Being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness is a shock. Education does not prepare us and culturally it is not a conversation topic. The message can come when you least expect it, sometimes at an age when lifestyle changes are bringing a whole new vista of life’s opportunity into focus.
This situation is a huge challenge over and above the physical demands which come with treatment, or with deteriorating health. This is the valley of the shadow of death, so poetically defined by the writer of the 23rd Psalm – the poem of praise and of comfort made more familiar by the much-loved hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.
Psalm 23 has a particular resonance as a focus for mindfulness and meditation. You find words of comfort that go far deeper than you might expect. There is a call to your spirit which is conjured up by the images the writer’s words describe. Familiar pictures offer themselves to those who are distressed and upset, firstly as reassurance and then as spiritual comfort.
Increasingly healthcare professionals recognise that physical and spiritual co-exist and comfort can be gained from words. By reaching out to your mind the spiritual can be brought into play. This is not a new idea but it is not always one we think of first when health problems arise. In cancer care the value of spiritual wellbeing has long been recognised though how to support it remains a question.
The psalm assumes our natural goodness. Just reaching out to the shepherd is enough to start the process of healing and help. There is just the one condition. You can only get help by reaching out to the shepherd with your heart and in your mind. This opens the way to the comforts of green pastures, still waters and the support from the rod and staff. It translates into spiritual strength.
But this is no shepherd carrying a brand or badge which denotes a specific religion. This is the spiritual shepherd of all mankind. The route by which the shepherd is reached can be religious but it can also be a route travelled alone, even in anxiety and fear. There is the certainty in the Psalm “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me”.