As Christians, we have a physical faith, and that physical faith connects us to the world, to each other and to God. Somebody once asked Mother Theresa if she preached the word of Christ to the poor and sick people she helped in Calcutta. She said, “My job is not to preach Christ; my job is to be Christ.” I once looked up “callisthenic” in the dictionary. It comes from two Greek words meaning strong and beautiful, and I thought, hey, Catholicism is very callisthenic. We arrive at Mass, we cross ourselves, we sit, we stand, we sit again, we kneel, stand, kneel stand. Mass is a workout, physical as it should be, as it has to be, and as we go through these motions, these calisthenics, we can indeed become more strong and beautiful through the love of God. Even the last part of Mass, the send-off, is about something to do — go out into the world and share the Word and help one another. It’s like in the Bible. When people encounter God, they take some action, and it usually involves travel. Abraham, Moses, Mary, the apostles, Paul. It’s all the same — see God, hit the road.
Christianity isn’t a system. It’s a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, the truth of Christ isn’t a set of facts or ideas. It can’t be downloaded. It has to be lived, physically lived, worked out a day at a time. As the poet Yeats said at the end of his life, we might not be able to know the truth but we can embody it.
Still one of my absolute favorites. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
On Holy Saturday, I always read this passage from the Office of Readings. To me, it captures the uncanny quality of this day.
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
“He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all”. Christ answered him: “And with your spirit”. He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light”.
I once decided to study t’ai chi. I was living in New York City at the time, and I checked out maybe a dozen workshops and classes. One Saturday morning, I went to an introductory talk in Chelsea, and I still remember something the instructor said.
He was explaining to the group about t’ai chi, how it was first developed maybe two centuries ago in Chinese monasteries, how it’s a part of taoism, how the different schools spread across China. The basic stuff. At the end of the talk, a young man had a question.
“What about application?”
The teacher looked as if he had heard that question before. I knew enough about the t’ai chi culture to understand that the young man was really talking about fighting. Sure, t’ai chi looked pleasant enough, going through the form in slow motion. That was fine for the elderly, kept their blood circulating. But what about the street? This was New York. What if a stranger attacked you? Could t’ai chi be applied directly to self defense? Was it just some kind of harmony exercise or could you use it to knock a man down?
Without pausing, the teacher said, “If you think about fighting, you’ve already lost.”
Sometimes we fight because we have to and sometimes because we want to. Whatever the outcome, however, when we go to war we’ve already lost.
One of the stories in the Bible that means the most to me is John 5: 1-6, the healing at Bethesda.
There is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to be healed?”
We don’t always want to be healed. Sometimes being sick is a kind of solution, a retreat from issues we’d rather not confront. Ask any person familiar with self-destruction. Ask me. Of course, asking if we want to be healed sounds like asking if we want to be happy — but even that question is not always a simple one with an obvious answer.
Then there’s the other question: how exactly do we want to be healed? That also can be complicated. A relative of mine is currently finishing six months of radiation treatments. Recently he wrote to me:
I once visited a group of disabled Mexicans in Calexico. Some had congenital conditions. They had a small faith community of their own and while I was there they prayed for healing. I asked one of them, “How can you pray for healing when your condition will always be the same?” He said,” Christ heals us but in other ways.” In that sense I do believe in faith healing. As we know, many times we have to adjust ourselves inwardly to the Divine intent.
So do we want to be healed? If so, our way or God’s way? Sometimes the two ways might not be the same. As Richard Rohr once said, God always answers our prayers. He answers our prayers with more God.