Healing by the Divine Physician
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” (Mt 9: 12-13).
No one wants to suffer for its own sake. Pain and suffering are things that we avoid when we can, as a rule, and when we can’t avoid them, we try to make sense of them. In the Gospels, people constantly approach Jesus for healing of one suffering or another, and Christians still regularly seek healing from the Lord. There are healing Masses offered in dioceses around the U.S.; priests sometimes attain notice for having healing powers; about six million people make a pilgrimage to Lourdes every year. The Gospel has much to offer those who are in need of healing, but the prerequisite for healing is knowing and feeling that you are wounded.
There are many kinds of wounds, and while Jesus came to save us from them all, His mission is to save us, ultimately, from the wounds of sin. Salvation is what He promises—salvation from sin and the wages of sin (death). This is bottom-line, bare bones, mere Christianity, kerygma stuff. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in my neighborhood keep sending me sweet, hand-written letters in the mail with pamphlets about heaven, promising me a world where there are no tears and there is no suffering. I really appreciate what they’re getting at: an eschatological picture of heaven as made possible by Jesus. But heaven for Christians is not only after death; we get lots of foretastes of heaven on earth. For example, the moment we walk out of confession is a little experience of heaven, since we have been freed from our sins (though scars remain). “The road to heaven is heaven,” said St. Teresa of Avila. But if we don’t know what sin is or what it does, how can we be healed from it?
We may not know that we need the healing of Christ because we cannot see our injuries. The bruises and scrapes of sin are usually invisible, and the more we sin, the less visible each sin is. Our vision is progressively darkened until we can’t see our sins at all. This is why, if you go to confession, say, every two weeks, you really notice if you haven’t been in a month, but if you haven’t been to confession in a year, you begin to think you don’t need to go at all. I think the precept of the Church that you must go at least once a year before Easter is the Church’s recognition that if you don’t seek forgiveness for over a year, you might not be able to find your way back. I think it was Mother Teresa who used an analogy to a windshield. Each sin is a little scratch; in the dark, you don’t notice it, but if you turn toward the sun (Son), the scratches stand out in stark relief.
Another reason we may not seek healing is because we are numb. Numbing is one way of dealing with pain, and people (or animals) are often numbed precisely in order to be healed. There’s a James Herriot story about an ewe that was in tremendous pain after lambing; the farmer had left her alone to die. Out of compassion, Herriot gave her an injection of a painkiller that he assumed would lead to her death, but instead, the farmer told him that the ewe slept deeply for a day or two and woke up healed. Herriot wrote, “I had discovered something, discovered something by accident. That ewe’s life had been saved not by medicinal therapy but simply by stopping her pain and allowing nature to do its own job of healing. It was a lesson I have never forgotten; that animals confronted with severe continuous pain and the terror and shock that goes with it will often retreat even into death, and if you can remove that pain amazing things can happen.” Taking this lesson analogously to the spiritual level, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I should be distressed that I drop off to sleep during my prayers… But I don’t feel at all distressed. I know that children are just as dear to their parents whether they are asleep or awake and I know that doctors put their patients to sleep before they operate.” Sometimes just being in the presence of God and letting Him work while we sleep is a way to find healing. But at other times, healing takes more than numbing, because you want to feel, you just don’t want to feel pain. You wouldn’t want to be numb or asleep for the rest of your life.
Real healing takes time and may even hurt in the process. There’s a saying for this: It may get worse before it gets better. For some types of pain, you have to allow yourself to feel it first, before it can be healed. This brings me to a gift that we experienced last month on campus. In connection with our participation in the synod, TCP invited Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston to lead an Evening of Healing and Reconciliation—a Mass and Holy Hour with praise and worship. During the guided meditation, Bishop Cozzens asked us to consider a wound that we were carrying; to allow ourselves to feel that wound and to bring it to the Lord for healing. He said he was praying, beforehand, he told me and Stephen, for the Spirit’s guidance, because, “You don’t want to open anything that can’t be healed there.” During the meditation, the bishop noted how important it was to let ourselves feel the pain caused by the wound before asking for healing. It was the opposite of numbing; it was time to let go of our coping mechanisms. The healing we sought could only be found in Christ—who offered Himself as the medicine.
Being in relationship with Jesus is being in a relationship with a Divine Physician who wants to get to the root of our sins and wounds. While Jesus may allow us to be numb (or oblivious?) for a while, He does not want us to stay that way; in fact, He sometimes asks us to enter into the pain of healing. During Lent, we undertake various forms of suffering (deprivations of a good) in order to remind ourselves that we have died with Christ. Our bodily (or other) deprivations are small ways of joining ourselves to Him. Flannery O’Connor famously wrote, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” St. Paul said that he would boast of nothing but the cross—a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles. It is still foolishness. “You must suffer to be happy,” sounds ridiculous, but the thing is, we know it to be true. The best things in our lives came through some kind of suffering… but they didn’t end there. We went through it. If we are brave to ask the Divine Physician, we can be healed.