I have been told that when physicians attach exotic diagnoses to commonplace symptoms, their colleagues say that they “heard hoofbeats in the hall and assumed it was a zebra.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am thirsty." But according to the gospel, he said it, not for the obvious reasons – that he had probably not had anything to drink since dinner the night before, that he had lost a lot of blood during a flogging, that he was hanging in the hot sun, that he was thirsty – but that he said it "in order that the scripture might be fulfilled." With all due respect to the author of John's Gospel, that sure sounds like a zebra to me.
After my recent spine surgery, between the pain and the virtual paralysis in my left arm and leg, going to the bathroom was such an ordeal that I basically stopped eating and drinking -- or rather, I ate and drank just enough to stave off the loving nagging of my attentive physician wife. This went on for five days in the hospital, and the first two or three days of inpatient rehab. But somewhere around the third day, I began to drink. A lot. The nurses kept the big Styrofoam cups of water coming, and I kept draining them as fast as they came; I simply couldn't get enough. Every cell in my body cried out for it; my blood, my lymph, my cerebrospinal fluid – all of them cried out to be replenished. I was thirsty.
Discomfort with the fact of Jesus’ bodily humanity has a long pedigree. The third century Alexandrian theologian Origen only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, and insisted that he did so "in a manner unique to himself, such that the food did not pass from his body." Apparently Jesus wouldn't have had the same problem I had in the hospital.
The church’s troubled relationship with the physical body has persisted into our own time, and the world has been watching. I used to write for a large amalgamated blog that specialized in Buddhism and yoga. As one of only two Christian writers on the blog, I often had outraged yogis unload on me about the presumption of a Christian writer writing on a blog about yoga. After all, Christians hate the body. Everybody knows that.
Once I asked a commentor to quote me a passage from the Gospels that suggested a hatred of the body. He came back with about a dozen passages – all from the letters of Paul, not the Gospels. I decided to let that go. But I informed him that the New Testament uses two Greek words that are both translated as "the flesh." Soma means the literal, physical body, and it hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Sarx means the carnal nature, our tendency to sin for the sake of gratifying our physical desires. I looked up all of the passages the angry yogi had provided, and discovered that every single one of them used the word sarx where the English text said "the flesh." Not a single one of those passages referred to the literal, physical body.
And yet, it isn't enough to point that out, because there is truth in the angry yogi’s criticism. The Christian religion, which is predicated on God taking on human flesh, has often had an ambivalent-at-best relationship with the physical body. I believe the downplaying of Jesus’ physical humanity is part of what allows some Christians to applaud the possibility of food stamps and health care coverage being taken away from the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me food," said Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats. "I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink." There are no thoughts and prayers in the parable. It's all about concrete needs, most of them relating to the physical body.
Because the physical body is a huge part what the Christ project is all about. In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a human life and died a human death, and along the way experienced hunger, thirst, pain, pleasure, heat, cold, desire, aversion, and all the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to – and all the messy emotional stuff, too: love, loss, grief, anger, and abandonment. So when we are suffering, we can turn to God in Jesus, and God in Jesus will revive our spirits.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose a passage of Scripture that the Christ project fulfilled, it would be this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
But also with those who have a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite.
The unchanging, transcendent, incorporeal creator of the universe has stubbed his toes and blown his nose and seen his loved ones die, in a body just like ours.
In the Roman Catholic devotion called "Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” consecrated Host, or communion wafer, is exposed for viewing in a special holder called a "monstrance," so the faithful can pray in its presence. Although the risen Christ is said to be present everywhere, he is believed to be present “in a special way” in the consecrated Sacrament.
Nothing could be more alien to my Methodist upbringing; indeed, I have no doubt that some of my church mentors would have considered the practice idolatrous. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for that reason, I have attempted to practice Adoration for many years, whenever I found myself in a Catholic environment in which there was Blessed Sacrament exposed for that purpose. In all that time, I never felt even a tingle – no connection whatever to Jesus in, or as, that piece of bread.
There is a sweet little Adoration chapel in the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré, and I visited it more than once during my pilgrimage of healing to the Québec shrine. (Below is a picture of it. I don't know whether photographing it is considered disrespectful or not; I hope not.) During my last visit, as I prayed the Adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet, I had the impression that the consecrated Body spoke to me. I don't mean that I heard a literal voice, and my ears were not involved; it was more like the words dropped directly into my head.
"You are the Body of Christ," the Sacrament said.
Then, all on its own, my mind supplied the remembered words of St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
The message was clear: get up out of that little chapel, and start being the Body of Christ in the world.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that there is no validity in Adoration of the Sacrament; in fact, I have no doubt that many, many people draw from the practice the very inspiration that empowers them to function as Christ's body in the world. Maybe you need to grow up with it in order for it to "take." At least, that seems to be the case with me. I seem to have been cut from the team.
It didn't happen all at once, but over the weeks since my return from pilgrimage, I have felt as though all the spiritual practices, all the reading, all the classes and workshops I have undertaken throughout my adult life have finally begun to bear fruit. I feel a little like Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid.
Mr. Miyagi, an Okinawan immigrant (played by Pat Morita,) undertakes to teach karate to Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) so he can defend himself from some vicious bullies. During the first several lessons, Mr. Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of menial tasks – waxing his collection of classic cars, sanding his deck, painting his house and fence – all with very specific physical motions. Eventually, Daniel decides that rather than teaching him karate, Mr. Miyagi is simply using him as a household slave. As he stalks off, Mr. Miyagi calls him back, and directs him to reproduce the motions he used for accomplishing each of the tasks. “Show me wax-on, wax-off,” he orders, insisting on the specific motions he had originally assigned; he goes through all the tasks, having Daniel show him the physical gestures he had required to use in doing them.
Then he throws a punch at Daniel.
Without thinking, Daniel uses the car-waxing motion – which, by this time, he has used thousands of times – to parry the punch. The teacher throws an array of punches and kicks at the student, who blocks each of them using the gestures he has internalized over many days of performing menial tasks. “You learn plenty," he tells the startled boy. "Come back tomorrow."
Since my return from Canada, two friends have contacted me to ask for prayer about the same issue, as it appears in different forms in their lives. Honoring their requests, I have found reserves of self-application I didn't know I had. I have found myself much more able to remain present in the moment, more patient with myself about the things I find it difficult to do now, and happier to address myself to the things I can. And while I certainly still have stiff, sore days full of debility and foul moods, I am making great progress learning to function within the new normal, and spending less time regretting the past and dreading the future. As long as I keep coming back tomorrow, maybe I can keep the vicious bullies of my soul at bay.
So maybe I do have some healing to show for my pilgrimage; maybe the intercession of Good St. Anne did obtain some grace for me. Or maybe it was just the effort of the pilgrimage itself that awoke my latent spiritual gifts. If you've read much of my writing, you know I consider this a distinction without a difference, and it doesn't interest me much. So though I haven't been cured in the way I wanted, I seem to have been healed in the way I needed – and that is a lot to be thankful for.
Healing is not about getting back to the way things were, but about learning to live with how they are now. --Ram Dass, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying
I went to Québec for three reasons – or rather, one reason in three parts: I wanted "healing of body, mind, and spirit."
Before I went to the Basilica of St.-Anne-de-Beaupré, a shrine to the mother of the Virgin Mary, famous as a site of miraculous healings, I knew that I would love to charge in, full of the faith that moves mountains, fully expecting to be healed of the effects of spinal stenosis. I held back, however, because I feared disappointment. Which, of course, may be precisely the reason I didn't receive physical healing. But healing did come-- though, as usual, not in exactly the form I looked for.
Before I left for Canada, my wife – who missed her true vocation as a travel agent – found a wonderful place for me to stay: a refurbished 17th-century Augustinian monastery, with delicious, healthy meals, a fascinating museum documenting three centuries as a hospital, a working church, and a choice of contemporary or authentic rooms. (Guess which I chose.) There are still about a dozen elderly Sisters in residence, and the secular organization that now runs the hotel has carried on, in a contemporary, nonsectarian way, the Sisters’ ideals around spiritual healing and bodily wellness.
Now, despite my skepticism concerning miraculous physical healing, I was expecting some kind of revelatory experience at the Basilica itself. The shrine is about a half hour bus ride from Québec City, where I was staying, and twice I left the quiet simplicity of the monastery for the splendid and impressive church of St. Anne. It is a place of extraordinary beauty (if you are on Facebook, you can see my pictures hereand here.) But though I prayed in the various chapels and shrines – which was, in its own way, very fulfilling – I did not experience, at least on the first day, anything I could identify as revelatory, nor did I leave my cane behind amongst the various crutches and other aids displayed in the vestibule. I have not made an ex voto offering, nor will I be applying to the Vatican for certification of a miracle.
On Friday, I did go to a weekday English language Mass, and it was as dreary and patronizing as Catholic Masses in English abroad usually are, and as cold and distant as cathedral worship generally is. After the Eucharist, the priest and the acolyte brought out two small silver reliquaries containing bone fragments from Saint Anne, and we were invited to form two lines, come forward, and reverence the relics. Which I did, despite my Protestant-bred heebie-jeebies. (I have mixed feelings about relics; at the Cathedral in Lisbon, we saw some of St. Francis Xavier’s hair. On the one hand, ew, but on the other, I really admire Francis Xavier, and there was something extraordinary about seeing his actual hair.}
On Sunday, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to bus to the Basilica for Mass, and the nearest Anglican church was too far to walk to and difficult to reach by public transit. So I sauntered around the monastery-cum-auberge in the direction of the church until I heard angelic singing coming from the wing known as “the Sisters’ Choir.” (See photo above.) After following the sound to its source, I sat in a chair at the back of the room and observed as the Sisters held their rehearsal. After they had filed out past me, many smiling and bonjour-ing in greeting, I took a seat in one of the stalls, opened my Daily Office book, and read the Morning Prayer service for that day. This was all the church I thought I was going to get. But I soon realized that what I had taken for a rehearsal was actually a warm-up, and that there was to be a Mass that morning.
For some reason, the service was not held in the gilded Baroque church to which the choir was attached; rather, an altar was set up inside the choir itself. A priest arrived, the Sisters filed back in, and one of them handed me a Mass booklet in French. I was able to follow both the prayers and the songs with ease, and was deeply moved by the elegant simplicity of the experience. I imagined the days when the many stalls were filled with hospital Sisters will, some of whom worked 12 hour shifts caring for all sorts and conditions of sick and injured people. I had seen their many names on the wall plaque in the museum section, as well as pictures of their simple lives – caring for patients, singing, sharing meals in the common dining hall, ice-skating, picnicking, playing games. I was filled with a powerful sense of their dedication and fidelity to their mission. And while it would be easy to romanticize such women living such a life, it was abundantly evident in any case that they weren't in it for the applause.
The reflection made me wonder about my own life. In my book,The Dark Hills, I wrote:
I often experience my life as confining, unfulfilling. I expected it to be full of height and depth and gravitas, and found it full of dog fur and goutweed. I looked forward to being intellectually and aesthetically stimulated on a daily basis. (What I thought would happen about the dog fur and goutweed I don’t know.) I thought I would feel more important.
I believe I experienced some spiritual healing, not in the gorgeous basilica I traveled to Québec to visit, but in the unpretentious Sister’s choir in the monastery-hotel. Since my return, I have found myself much less liable to mentally checking out as I go about my daily tasks; in fact, I'm actually doing those tasks more faithfully, at least to the extent that the fatigue caused by spinal stenosis allows. I have resumed using my mantra – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me –as a way of staying present in the moment, a practice I had not followed for a long time.
I know it is a mistake to look for what C.S. Lewis called "an endowment of grace for life;" I know that I cannot depend on this undoubtedly fleeting emotional state to carry me through the years ahead. But I'm equally sure that God touched me through the simplicity and self-dedication I witnessed among those Sisters, and to the extent that I stay dedicated to the simplicities of my own life, I can honor that unadorned gift of grace.
Historical note: during the Roman persecutions, Christians celebrated the Eucharist in underground catacombs, using the tombs of the martyrs as altar tables. This was the origin of having a saint or, failing that, a bit of a saint inside church altars. The veneration of relics grew from there.
Be who you were created to be, and you’ll set the world on fire. --St. Catherine of Siena
Growing up in the 70s as a Brainy Music Geek (BMG), I naturally listened to a lot of the same music as my Brainy Music Geek friends. Consequently, I spent many hours trying to convince myself that I liked Progressive Rock. Some, like Rush, I actually did like; some, like Pink Floyd, I still do. But such flagship ProgRock groups as Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer never gained any purchase in me, no matter how assiduously I tried to absorb Brain Salad Surgery.
Committed as I was, ideologically, to brainy music, I generally looked down my nose at AC/DC, Guns n Roses, and other hard rock groups (though for some reason, I was able to admit that I liked Van Halen.) And though I flirted with Grunge in the early 90s, heavy metal was never on my radar. (Also, I never liked punk rock, but Led Zeppelin was complex enough to pass muster in my BMG world. Southern Rock I can take or leave.)
It took being over 50 and partially disabled to make me finally admit to myself that I actually like heavy music. So now I embarrass my children by playing my AC/DC Pandora station in the car, regaling their friends with Scorpions and Metallica. (Also P!nk, who scratches the same itch in a more contemporary way.) In revenge, they delight in reminding me that the two metal rods in my neck make it inadvisable, if not impossible, to bang my head.
Why do I bring this up? Because being true to myself is about more than bad-ass guitar solos and another midlife crisis. Liking what we like keeps us aligned with the people we were created to be. In C.S. Lewis's novel The Screwtape Letters, a mid-level demon bureaucrat advises his young nephew Wormwood during his first temptation assignment:
The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human's own real likings and dislikings...The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the "best" people, the "right" food, the "important" books.
For years, I abandoned the music I really liked in favor of more "important" music. In doing so, II parted company with the person I was made to be, and tried instead to be the person I had made up in my head. If catching up with what I missed during my pretentious youth means inflicting "weird old people music" on my children, that seems a small price to pay.
In his 1988 memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas revisits Paris some years after having been stationed there during the Second World War. Unable to recapture the feeling he’d had during those heady days, he realizes that what he is actually searching for is his 22-year-old self, who, obviously, isn't there to be found.
I had a similar experience the first time I revisited the Sterling Renaissance Festival after some years away. My first two years at that show – living in the woods, swimming in Lake Ontario, performing with extraordinarily talented colleagues – were in many ways idyllic, and I was eager to relive the feeling of freedom I had had there in the first blush of my youth.
It didn't happen. No matter how I tried to re-create the experience I remembered, it simply didn't feel the same. Then one morning as I walked from my tent to the showers, I heard a voice say very clearly in my head, "Why are you standing here looking up at the sky?"
I knew at once the story the voice in my head was alluding to.
Then (the disciples) gathered round (Jesus) and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:6-11)
I had never really connected with this story. Centered on Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven—an idea I have always struggled with—it had always left me unmoved. Likewise, the promise of Jesus’s bodily return is treated elsewhere in the New Testament, and is not the main point of this story.
For me, the operative part of this passage is when the angels ask the disciples why they are standing around looking up at the sky. As long as they all strain their eyes to catch sight of the bodily Jesus, they cannot look inward to find Christ in themselves, or outward to find Christ in others. Their preoccupation with the Jesus they have known makes them unable to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." (Book of Common Prayer) They were like Kirk Douglas and me, looking for their youthful selves rather than experiencing themselves and others as they are now. The disciples could not receive power through the Holy Spirit until they accepted that the physical Jesus was gone.
Now, my wife gazes meaningfully up to the sky whenever she catches me waxing nostalgic about our children's early years. When I start reminiscing about cute things they said and did when they were little, she reminds me that my smart, talented, kind, athletic, funny, beautiful teenagers are right here with me, ready to be enjoyed in the present rather than mooned over in the past.
I'm also apt to gaze up at the sky for a glimpse of the things I used to be able to do before spinal stenosis. It's easy to get caught up in missing those things: playing the concertina, going to contradances, walking for pleasure, picking things up off the floor without losing my balance. Hell, I even miss my hair – and I lost that long before my spinal cord turned on me.
If I am ever to be able to engage the life I have, I know I need to let go of the life that is gone. Not that I think anything ever goes to waste unless we let it; all those experiences – all of everybody's experiences – make us who we are, and are never lost. But as long as we stand here looking up at the sky, straining for a glimpse of them, trying to recapture what is gone forever, we cannot be of any use to ourselves or others in the here and now.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.