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The Power Of Words
Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
In every word there is a magic influence, and each word is in
itself the breath of the internal and moving spirit.
JOSEPH ENNEMOSER: The History of Magic.
There is magic in words, surely, and many a treasure besides
Ali Baba's is unlocked with a verbal key.
HENRY VAN DYKE: Little Rivers.
For it was neither herbs, nor mollifying plaster that restored
them to health, but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all
things. WISDOM OF SOLOMON, XVI, 12.
The power of words in stimulating the imagination is well expressed in
the following sentences:--
Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a
description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of
the things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in
stronger colors, and painted more to the life in his
imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of
the scene which they describe. In this case the poet seems to
get the better of nature. He takes indeed the landscape after
her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty,
and so enlivens the whole piece, that the images which flow
from the objects themselves, appear weak or faint in
comparison with those that come from the expressions.
The medical science of the ancient Romans was largely
theurgical, and was founded on a pretended influence over
spiritual beings, whether gods or demons. Their system of
therapeutics included prayers, invocations, and magical
sentences. In speaking of verbal charms, Lord Bacon commented
on the fact that amongst the heathen nations, either barbarous
words, without meaning, were used, or "words of similitude,"
which were intended to feed the imagination. Also religious
texts, which strengthen that faculty. Mystical expressions
were favorites, as were also Hebrew sentences, as belonging to
the holy tongue. No examples of magical formulas are found in
the Bible, but Rabbinical literature contains a large number
of them, the majority being designated as "heathen," and their
A belief in the potency of written or spoken words, for the production
of good or evil, has been characteristic of all historic epochs and
nations. The exorcist of ancient Egypt relied on amulets and mysterious
phrases for the cure of disease; and a metrical petition traced on a
papyrus-leaf, or a formula of prayer opportunely repeated, "put to
flight the serpents, who were the instruments of fate."
The efficacy anciently attributed to verbal charms appears to have been
partly due to a current opinion that names of persons and things were
not of arbitrary invention, but were in some mysterious manner evolved
from nature, and hence were possessed of a certain inherent force,
which was potent either for good or evil.
Our Lord, when on earth, went about healing the sick by the sole power
of words. A notable instance of this is the case of the centurion of
Capernaum, who deemed himself unworthy of the honor of having Christ
enter his dwelling, in order to cure his servant, who lay sick of the
palsy. "But speak the word only," he said, "and my servant shall be
healed." And the Master replied: "Go thy way; and as thou hast believed,
so be it done unto thee." And his servant was healed in the self-same
hour. That evening, we are told, many that were possessed with devils
were brought unto him; and he cast out the spirits with his word, and
healed all that were sick. The popularity of Scriptural texts in
primitive therapeutics is doubtless largely due to the many wonderful
cures wrought by words, which are recorded in the Bible.
Usually, in the Gospels, the healing word is addressed to the patient,
but occasionally to his master, or to one of his parents. Whenever the
belief in the power of sacred words appears outside of Holy Writ, it is
generally expressed in the guise of a superstitious formula. This belief
is found, however, in the mystical tenets of the ancient Jewish sect,
known as the Essenes. It is also clearly stated in the Zend Avesta, as
follows: "One may heal with herbs, one may heal with the Law, one may
heal with the Holy Word; amongst all remedies, this is the healing one,
that heals with the Holy Word; this one it is that will best drive away
sickness from the body of the faithful; for this one is the best healing
of all remedies."
The religious and devotional sentences, which are so commonly seen above
the entrances of dwellings in Germany and other European lands, and the
passages from the Koran similarly used among Moslems, are not
necessarily evidence of the piety of the members of a household. For, as
has been remarked, these sentences are often regarded merely as
According to an old Welsh custom, fighting-cocks were provided with
prophylactic amulets before entering the arena. These amulets consisted
of biblical verses, inscribed on slips of paper, which were bound around
the cocks' legs. A favorite verse thus used was Ephesians, VI, 16:
"Taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all
the fiery darts of the wicked." Some of the old English medical
verse-spells are sufficiently quaint exponents of popular credulity.
The following, for example, was in vogue as a remedy for cramp in the
"The Devil is tying a knot in my leg,
Mark, Luke and John, unloose it, I beg."
Mr. W. G. Black, in his "Folk-Medicine" (p. 170), remarks that many of
the magic writings used as charms were nothing else than invocations of
the Devil; and cites the case of a young woman living in Chelsea,
England, who reposed confidence in a sealed paper, mystically inscribed,
as a prophylactic against toothache. Having consented, at the request of
her priest, to examine the writing, this is what she found: "Good Devil,
cure her, and take her for your pains." This illustrates the somewhat
trite proverb, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'twere folly to be wise," and
is a proof of the wisdom of the popular belief that the inscription of a
healing formula should not be seen by the wearer, inasmuch as its mystic
words are ordinarily invocations of spiritual Beings, and are not
therefore adapted for comprehension by the human intellect!
The mere remembrance of some traditional event in the life of our Lord
has been accounted of value in popular leech-craft, as in the following
charm against ague, taken from a diary of the year 1751, and still used
in Lincolnshire within recent times: "When Jesus came near Pilate, he
trembled like a leaf, and the judge asked Him if He had the ague. He
answered that He neither had the ague nor was He afraid; and whosoever
bears these words in mind shall never fear the ague or anything
Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History, gives the text
of two letters alleged to have formed a correspondence between our Lord
and Abgar, King of Edessa. They were said to have been originally
written in Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic characters, and were discovered
beneath a stone some eighty miles from Iconium, the modern Konieh, in
Asia Minor, in the year 97, and afterwards lost. Regarded as authentic
by some learned authorities, they were nevertheless rejected as
apocryphal by a church council at Rome, during the pontificate of
Gelasius I, in the year 494. According to Eusebius, King Abgar, who was
afflicted with a grievous sickness, learning of the wonderful cures
wrought by our Lord, wrote Him a letter begging Him to come to Edessa.
And the Master, although not acceding to this request, wrote a reply to
the king, promising to send one of His disciples to heal him. And in
fulfilment of that promise, after His resurrection, Thomas the Apostle,
by divine command, sent Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples, to
Abgar. Such is the popular tradition. Full particulars of the visit of
Thaddeus, together with copies of the letters taken from a Book of
Records preserved at Edessa, may be found in a work entitled, "Ancient
Syriac Documents," edited by W. Cureton, D.D. Copies of these letters
were used as charms by the early Christians, and for this purpose were
placed upon their door-lintels; they were still to be seen within recent
years in many a cottage of Shropshire and Devon, where they are valued
as preservatives from fever. In the opinion of not a few scholars
they are ingenious literary forgeries; but strong evidence in favor of
their authenticity is afforded by the discovery, announced by Professor
Bohrmann to the archaeological congress at Rome, April 30, 1900, of
copies of the same letters, inscribed in Doric Greek, in the stone-work
above the gateway of the Palace of the Kings at Ephesus. The translated
text of the rediscovered letters is as follows:
From Abgar to Christ: I have heard of Thee and the cures
wrought by Thee without herb or medicine, for it is reported
that Thou restoreth sight to the blind and maketh the lame to
walk, cleanseth the leper, raiseth the dead, chaseth out
devils and unclean spirits, and healeth those that are
tormented of diseases of a long continuance. Hearing all this
of Thee, I was fully persuaded that Thou art the very God come
down from heaven to do such miracles, or that Thou art the son
of God and performeth them. Wherefor I have sent Thee a few
lines entreating Thee to come hither and cure my diseases.
Hearing that the Jews murmur against Thee and continue to do
Thee mischief, I invite Thee to my city, which is but a little
one, but is beautiful and sufficient to entertain us both.
Christ's reply to Abgar: Blessed art thou for believing me
when thou hast not seen, for it is written of me that they
that have seen me shall not believe, and that they that have
not seen me shall believe and be saved. But concerning the
matter thou hast written about, this is to acquaint thee that
all things for which I was sent hither must be fulfilled and
that I shall be taken up and returned to Him that sent me. But
after my ascension I will send one of my disciples that shall
cure thee of thy distemper and give life to all them that are
John Gaule, in the "Magastromancer," declares that sacred words
derive their force from occult divine powers, which are conveyed by
means of such words, "as it were through conduit-pipes, to those who
have faith in them."
Among the Hindus, the mantra is properly a divinely inspired Vedic
text; but quite generally at the present day it has degenerated into a
mere spell for warding off evil; the original religious or moral precept
being accounted of little force, when compared with the alleged magical
potency of its component words.
The exorcism of morbiferous demons was the chief principle of primitive
therapeutics, and as a means to this end, the written or spoken word has
always been thought to exert a very great influence. Possibly indeed in
remote antiquity the art of writing was first applied in inscribing
mystic words or phrases on parchment or other material, for use as
In treating the sick, the Apache medicine-man mumbles incoherent
phrases, a method adopted quite generally by his professional brethren
in many Indian tribes. He claims for such gibberish a mysterious faculty
of healing disease. Much of its effectiveness, however, has been
attributed to the monotonous intonation with which the words are
uttered, and which tends to promote sleep just as a lullaby soothes an
It is noteworthy, however, that meaningless words have always been the
favorite components of verbal charms, whose power, in the opinion of
medieval conjurers, was in direct ratio to their obscurity; and
this fact is well shown in the incantations used by savages.
According to the late Dr. D. G. Brinton, the principle involved is,
either that the gods are supposed to comprehend what men fail to
understand; or else that the verbal charm represents "the god expressing
himself through human organs, but in a speech unknown to human
ears." Reginald Scott expressed a popular modern idea of the force
of certain words and characters, when he said that they were able of
themselves to cure diseases, pull down, save, destroy and enchant,
"without the party's assistance."
The term incantation signifies a most potent method of magical
healing; namely, "that resting on a belief in the mysterious power of
words solemnly conceived and passionately uttered."
In the belief of the Australian aborigines, "no demon, however
malevolent, can resist the power of the right word." Ignorant
people are usually impressed by obscure phrases, the more so, if these
are well sprinkled with polysyllables. Cicero, in his treatise on
Divination (LXIV) criticizes the lack of perspicuity in the style of
certain writers, and supposes the case of a physician who should
prescribe a snail as an article of diet, and whose prescription should
read, "an earth-born, grass-walking, house-carrying, unsanguineous
animal." Equally efficacious might be the modern definition of the same
creature as a "terrestrial, air-breathing, gastropodous mollusk." The
degree of efficiency of such prescriptions is naturally in inverse
proportion to the patient's mental culture. An average Southern negro,
for example, affected with indigestion, might derive some therapeutic
advantage from snail diet, but would be more likely to be benefited by
the mental stimulus afforded by the verbose formula.
The Irish physicians of old had a keen appreciation of the healing
influences of incantations upon the minds of their patients, and the
latter had moreover a strong faith in the ancient Druidic charms and
invocations. It is probable that in very early times, invocations were
made in the names of favorite pagan deities. After the introduction of
Christianity by Saint Patrick, the name of the Trinity and the words of
the Christian ritual were substituted. Such invocations, when repeated
in the presence of sick persons, are regarded by the Irish peasants of
to-day as powerful talismans, effective through their magic healing
power. So great is the faith of these simple people in the ancient
hereditary cures, that they prefer to seek medical aid from the wise
woman of the village, rather than from a skilled practitioner.
The influence of the mind upon the physical organism, through the
imagination, is well shown by the seemingly marvellous cures sometimes
wrought by medical charms. But the efficacy of magical medicine has been
usually proportionate to the degree of ignorance prevalent during any
particular epoch. Yet some of the most famous physicians of antiquity
had faith in superstitious remedies. The medical literature of the last
century before Christ, and from that period until late in the Middle
Ages, was an actual treasury of conjuration and other mummeries. Even
the great Galen, who was regarded as an oracle, openly avowed his belief
in the merits of magic cures.
Galen wrote that many physicians of his time were of the opinion that
medicines lost much of their efficacy, unless prescribed by their
Babylonian or Egyptian names. They fully appreciated mental influence as
a factor in therapeutics. Hence, instead of regular prescriptions, they
sometimes wrote mystic formulas, which their patients either carried as
charms, or rolled into pellets, which were then swallowed.
In a "Book of Counsels to Young Practitioners" (1300) are to be found
some interesting items regarding contemporary manners. Fledgling doctors
are therein advised to make use of long and unintelligible words, and
never to visit a patient without doing something new, lest the latter
should say, "He can do nothing without his book." In brief, a reputation
for infallibility must be maintained.
It is not surprising that curative spells were popular in the dark
ages. A modern-writer has been quoted as saying that these were to
be used, not because they could effect direct physical changes, but
because they brought the patient into a better frame of mind. We know
that nervous affections were very prevalent in those times among the
ignorant masses of the people, and verbal charms were doubtless of value
in furnishing therapeutic mental impulses. The Germanic sooth-saying
physicians maintained that every bodily ailment could be cured by the
use of magical spells and enchanted herbs. The medieval charlatan
oculists inherited ancient medical formulas, by means of which they
professed to treat with success ophthalmic disorders. Their methods
included the recitation of ritualistic words, accompanied with suitable
gestures, and passes over the affected eyes.
In Cotta's "Short Discoverie of the Unobserved Dangers of several sorts
of Ignorant and Unconsiderate Practisers of Physicke in England" (1612)
occur the following passages, quoted also by Brand, in "Popular
Antiquities of Great Britain."
If there be any good or use unto the health by spels, they
have that prerogative by accident, and by the power and vertue
of fancie. If fancie then be the foundation whereupon buildeth
the good of spels, spels must needs be as fancies are,
uncertaine and vaine. So must also, by consequent, be their
use and helpe, and no lesse all they that trust unto
them. . . . How can religion or reason suffer men that are
not void of both, to give such impious credit unto an
insignificant and senseless mumbling of idle words contrary to
reason, without president of any truly wise or learned, and
justly suspected of all sensible men?
In the early part of the seventeenth century, many diseases were
regarded in the light of magic seizures. Therefore they were not
amenable to treatment by materia medica. More could be accomplished
through the patient's faith and imagination.
"Physicians," wrote the German scholar, Valentine Schindler, "do not
discover and learn everything that they ought to know, in the
universities; they have often to go to old wives, gypsies, masters of
the Black Art, old peasant-folk, and learn from them. For these people
have more knowledge of such things, than all the colleges and
The influence of technical language on the uneducated patient is
exemplified in the effect produced on his mind by the mention of Latin
names. The writer was impressed with this fact while engaged in
dispensary practice some years ago. Such a patient, affected with mumps,
for example, appears to experience a certain satisfaction, and is apt
to be somewhat puffed up mentally as well as physically, when he learns
that his ailment is Cynanche Parotidaea; and he expects a prescription
commensurate with its importance.
The effective force of a verbal charm is increased by the rhythmic flow
of its words; the solemn recitation or murmuring of mystic phrases.
"Hence," said Jacob Grimm, "all that is strong in the speech wielded by
priest, physician, or magician is allied to the forms of poetry."
In many a myth and fairy-tale, a cabalistic metrical verse pronounced by
the hero causes wonderful results.
As already intimated, the manner of reciting prayers, charms, and
formulas was anciently deemed to be of more moment than the meaning of
their constituent words. In Assyria, for example, healing-spells were
repeated in a "low, gurgling monotone"; and in Egypt the magical force
of incantations was largely due, in the popular mind, to their frequent
repetition in a pleasing tone of voice. The temper of mind which
prompts words of good cheer, is in itself a healing charm of no mean
value. For we read in the Book of Proverbs: "A merry heart doeth good
like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones."
In this progressive age, when men of science are seeking remedies
against the so-called "dust nuisance," which at times renders walking in
our streets a penance, it may not be amiss to call to mind an ancient
spell for the removal of particles of dust or cinders from the eyes.
This consisted in chanting the ninety-first psalm thrice over water,
which was then used as a lotion for the eye.
Popular faith in spells as therapeutic agents, an inheritance from
Chaldea and Egypt, was still strong even at the dawn of modern times;
and the force of medical charms was supplemented by various magic rites
and by the ceremonial preparation of medicines. The use of
curative spells and characts comes within the province of white magic,
which is harmless; so called to distinguish it from black magic, or the
black art, which involves a compact with the Evil One. In rude ages the
practice of the former as a means of healing, may be said to have found
its justification in its philanthropic purpose.
According to Mungo Park, the natives of all portions of the Dark
Continent are accustomed to wear written charms, called saphies,
grigris, or fetiches, whose chief use is the warding-off or cure of
disease. Although not themselves followers of Mohammed, the savages
have entire confidence in these charms, which are supplied by Moslem
priests; but their confidence is based upon the supposed magic of the
writing, irrespective of its religious meaning. The failure of a
charm to perform a cure is attributed to the ingratitude and fickleness
of the spirits. In Algeria it is not an uncommon experience of
physicians who have prescribed for native patients, to meet such an one
some days after, with the prescription either suspended from his neck,
or carefully hidden in his garments. Evidently the sole idea of
such a patient, in applying for advice, was to obtain a written formula
to serve as an amulet. The Moslems of Arabia and Persia have a custom of
applying to any stranger, preferably a European, for their protective
written charms, which are the more highly esteemed if totally
unintelligible to themselves. Such a practice, however, is not
sanctioned by orthodox followers of the Prophet, who is said to have
justified the use of healing-spells only upon condition that the
inscribed words should be none other than the names of God, and of the
good angels and jinn.
The Hon. John Abercromby, in the second volume of his work entitled
"Pre- and Proto-historic Finns," gives a vast number of the magic
songs, or charms, of Finland, among which are to be found a collection
of formulas, under the caption, "words of healing power," which were
recited for the cure of physical ailments of every description. For the
purpose of comparison the author has also grouped together many
specimens of spells and incantations in vogue among the neighboring
peoples, as the Swedes, Slavs, and Lithuanians. He is of the opinion
that most of the magical Finnish songs were composed since the twelfth
century, and in the transition period, before Christianity had fully
taken the place of paganism. During this period the recitation of
metrical charms was no longer restricted to the skilled magician, but
became popular in every Finnish household. Hence apparently the gradual
evolution of a mass of incantations for use in every conceivable
exigency or emergency of life. A chief feature of many of these medical
charms consists in vituperation and personal abuse of the particular
spirit of sickness addressed.
The peasants of Greece have long been addicted to the use of charms for
the cure of various ailments. Following is the translation of a spell
against colic which is in vogue amongst them: "Good is the householder,
wicked is the housewife; she cooks beans, she prepares oil,
vine-cuttings for a bed, stones for a pillow; flee pain, flee colic;
Christ drive thee hence with his silver sword and his golden hand."
According to Dr. N. G. Polites, this charm originated in a tradition
that Christ when on earth begged a night's lodging at a house, the
mistress whereof was ill-tempered and unkind to the poor, while her
husband was hospitably disposed toward needy wayfarers. The husband
being absent, his wife bade Christ take shelter in the barn, and later
provided him with some beans for supper, while she and the master of the
house fared more sumptuously. In the night the woman had a severe colic,
which the usual domestic remedies failed to relieve; and her husband
appealed to the poor wayfarer, who at once exorcised the demon of
Written charms were usually worn exposed to view, in order that evil
spirits might see them and read their inscriptions. In course of time
they developed into ornaments. Wealthy Hebrews were wont to carry
amulets made of gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones; while their
poorer brethren were contented with modest bits of parchment, woolen
cloth, or lace. In eastern countries a common variety of charm
consists of a small piece of paper or skin, duly inscribed. Manifold are
the virtues ascribed to such a charm! It may enable the bearer to find
hidden treasure, to win the favor of a man or woman, or to recover a
A written medical prescription of to-day, after having been filled and
copied by a druggist, is usually considered to have fulfilled its
mission, but the annals of popular medicine afford ample evidence of the
narrowness of such a view! The practice of swallowing the paper whereon
a recipe is written, as a veritable charm-formula, is of great
antiquity, and is still in vogue in many lands. The idea involved in
this singular custom is of course a superstitious regard for writing as
a magical curative.
In endeavoring to trace the origins of this and other analogous usages,
one must study the records of the most ancient civilizations. Among
various African tribes, written spells, called saphies, are commonly
used as medicines by the native wizards, who write a prayer on a piece
of wood, wash it off with water, and cause the patient to drink the
solution. Mungo Park, while in West Africa, was once asked by his
landlord, a Bambarra native, to prepare such a charm, the latter
proffering his writing-board for the purpose. The traveller complied,
and the negro, while repeating a prayer, washed the writing off with
water, drank the mixture, and then licked the board dry, in his anxiety
to derive the greatest possible benefit from the writing.
The eating of the paper on which a prescription has been written is
still a common expedient for the cure of disease in Tibet, where the
Lamas use written spells, known as "edible letters." The paper
containing cabalistic words and symbols, taken internally, constitutes
the remedy, and through its influence on the imagination is probably
more beneficial to the patient than are most of the so-called "bitters"
and patent medicines of the present day.
So likewise, when a Chinese physician cannot procure the drugs which he
desires in a particular case, he writes the names of these drugs on a
piece of paper, which the patient is expected to eat; and this
mode of treatment is considered quite as satisfactory as the swallowing
of the medicine itself. Sometimes a charm is burned over a cup of water,
and the ashes stirred in, and drunk by the patient, while in other cases
it is pasted upon the part of the body affected.
In eastern countries generally, remedial qualities are ascribed to water
drunk out of a cup or bowl, whose inner surface is inscribed with
religious or mystical verses; and specimens of such drinking-vessels
have been unearthed in Babylonia within recent years. The magic
medicine-bowls, still used in the Orient, usually bear inscriptions from
the Koran. In Flora Annie Steel's tale of the Indian Mutiny of
1857, "On the Face of the Waters" (p. 293), we read of a native who was
treated for a cut over the eye by being dosed with paper pills inscribed
with the name of Providence.
Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh (1810-1882) reported the case of a laboring
man affected with colic, for whom he prescribed some medicine, directing
him to "take it and return in a fortnight," assuring him that he would
soon be quite well. At the appointed time the man returned, entirely
relieved and jubilant. The doctor was gratified at the manifest
improvement in his patient's condition, and asked to see the
prescription which he had given him; whereupon the man explained that he
had "taken" it, as he had understood the directions, by swallowing the
In Egypt, at the present time, faith in the power of written charms is
generally prevalent, and forms one of the most characteristic beliefs of
the people of that country.
E. W. Lane, in "Modern Egyptians," says that the composition of these
characts is founded chiefly upon magic, and devolves usually upon the
village schoolmasters. They consist of verses from the Koran, and "names
of God, together with those of angels, genii, prophets, or eminent
saints, intermixed with combinations of minerals, and with diagrams, all
of which are supposed to have great secret virtues."
One of the most popular Egyptian methods of charming away disease is
similar to a practice already mentioned as in use among less civilized
The sacred texts are inscribed on the inner surfaces of earthenware
bowls, in which water is stirred until the writing is washed off. Then
the infusion is drunk by the patient, and without doubt the subsequent
benefit is exactly commensurate with the strength of his faith in the
Next: The Curative Influence Of The Imagination