Paralysis of the Spirit
Like many of you I have been Catholic my whole life, maybe not as long as some of you. I have lived my entire existence immersed in Catholic life and culture – going to mass each Sunday, listening to bible readings and sermons way over my head, putting money in the collection, receiving communion, getting a Catholic school education, praying the rosary with my family, for the intentions of the Holy Father, the work of missionaries and the conversion of sinners, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent, giving up dessert all through Lent, praying the Way of the Cross, going to confession, praying my penance of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys in the back of church, promising to be more obedient to my parents and nicer to my siblings, making the sign of the cross with holy water, genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, asking help from my guardian angel, the saints and the Mother of God … And I know that being a Christian and a Catholic isn’t something you can put on and take off like a t-shirt. It is who I am right down to my core. Of course, I know what that means now. I didn’t always. But don’t get me wrong. I truly enjoy many things about being Catholic, the profound sense of history going back to the apostles, the sense of home and welcome in most Catholic churches I’ve visited, the profound peace of mind and heart that accompanies receiving the sacraments, the deep joy of connecting with God in scripture or prayer or going on retreat, the certainty that I am where I should be and where I want to be.
But I have often wondered why I’m not more excited about my faith, and why so many good Christians and Catholics around me seem so uninspired and disconnected. I’ve been a priest 20 years, a pastor 15 years. I’ve studied sacred scripture, I’ve preached countless homilies, gone on numerous retreats, heard many confessions, and celebrated more baptisms, weddings, and funerals than I can count. I’ve been to 4 World Youth Day gatherings around the world, and I have come away each time with a better sense of who I am and why I believe. Yet after just a short burst of excitement about my faith on these occasions, I seem to fall right back into my daily routine, which by comparison is less exciting or inspired.
I suppose my situation is a little different, since I also work a church-related job. But you might be able to relate if you love what you do for a living and get paid for doing it, too. Still a big difference is that most people don’t come to where you work so you get the opportunity to convince them why you love what you do, and challenge them to be better people, and inspire them to make the world a better place, and appeal to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose within them, and share insights with them to help sustain their hope and courage in the face of their daily struggles. And if you do, it helps to be enthused and inspired yourself. Otherwise, you can’t blame them for not catching the fire you never had to start with.
In many different places, sacred scripture invites us to reflect on the tremendous gift of God’s mercy and compassion. God’s own Son came to save us from the eternal punishment we deserve on account of our sins, to heal our physical and spiritual infirmities, to reconcile us to one another and to the Father. His coming was announced by prophets who called him Messiah and Lord, the Anointed of God. The name the angel gave him before his birth was Emmanuel, God-with-us. Even the reading today from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God desires to lift the burden of sin and guilt from our shoulders, and extend to us forgiveness and new life. Yet who of us is truly excited and enthused about any of that? I’m not asking that you yell out “Amen” or spontaneously burst into song. That would probably just throw me off so I lose my place, and you embarrass those sitting around you.
I’m not saying we’re not good Christians or good Catholics because of it. We might even argue that our preferred expression of excitement just never reaches those levels associated with Hollywood celebrities or candidates running for political office. We are definitely excited and enthused, just in a less exciting and less enthusiastic way. But a measure of our excitement and enthusiasm is how it affects those around us. In many cases, when we are inspired by people who are exciting and enthusiastic, we want to be close by them. Seeing them energizes us, listening to what they have to say, just being in their presence. And we are changed by that encounter, even momentarily. So when we return to our normal lives, others notice something new about us. And we are always willing to tell them about our experience, hoping perhaps they would ask to come with us next time, hoping they would come to know what we know.
Last week, our scriptures focused on leprosy. This week, we look at paralysis. What is it like to be paralyzed, to be deprived of feeling and movement in our limbs? But our greater concern is the paralysis of the spirit. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man in the gospel, he spoke only of forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ greater concern was the man’s spiritual illness. His physical healing was secondary. And when his enemies hardened their hearts, he proved he could heal a man’s broken spirit by healing his broken body.
Most of us here are whole and healthy. We did not come to mass laid out on a stretcher. But our physical wholeness can distract from the brokenness of our spirit and our need for healing. Yes, we came to church today to hear God’s word, to celebrate Eucharist, and to be refreshed and renewed for the spiritual struggle that awaits us in the week ahead. Jesus offers us the gift of forgiveness. He desires to calm the turmoil and shed light upon the darkness that has taken hold of our hearts. Each of us alone knows the nature of that turmoil and the depth of that darkness. But unless we acknowledge their hold on us, even God will not be able to set us free. Whatever the circumstances that brings us to Jesus, it all fades away when we encounter him face to face. He sees our faith – or our lack of faith – and the faith of those who help us find him, and he knows the path that led us to him. It matters not how. It only matters that we are finally here.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims the word of God, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” Whatever our journey to this present moment has been like, however we were led to this place, we need not be burdened by it. It is the past. God is doing something new. When we let go of the turmoil and the darkness, there can be peace, there can be light. The holy season of Lent begins later this week. God wants to show us new ways to release us from the paralysis of sin that grips our spirit, to once again know the freedom of his peace. “Rise, pick up your mat and walk.” It seems so easy. Yet it takes great courage just to ask. That is why we might need help from friends, or others can use our help. Either way, it is God who heals.
And when we are healed, then we will once again know excitement and enthusiasm in our faith.