The Touch of Christ Heals

Douglas P. McManaman
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

The first thing to notice about the gospel reading today is that it is the fulfillment of what we heard in the first reading from Isaiah. "He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy". In the gospel, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and mute.

The first point I'd like to make with regard to this simple reading is that "they begged him to lay his hand on him". A group brought this man to Jesus, and they didn't just ask him or make a simple request, rather, they begged him to touch this man.

Again, this really underscores the power of prayer when prayer is both communal and desperate: "they begged him". When people beg, they are suffering. If they are begging for food, they are hungry, if they are begging for money, they are desperately poor. Such people recognize their utter indigence, their want. This particular group of people begged for this man, not for themselves; they loved him so much that his deprivation became their deprivation. That's what love does - we become the person we love, and if he is suffering, so are we. They beg Jesus on his behalf.

When we glance at the history of Israel, we notice that it was during times of prosperity that the nation drifted from God, but during times of great suffering they turned to God, desperately crying out to be restored. Just as it often takes a personal tragedy of some kind for someone to be awakened to his radical need for God and thus to be awakened to prayer, the same is true on a national level. A community often has to reach dire straits before that community turns to God like a beggar for help. The Church as a community prays always, but the intensity and desperation and thus the power of that prayer depends on the circumstances.

Why does God permit difficult social circumstances, such as persecution, to arise century after century? I can't answer that completely, but one reason is certainly that the Church may begin to pray more desperately, with a greater poverty of spirit. We can become too complacent, too comfortable, to the point where the sufferings of our brothers and sisters around the world do not really shake us up all that much. Our prayer for them can become routine. But the more we pray like that crowd that brought forth the deaf man, with a genuine poverty of spirit, the more miracles we are going to see in our own lives and in the world.

It's hard to keep that stream of miracles going, however, because during times of prosperity, our love of self grows more disordered and our prayer for others becomes less intense.

The next point that is noteworthy is that Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd. Only when he was alone with Christ did healing take place. It's not enough to be in a crowd of believers, standing on the coat tails of their faith, so to speak. You have to go off to be alone with Christ; you have to come to know him and know yourself through his eyes, and that can only happen as a result of being alone with him. That's why he says: "When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret". Your room is the room of the Interior Castle of the soul, which is an inner universe. Again, sometimes it takes a tragedy to awaken us to that interior universe.

The story of Father Roman Braga is inspiring and instructive in this regard. Father Braga is a Romanian Orthodox monk who was arrested by the communists in 1948. He spent the next five years in prison. After his release from prison, he became a monk and was ordained a deacon; but after another five years under the surveillance of the communist government, he was arrested again in 1959 and spent a full year under interrogation. Finally he was falsely accused of having been part of a movement to overthrow the government and was sentenced to 18 years of forced labor. In 1964, a general amnesty was given by the communist regime to all political prisoners, and so he was released. He had spent a total of 11 years in prison, a good portion spent in solitary confinement, deliberately separated from like-minded prisoners (i.e., monks, philosophers, theologians, etc.). But it was here that he discovered the "Inner Universe". He writes:

…what I do know is that we will never reach the same spiritual level of life as in Communist imprisonment. There was no pencil, no paper, no T.V., nothing; especially in solitary confinement, you could not even look through a window. There was no exterior horizon, nothing but the four walls of your cell. You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective, because otherwise you would truly go crazy. I'm ashamed to say that I was forced to find myself in prison. I had some ideas about prayer …, but it was mostly theory about what prayer is; but there in those difficult moments I confess that I started to recite the Jesus Prayer [Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner] and practiced it intensely. Only then was I able to discover how beautiful the interior life of man is. I liked it very much. A couple of months before I discovered this, I thought that I would go crazy because the solitude was a total break from the world with which I had been so much involved. And you know that our culture is oriented outside ourselves; it is a cosmological knowledge directed toward existence outside ourselves. Now I needed a method to find myself …

…I reached the level of feeling the presence of God in a vivid way; …I have the feeling of His presence. When God speaks to you He does not use material words but brings you joy. I experienced such joys in prison, I could not detach myself from them. I was never interested when they brought me food or water. Slowly, slowly I started to memorize what I had read in the Holy Fathers - just ideas, not words. In solitary confinement, the memory works wonderfully; even quotations sometimes come. Everything that I had before accumulated acquired here a spiritual profile, a new meaning. It became life, not only a dead concept

The final point I'd like to make deals with the next thing Jesus does; he put his fingers into the deaf man's ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. That is such a strange image. Why did he have to stick his fingers into his hears and touch the man's tongue with his spit? The reason is that healing comes through the flesh of Christ. This is the sacramental principle. The invisible is channeled through the visible, just as it is among human beings: love, which is invisible, is communicated through visible and tangible things, like gifts. Immaterial ideas are communicated through audible sounds and visible words. Invisible grace is communicated through the matter of Christ's body. It is the touch of Christ that heals.

And that brings us back to the Church. Our relationship with Christ is not a purely private affair. This man was brought to Christ through the faith and desperation of the community, he then found himself alone with Christ, but healing comes ultimately through his body, his matter, his flesh, and the Church is the community of his body. All the readings for the past month have emphasized the goodness of matter, the real flesh of Christ, the bread of life, etc. Although the Church is made up of sinful, broken and neurotic members, Christ chooses to continue healing this world through the Mystical Body of the Church. There's no getting around it. It is through the sacramental life of the Church, i.e., regular confession and regular communion that we receive the healing we need as we pass through this world that constantly wounds and scars us. He alone is our salvation. There is no going beyond him.