Spiritual Neuropathy

Physical symptoms offer useful analogies to the spiritual life.

Neuropathy is a case in point.  Frequently when patients suffer from diabetes, neuropathy is one of the early signs of the disease’s presence.  The patient can lose feeling or experience a tingling sensation as nerve damage grows and spreads; and, left unattended, amputation may prove to be the only solution.  The condition is usually at its worst in patients who haven’t acknowledged the seriousness of their condition and modified their diet.

As such, it is also an early sign of the disorder and the condition which diabetics can be slow to acknowledge.  Left unattended long enough, a patient with severe neuropathy may be forced to acknowledge the disease, the denial that has allowed the neuropathy to spread, and the life-threatening peril that they face — all at one time.

In the spiritual life of both individuals and institutions, neuropathy can set in as well.  We can be slow to acknowledge our peril, the decline can spread slowly, and — by the time we are willing to acknowledge the peril — solutions can be hard to find.

What are the symptoms?  Here are three symptoms of individual and institutional spiritual neuropathy.  Are there others you would suggest?

For individuals:

  • Appeals are repeatedly made to old spiritual insights and experiences, but new ones are largely absent.
  • The inability to pray.
  • Cynicism.

For institutions:

  • A loss of focus.
  • The tendency to redefine the loss of focus as new vision.
  • Recycled leadership (i.e., the same old faces, just moved to new places)

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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