07 June 2015

Marking (the Feast of) Corpus Christi: Divine Power Perfected in Weakness

[[Dear Sister, if a person is chronically ill then isn't their illness a sign that "the world" of sin and death are still operating in [i.e., dominating] their lives?  . . . I have always thought that to become a religious one needed to be in good health. Has that also changed with canon 603? I don't mean that someone has to be perfect to become a nun or hermit but shouldn't they at least be in good health? Wouldn't that say more about the "heavenliness" of their vocation than illness? ]] (Concatenation of queries posed in several emails)

As I read these various questions one image kept recurring to me, namely, that of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. I also kept thinking of a line from a homily my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS) gave about 7 years ago which focused on Carravagio's painting of this image; the line was,  "There's Another World in There!" It was taken in part from the artist and writer Jan Richardson's reflections on this painting and on the nature of the Incarnation. Richardson wrote:

[[The gospel writers want to make sure we know that the risen Christ was no ghost, no ethereal spirit. He was flesh and blood. He ate. He still, as Thomas discovered, wore the wounds of crucifixion. That Christ’s flesh remained broken, even in his resurrection, serves as a powerful reminder that his intimate familiarity and solidarity with us, with our human condition, did not end with his death. . . Perhaps that’s what is so striking about Caravaggio’s painting: it stuns us with the awareness of how deeply Christ was, and is, joined with us. The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a  union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.]] Living into the Resurrection

Into the Wound, Jan L Richardson
My response then must really begin with a series of questions to you. Are the Risen Christ's wounds a sign that sin and death are still "operating in" him or are they a sign that God has been victorious over these --- and victorious not via an act of force but through one of radical vulnerability and compassion? Are his wounds really a passage to "another world" or are they signs of his bondage to and defeat by the one which contends with him and the Love he represents? Do you believe that our world is at least potentially sacramental or that heaven (eternal life in the sovereign love of God) and this world interpenetrate one another as a result of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection or are they entirely separate from and opposed to one another? Even as I ask these questions I am aware that they may be answered in more than one way. In our own lives too, we may find that the wounds and scars of illness and brokenness witness more to the world of sin and death than they do to that of redemption and eternal life. They may represent a prison more than they represent a passage to another world.

Or not.

When I write about discerning an eremitical vocation and the importance of the critical transition that must be made from being a lone pious person living physical silence and solitude to essentially being a hermit living "the silence of solitude," I am speaking of a person who has moved from the prison of illness to illness as passage to another world through the redemptive grace of God. We cannot empower or accomplish such a transition ourselves. The transfiguration of our lives is the work of God. At the same time, the scars of our lives will remain precisely as an invitation to others to see the power of God at work in our weakness and in God's own kenosis (self-emptying). These scars become Sacraments of God's powerful presence in our lives, vivid witnesses to the One who loves us in our brokenness and yet works continuously to bring life, wholeness, and meaning out of  death, brokenness, and absurdity.

To become a hermit (especially to be publicly professed as a Catholic hermit) someone suffering from chronic illness has to have made this transition. Their lives may involve suffering but the suffering has become a sacrament which attests less to itself  (and certainly not to an obsession with pain) but to the God who is a Creator-redeemer God. What you tend to see as an obstacle to living a meaningful profoundly prophetic religious or eremitical life seems to me to be a symbol of the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also seems to me to remind us of the nature of "heavenliness" in light of the Ascension. Remember that one side of the salvation event we call the Christ is God's descent so that our world may be redeemed and entirely transformed into a new creation. But the other side of this Event is the Ascension where God takes scarred humanity and even death itself up into his own life --- thus changing the very nature of heaven (the sovereign life of God shared with others) in the process.

Far from being an inadequate witness to "heavenliness" our wounds can be the most perfect witness to God's sovereign life shared with us. Our God has embraced the wounds and scars of the world as his very own and not been demeaned, much less destroyed in the process. Conversely, for Christians, the marks of the crucifixion, as well therefore as our own illnesses, weaknesses and various forms of brokenness, are (or are meant to become) the quintessential symbols of a heaven which embraces our own lives and world to make them new. When this transformation occurs in the life of a chronically ill individual seeking to live eremitical life it is the difference between a life of one imprisoned in physical isolation, silence, and solitude, to that of one which breathes and sings "the silence of solitude." It is this song, this prayer, this magnificat that Canon 603 describes so well and consecrated life in all its forms itself represents.

Bowl patched with Gold
We Christians do not hide our woundedness then. We are not ashamed at the way life has marked and marred, bent and broken, spindled and mutilated us. But neither are woundedness or brokenness themselves the things we witness to. Instead it is the Sacrament God has made of our lives, the Love that does justice and makes whole that is the source of our beauty and our boasting. Jan Richardson also reminds us of this truth when she recalls Sue Bender's observations on seeing a mended Japanese bowl. [[“The image of that bowl,” she writes, “made a lasting impression. Instead of trying to hide the flaws, the cracks were emphasized — filled with silver. The bowl was even more precious after it had been mended.”]]  So too with our own lives: as Paul also said, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing power will be of God and not from ourselves."  (2 Cor 4:7) It is the mended cracks, the wounds which were once prisons, the shards of a broken life now reconstituted entirely by the grace of God which reveal the very presence of heaven to those we meet.