The Healing Power of Illness and Death

by Rev. Laurens Hornemann

Everything looks the same in the dark. There are no visible differences. Relative size is indistinguishable. There is no color. Only with the onset of light do size differences appear, do colors reveal themselves. Only with light, are shadows revealed. Only then are they created. Darkness is not yet shadow. Light is needed for shadows to appear. Only through light, when objects are touched by light, do they reveal their dual nature: Light on one side, dark on the other. And that is not all. When light appears, every object becomes a shadow-caster, casting its own shadow on the things around it. Then we may begin to sense that the light has not yet realized its full potential: Light brings assessment, brings differentiation, and thereby always involves a trial. Many people currently view the Coronavirus as a trial for humanity, as bringing something to light, something about the way we live. This virus has been spreading since mid- to late December. December 21 is the winter solstice, after which the light gradually increases.

It is exceptionally difficult to determine what is really at play with this Coronavirus, both in terms of health and in terms of its implications for the future. It is particularly difficult for someone who is required to make this determination, who wants to pin down the facts. It would already be a first step forward in knowledge to arrive at the same conclusion as Cicero in the first century B.C., namely, “I know that I know nothing.” In difficult circumstances, this is a true step on the path of knowledge.

When it comes to the Coronavirus, no doubt we all agree that it is a trial, a crisis, with a respiratory disease at its core. In other words, it has something to do with our breathing, and breathing is always connected with the circulation of our blood, with the heart, the center of the human being. From the heart, the blood circulates throughout the body in the finest of capillaries until, having reached and completely penetrated the entire body, it flows back to the heart. When the blood arrives back at the center, it does not simply repeat the same process, but begins its smaller circuit through the lungs. The blood heads into the lungs for some fresh air, so to speak, and there it is touched by another dimension. Instead of the watery element, it is touched by a completely new element, the air. In Greek, the word for air is pneuma, and in ancient Greek pneuma also means spirit. As a respiratory disease, the Coronavirus affects the circulation of air through the lungs. In other words, it is manifesting humanity’s relationship to the spirit.

What is our relationship to pneuma? Is it unsound? Is it ill? It is now affecting increasing numbers of people, so who carries the karma of the unsound way with which we relate illness to the spirit, to pneuma? If this disease was affecting primarily children, if children were the ones getting ill, what would that feel like? What measures would be taken? Or even if it were an equal opportunity disease for all? The fact that this disease is particularly interested in the elderly is what makes it noteworthy. It targets those people who, over many long decades, have already established certain breathing patterns and, in a more or less conscious way, a relationship to the spirit. The well-known scene from the St. John Gospel may come to mind here, the one with the woman caught in adultery, when Christ Jesus says to the angry men around her: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Then conscience awakes, and one after another they leave the spot, starting with the eldest, who have had more time to learn about their own failings, their own distortions of the truth, and their own imperfect ability to see and judge what is true.

What does the Coronavirus bring to light? Of what does the trial consist? That question is really very easy to answer. The trial of the Coronavirus is about our relationship to death. What is our relationship to dying? That is the question we are now being asked, and radiating from this relationship is a tremendous fear. Worldwide. Much greater than concern about our economic life and our dependence on it. What is that anyway, our economic life? Even in that arena, astoundingly few compromises are being made. It is as though people would rather be poor than dead. This attitude is also totally understandable, since, logically speaking, better dead than poor might not be a theory we are in a position to argue convincingly, at least not based on our own life experience. Things have gone so far now, however, that we are prepared to give up living, give up being alive, in order to survive. We cannot even say exactly how long this will last. For a long time still? Some people say we need to live with it, or learn to do so. Does that mean meeting up with only one person at a time from now on? No high fives, no handshakes? Never physically meeting someone with a handshake? Never attending the theater with a full house? Is it worth it? Would we rather live out our lives than actually live them? Are we prepared to let our life in community die, just so that we survive? How long is this expected to last? Is every encounter now supposed to shift over to a digital, unreal, actually illusory relationship, like on YouTube?

Death is the archetypical crisis, the archetypical trial, because death always asks us: “What is left when everything is gone?” Death takes away everything we have and leaves us with who we are. In advance of this archetypical crisis, in advance of death, comes illness, which is like a small crisis, a small trial. We learn from life, after all, that illness comes before death. The other way around is probably not a typical life experience. What, then, is illness? This very critical question is wonderfully answered by the development of children. There it becomes beautifully clear. Children may still catch so-called childhood illnesses, provided nothing is done to hinder this development beforehand. These are extremely contagious illnesses, however, in a family with several children, three of them may catch one of these illnesses and one may not. The three children then go through the illness, and, when we look back on what they were like before they got sick, we see that the illness spurred a big step forward in their development, in their biography. Before the illness, their development had gotten stuck, so it is actually fair to say that the illness got it moving again. The real illness existed before the so-called illness. The child was ill, i.e., its development had gotten stuck, and what we call an illness came to help get that development underway again.

If we carry through this line of thinking, we conclude that the so-called illness is actually a healer, that it aids development, that it sets in motion processes that we may not have been able to start on our own. The illness comes toward us from the outside like a stroke of destiny (Schicksaal in German). Schicksaal is a wonderful word[2]. Something is sent to us and heals us. Healing means whole, something that leads to a holistic development, and it comes to us from the outside as destiny. In this respect, we can also state about the whole issue of contagion that if I am ill, if my development has gotten stuck, then I am open to infection. That is why some people get ill and some do not. The cosmic spirit wants to develop us and, to that end, it brings us the help we need. We can even assert that it is possible to die healthy. When we eventually arrive at the threshold of death, even if through an outer illness, we can die inwardly healed because, thanks to the illness, we have called forth inner development processes. We die inwardly healed. We can achieve a healthy relationship to illness.

Of course, there are also unhealthy relationships to health, but nowadays this does not happen by itself. Am I able to rejoice in being ill and to know that everything bad coming to me from the outside as a blow of destiny will always turn out well? At this stage in human development, we are ready, finally, to accept that everything will no longer automatically turn out for the best somehow. Often enough, illness needs a doctor, a healer, who works to ensure the illness can do us good. The doctor actually works together with the illness, so that it is healing for the patient. It cannot be the doctor alone, however, who wants this healing. The patient has to want it, too, and when the spiritual will force of both doctor and patient meet, then wholeness can come about.

Is what I just said actually correct? Is that a true thought? That, everyone must experience for themselves, and only for themselves. I could at some point decide to spend the next 5 years of my life keeping this thought in mind. I could resolve, as a doctor, healer, or patient, to act as if the thought were true, as a prophylactic measure. What then reveals itself through illness and the development processes? The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Illness thus aids our development, and the chief illness, but then also the chief healer, is death. Death as healer is, of course, an unusual thought, but we actually need only imagine what would happen if there were no such thing as death. We would get older and older and older. Perhaps we know some extremely old people who long to be released from this life and enter another sphere. This one-sidedness of living for decades incarnated in one gender and not the other, with a certain constitution and a certain temperament, which is incredibly difficult to overcome. These life journeys can start to feel like dead-ends, because the old live only in the consequences of decisions made long ago. The reasons no longer matter. As a centenarian, I no longer ask myself what kind of career I might want, or whether I want to start a family, or similar questions. Death finally brings something new! It takes from us everything we have been carrying, possibly for a long time. Those who have a lot, are carrying a lot. We can say that death relieves us of a great weight. And what remains, when we die? A spiritual substance: what we have made of ourselves, what we form by overcoming ourselves, by growing out beyond ourselves. All that has become substance, and that is what remains when everything else vanishes. Everything else can be taken from us, but what we have become, that is eternal.

At this point, it is natural to feel afraid, because perhaps we notice the paltriness of what remains. This is where humanity is ill, in this relationship, because we so often focus on owning, on having, and so rarely on being. We are ready to stop living in order not to die; to survive instead of being alive. But we die anyway. Everyone dies. Everyone will at some point stand there as though naked to see what remains. That is where the fear of death comes from. It comes from recognizing the paltriness of what I have become. Today, in the Year of Hölderlin[3], one of his wonderful poems entitled “Life Path” may come to mind. It begins with the words “You too sought greater things.” We may notice that we have not actually achieved our ideals. We could have lived more. We could have done more with our lives. That is what fear of death is about.

Death can confront us, can come toward us in two ways:  Either it comes relentlessly toward us or toward someone in our inner circle from the outside, or we go to meet it consciously and try to come to terms with it. In both cases, whether we feel it is being forced on us or is something we experience in inner freedom, we notice how death throws a whole new light on life. Then the question arises: “What is essential, if I have only a limited amount of time left to live?” Few people then look back and wish they had wasted more time, done more things just to kill time. The time remaining can then often be lived fully awake, as long as that is still possible, in order not to miss out on the wonderfulness of life. Death, we feel, will take everything from us. Either we let ourselves be taken, give ourselves, or we experience death as tearing us away. We can either freely take a step to change our attitude toward life, or we get pushed. This involves all kinds of stumbling and the feelings that go along with it. Change and transformation are just not the same. We are often ready for change, which means being prepared to add new things to what we already have. Always more. Transformation actually means we are prepared to let go, to let go of what we already have. This opens us up to becoming something quite new, to quite new relationships. Hermann Hesse expressed this beautifully in perhaps his most famous poem “Stages”:

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain u[4]s
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slaves of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

A poem of transformation. Being ready to say farewell and begin anew.

The main issue now is how to ensure that the crisis is worth it, that something new will arise. Will we manage to resist returning to things as normal? The illness, even the current crisis illness, arrived because humanity is ill, and what it has now is the possibility of healing. Even the current major crisis is actually a healer, but we need a great many healers to make sure that the crisis draws out what is best for humanity’s development. If someone is ill for months and upon emerging from the hospital we can say, “You haven’t changed a bit,” that is of course a withering assessment. Saying, “You have changed radically and have thereby become even more yourself, more like your true being,” would be like saying the illness, the crisis was worth it. May the current crisis for humanity enable human beings to become more themselves, to transform themselves completely, and thereby to show their true being more clearly.

The prerequisite for such a positive transformation is our will, our willingness to say “yes” to transformation processes. We must truly recognize that something is approaching us from the outside, and we say “yes” to the new in readiness to let go, to breath out. We say “Yes” to illness as a helper in our development. From this arises, at the highest level, a “yes” to death, and from this “yes” to death arises, again at the highest level, like an octave, a whole new “yes” to life, a life to which death belongs.  (emphasis mine)

In Eastertide lies the experience par excellence which says “yes” to death, the cosmic being of life. He who in the Gospel of St. John says of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The Life. Life is a being, and we are in the middle of it. It is someone, not something. This living being came to earth, became a man, and right from the beginning freely walked toward death with a wholehearted “yes,” right until the final moment. And this “yes” to dying transformed the being of death. Death was overcome, and something new arose. A new life arose, actually a deathless life, because henceforth death was no longer the opposite of life, but part of the whole, part of the high reality of life. A new kingdom emerged, a new domain, in which we already begin to live when we can find our “yes” to life as a whole.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said: “He who is prepared to live, is prepared to die.” Apparently, we are still not quite prepared to live life to its fullest, for doing so means also being prepared to die at any moment. The wholehearted “yes” overcomes the “no” of death. Out of this kingdom, this resurrection domain, in this open time of humanity’s breathing out, can now come encounters with the world of ideas. It is precisely at this moment that ideas are emerging for the future of humanity, for steps in the right direction in our development, e.g. in the social arena, in the relationship of human beings to the environment. We think of the people now on the island of Lesbos. We wonder about the necessity, or lack thereof, of domestic air travel, and so on. Now is a time for breathing out. During this time, when everything has slowed down, we have arrived in the middle of our humanness. Now we are touched by pneuma, and a revitalization can come out of that, a revitalization that we can take to heart. Spiritual thoughts which we take to heart and which, from the heart, want to circulate back out into life.

We still have a little time before the summer solstice; the light is increasing, making things clearer, bringing more to light. And then, while we are still in this time of crisis and trial, the light will inexorably give way to darkness again, and the reckoning will come. What was the outcome of the trial? Did we pass? If so, we can don the crown, the corona. Corona means light ring, sun aura. The same word is used when, in broad daylight, on very rare and special occasions, there is an eclipse of the sun. Then, in the middle of the day, dusk falls, and in rare cases we see the sun and its aura, normally obscured by the shadow-casting daylight. The sun’s aura, or corona, becomes visible. With this, something completely new enters the world, as is so beautifully depicted in a panel of Matthias Grünewald’s amazing Isenheim Altar painting.


In the panel above, we see the sphere of the sun, shining out from the background. The face, arms, and chest of the Risen Christ cast no shadows. We see a very special corona encircling the sun. Here and there we can still see some shadows, but the whole painting is glowing with light from the inside out, and this vanquishes the shadows, the darkness. This is a new light. It is the light that we bring forth by passing through crises. When we grow beyond ourselves, when we create the new kingdom through overcoming, the light this engenders no longer brings any shadows with it because it comes from inside the human being. If this light radiates through us from within, then we become light all over. No longer lit, but alight. This comes true,  however, only if the light spreads from the inside out, over everything at the same time. Then the earth will become a new star, shining like a new sun. We can hope that what actually lies hidden in the coronavirus crisis resurrects as the new light that overcomes darkness; that what lies in the name of this crisis actually comes to expression. The “yes” from each one of us, the “yes” to living, including illness, suffering, and even death, will generate this light, will bring about the rise of a new sun.

A YouTube talk by Rev. Laurens Hornemann,[1]

Translated by Gail Ritscher

[1] Priest of the Christian Community in Dortmund, Germany

[2] The German word Schicksaal is composed of the two words Schick, which means send, and Saal, which comes from the Latin salus, meaning healing.

[3] J. C. Friedrich Hölderlin was a German poet and philosopher, who was born in 1770.

[4] Translated by Richard and Clara Winston in: The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) ,p.444 New York: Henry Holt,1990