wayne County, Ohio, one of the volunteer co-chaplains, Father John Mueller, as he usually did, brought in a meditation for the team that morning. It was based on observations by Richard N. Bolles, published in his best-selling work, What Color Is Your Parachute? Father John, an astute and compassionate observer of the suffering that our dying patients were going through, recognized similarities between how these patients’ religious lives impacted their ability to find peace at the end of life and Rev. Bolles’ description of healthy and unhealthy religion (if the term “religion” does not resonate with you, consider substituting “spirituality” or even “understanding of the world"). I came across this meditation recently while researching the topic of the intersection between spirituality and dying, and I offer it to you…

  • Healthy religion is obsessed with gratitude; unhealthy religion is obsessed with guilt
  • Healthy religion focuses on the presence of God in the world and sees holiness everywhere; unhealthy religion focuses on the presence of evil in the world and sees contamination everywhere
  • Healthy religion sees all the world as “us”; unhealthy religion sees the world as “us vs them”
  • Healthy religion is closely related to mental health with its emphasis on repentance (metanoia) or “Most of my ills are self-inflicted”; unhealthy religion is distantly related to mental illness (paranoia) or “Most of my ills stem from what others are doing ‘out there’”
  • Healthy religion unconsciously exhibits humility; unhealthy religion unconsciously exhibits arrogance
  • Healthy religion treasures the differences in others; unhealthy religion wants everyone to be like them
  • Healthy religion has a high sense of “all the saints” worshipping God together; unhealthy religion has a high sense of “the individual alone with his or her God”
  • Healthy religion believes in learning from others; unhealthy religion believes in confronting others
Healthy religion renounces manipulation of others and lets them have their own beliefs; unhealthy religion desires to manipulate others into accepting their every belief
  • Healthy religion wants God’s forgiveness toward those who have harmed them or who follow other gods and forgives readily; unhealthy religion wants God’s vengeance toward those who have harmed them or who follow other gods and often has a low long-simmering anger, masked beneath a smile
  • Healthy religion focuses on what one can give, out of faith and is anxious to give others benefits; unhealthy religion on what one gets out of faith and is anxious to get the benefits for themselves
  • Healthy religion sees faith as primarily a matter of actions, with words used only to interpret one’s actions; unhealthy religion sees faith as primarily a matter of words used as a test of orthodoxy
  • Healthy religion is well aware that its faith may have some unhealthiness to it; unhealthy religion doesn’t even dream its faith may be unhealthy

Photographs by Christian Buehner, Levi Meir-Clancy, and Artem Beliaikin, from UNSPLASH