The Cure Called Compassion
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 3, 2015
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (5:1-15)
Curiosity and compassion brought healing to the Paralytic. They are companions.
“Do you want to be healed,” Jesus asked. Divine curiosity. Although God knows all things about us he does not force us to reveal them. That is why Jesus asked questions. Not to force information out of a person, but as an invitation to a dialogue that often led to healing and transformation.
“Rise, take up your pallet and walk,” was the expression of the Lord’s divine compassion. I know of not one healing episode in the life of Jesus that did not begin with curiosity and end with compassion.
Of course, we read that the paralytic was not able to respond to the Lord directly. He did not say yes or no. Something was in the way. Remember when the Lord told this disciples to let your yes be yes and you no be no? The end of that verse is, “anything else comes from the evil one.” I don’t think he meant the literal devil here, but rather the things hidden inside us that mitigate against intimacy with God and one another. In the case of the paralytic the “evil one” was shame.
The author of John’s Gospel tells us that the paralytic answered with an explanation that boiled down to, “It’s not my fault.” It sounds like he was defending himself in a classic response to the toxic force we call shame that makes a person feel bad, unacceptable and alone. The Lord’s simple and compassionate question sounded to him like an attempt at intentional shaming.
I think it likely that the paralytic had a story to tell and he told it many times as a means to justify his long stay at the pool of Bethesda. What we get in the Gospel is the punch line. My guess is that he told Jesus his story as he had told others time and time again like a toy train on circular track, going round and round and getting nowhere. Stories told in self-defense become personal myths that mire us in the past and keep us from moving forward.
Jerred shared a wonderful metaphor with me recently about this. Behind a jet plane is a white vapor trail. I am sure you have seen that. Does the pilot steer his ship by looking at the vapor trail? No, because if he did, then he and his plane would go round and round in circles. Instead, the pilot pays attention to where he is and where he is going not where he has been.
I believe the intent of Jesus here was to break the cycle of shame, get the paralytic to stop ruminating about and living in the past and begin to pay attention to the present moment where the offer of healing was staring him in the face. The Lord is not interested in our mythologies, he is interested in the suffering that causes us to create them. Compassion is the cure for what ails us internally.
I have found great spiritual wealth in modern mindfulness-based therapies. As you know, I just received my level 1 certificate in Internal Family Systems. All such therapies begin talking about human nature exactly where Orthodox Christianity does: we are all created good, in the image of God. Original Goodness is the beginning of everything for us, so we do not begin by thinking of people as pathological, but as wounded and suffering. Because of this shame has no place in our faith except as something to be healed.
IFS in particular has opened my eyes to the amazing potential in the heart of each of us. I love this quote by Carl Jung: “Our heart glows, and secret unrest gnaws at the root of our being.” Yes, the heart glows with the uncreated light of God always and yet there are shadows within, “the secret unrest”, the bushel Jesus speaks of, that would try and extinguish that inextinguishable light. The prophet Isaiah spoke about those internal shadows when he prophesied that:
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, (the heart)
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness (us)
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
We know it is there. We feel it often. A river of feeling right below the surface. For the paralytic it was shame, for us it may be something else. The healing Jesus brings touches those hidden reservoirs if we will allow it, for he never forces us to accept him. You see, all scripture has psychological depth. The light of Christ and the light of the soul, when they meet, set the whole person aflame with divinity.
Jesus did not come only to heal the body, but also to illuminate the soul and he does so by shining his light on the shadows within us to liberate the light that is naturally shining in the depths of our being. His mission was a mission of enlightenment for those who are “dwelling in darkness.”
The pain of this illumination is unavoidable. Hearts that have grown cold often recoil from light and limbs that have not been used for a long time resist movement, but gradually, the pain decreases and the limbs soften and the ice of our internal paralysis melts away as the Lord Jesus heals us and we learn once again how to walk.
Since all spiritual work is a work of synergy, of cooperation between God and us, we must come to the place where we are willing and able to lay aside all our defenses, stop telling our stories, stop believing our myths, stop trying to pilot our lives by the vapor trail of the past and allow ourselves to meet the Lord, who is everywhere present and filling all things, and thus who stands immediately before us, around us and in us right now, at this very moment, and listen and cooperate no matter where that cooperation leads.
Here is one more quote from the Swiss psychiatrist that I love: Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
This work begins with the willingness to be still and know him, to be silent and hear him, to be compassionate and be like him, and to open our hearts to whatever it is that will bring the light of God into the fast-closed hidden recesses of our souls. And when he asks, and he is asking, “Do you want to be healed?” we must be ready and able and willing, without fear or reservation, to say yes.