Coinciding with the setting of the sun tonight, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar begins: Yom Kippur. It is a day of fasting, reflection and introspection. Metaphorically, within a 24 hour period, the gates will open or close and after fervent prayer, it will be decided who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. Put another way, who shall know health and healing. For mental health professionals, our bible is science. It is where we turn to understand, to find meaning, to make sense of the world and help others on their path to wholeness, healing and health. For rabbis, priests, ministers, and other clergy, the bible, prayer books and teachings of the sages are their bible. It is where they turn to understand and and help others find meaning, wholeness, health, healing and holiness. These words describe words at the core of the work of mental health professionals and clergy. At the core of these words are share ancient roots.
As my empty stomach gurgles and grumbles for the next 24 hours, I will reflect on my recent discovery that holy, wholeness, health, healing and holiday share the Old English root, halig that is further derived from the Old English hal meaning “entire, whole; unhurt, uninjured, safe; healthy, sound; genuine, straightforward.”
Holy – meaning consecrated, sacred; godly – traces its roots to the thirteenth century with the Old English words hālig and hal. It also has roots that take us back to the eleventh century Old High German hulis and Old English holegn meaning “Holly.” As in the holly tree that was considered a sacred plant to both pre-Christian Celtic and Roman worship. Linguists postulate that in its earliest usage, holy probably meant “that which must be preserved whole or intact; not to be transgressed or violated.” Something to be honored.
Whole. From the Old English hál, among other forms – whole was all about ‘being in one piece,’ literally and metaphorically. Hál could mean safe and unharmed, in body, mind, or spirit. The Old English Dictionary describes that the hál especially signified something or someone free or recovered from injury. I could imagine this meaning someone whose mind, body and soul are connected, in touch with each other. The opposite of disjointed.
Health also has roots that take us to the Old English hælþ “wholeness, being whole, sound or well, and Old English halig. In Middle English, it referred not only to physical wellbeing, but also prosperity, happiness, welfare; preservation, and safety. Mental health and physical health converge.
Healing is the restoration to health and thus we trace its roots to hæling, and halig as well. The figurative meaning of “restoration of wholeness” is from the early thirteenth century. In the seventeenth century it held the connotation of the “touch that cures.” At times, the touch is a word or a knowing look of acceptance. At other times, the touch is a glimpse of the divine.
Holiday was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And so we come full circle.
It should be no wonder that the journey to health and healing is so intimately linked to the journey of to wholeness and holiness. That these words all take us back to the same ancient roots suggests that as we draw from our sacred texts, whether they be scientific discoveries or ancient, biblical stories – or for most of us various doses of each – the search for health, healing, holiness and wholeness is one that all humanity shares.