Medical and Mental Health Advice From A 13th Century Doctor of Philosophy
I don’t recall any of my seminary professors pointing me to Thomas Aquinas as a source for counseling theory or technique. Perhaps they did and I missed it; regardless, I probably would have ignored recommended readings from a 13th century philosopher-monk. But Aquinas comes up a lot in one of my other favorite areas of study, systematic theology, and I have since come to see that his psychology is often deep and penetrating, or in the instance that sparked this post, directly practical.
In Question 38 of his Summa Theologica, which deals with The Remedies of Pain and Sorrow, Aquinas asks this unexpected question: “Whether pain and sorrow are assuaged by sleep and baths?” His short answer is yes, bodily remedies assuage sorrow. That simple answer rests upon a more profound understanding of the connections between mind, soul and body. I am not an Aquinas scholar, and there are book-length treatments of his mind-body psychology, but this sentence caught me: “Sorrow and pain, in so far as they affect the body, denote a certain transmutation of the heart.”
I believe this might be a philosophical description of Bessel van der Kolk’s catchy title, The Body Keeps the Score. When not sufficiently digested, painful experiences turn to sorrow and take up space in our physical bodies. Indeed, Aquinas writes that “Of all the soul’s passions [or emotions/affections], sorrow is most harmful to the body.” So, while remedies for sorrow, according to Aquinas, include “contemplation of truth” (e.g. communion with God through biblical meditation and prayer) and “sympathizing friends”, proper attention has to be paid to the body. Otherwise, you can count on the body calling in its debts. Perhaps this neurobiological reality helps explain Job’s complaint, “When I remember, I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh” (Job 21:6). Traumatic memories are quite literally capable of inducing muscle spasms, and traumatic experiences also contribute to greater general risk for physical diseases.
Consider the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study which was released in 1998. As noted by the CDC, this study of over 19,000 adults suggests that “childhood abuse and household dysfunction lead to the development decades later of the chronic diseases that are the most common causes of death and disability in this country, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung and liver disease, and injuries” (https://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/r980514.htm).
This attention for the body is a helpful reminder for Christians, myself included, who can tend to neglect healing and care for our physical selves. As the erudite philosopher observes with profound simplicity, this begins with the all important duties of personal hygiene. But the list of sorrow-healing physical activities could be quite long: leisurely walks and vigorous exercise; mindful breathing and silent meditation; singing and dancing; physical closeness with loved ones; gardening; music, painting, and other arts; and so on and so forth.
As you begin 2022 and think about diet and fitness goals, also consider your body’s role in healing from heartache. If nothing else, aim to listen more carefully to your body. See if you can identify, not just cognitively but physically, with the truth that “sorrow is most harmful to the body.” The body does indeed keep the score, and it is a temple of the living God. So glorify God in your body by taking good care of your physical self in 2022.