21 May 2013

"It is all of a piece --- ecstasy and epilepsy"

Yesterday's reading from Mark is always challenging for me. It is the story of the Father with the epileptic Son. Because of my own seizure disorder I have struggled my entire adult life with the situation described and the questions raised in Mark 9:14-29. I have struggled with injuries and memories of injuries or the sense of ever-present danger and threat Mark describes so well. For many years every day and even every hour was marked by terror because of this and I yearned to be able to embody Jesus' admonition to, "Be not afraid." I have reflected long and hard on the accusation of the age's faithlessness. Especially though I have struggled personally with the last exchange between the disciples and Jesus: [["Why could we not drive the spirit out?" He said to them, "This kind can only come out through prayer."]]

My own struggle to understand and accept my chronic illness and the things it has made both impossible and --- more importantly! --- possible in my life eventually found its summary and resolution in the words of Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9) It underscored the importance of paradox in Christian life and especially the relationship of human poverty to Divine grace. So central was all of this to me that, as I have already noted here at other points, I used Paul's summary of the heart of an incarnational faith lived in and with Christ as the motto engraved on my perpetual (eremitical) profession ring.  I used the similar affirmation we find in the Gospel of John where Jesus responds to news of Lazareth's illness as a key text inspiring my life and therefore as a piece of the Scriptural underpinnings of my Rule, [[When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.]] But every once in a while someone captures this same dynamic and affirmation in words I have not heard before. Sometimes they do it in a way which speaks directly and powerfully to me and my own experience.

Yesterday at the end of Mass, my pastor read a brief passage from the book Unexpected News, Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes by Robert McAfee Brown. The passage was titled (not by Brown; it was part of a small anthology of reflections), "Down from the Mountaintop": [[ As soon as the 'religious experience' of the  transfiguration was over, Jesus goes down from the mountain to respond to human need, the healing of an epileptic boy. When the boy's distraught Father asks for help, Jesus does not respond, "Look, I 've just had a marvelous experience and I don't want to lose the glow." No, things are immediately earthy, human, even ugly --- for a person in an epileptic seizure is not a pretty sight. It is all of a piece --- ecstasy and epilepsy. This is what messiahship is all about: being in the midst of the poor, the sick, the helpless, those with frothing mouths. Messiahship --- just like Christian living --- is not just "mountaintop experiences" or "acts of concern for human welfare":  it is a necessary combination of the two.]]

 I am grateful to have been present for the reading of this brief reflection yesterday. It was a very powerful moment for me: affirming, shaking, a little tearful, challenging,  and consoling all at once.  Pentecost continues bestowing its unsettling and sustaining gifts of wind and fire. In the power of the Spirit and from the perspective of the Kingdom --- it is all of a piece:  Mountaintop experiences and years in the desert; a power made perfect in weakness; a  bit of human brokenness and poverty made a gift to others by the whole-making grace of God; mute isolation  transfigured into the rich communion and communicative silence of solitude; a life redeemed and enriched by love. It is all of a piece ---  epilepsy and ecstasy. I am grateful to have learned that. In fact, I am grateful to have needed and been called to learn that!