Thursday, January 22, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part I


In the story of the paralytic with the ingenious friends (Mark 2:1-12), our attention usually goes immediately to the clever determination that leads the men carrying the paralytic to lower him into Jesus’ presence through the roof. Their faith, says Mark, prompts Jesus first to forgive the paralyzed man his sins, to the consternation of the scribes, and then to heal him.
However, before the action really begins, the evangelist sets up the necessity for drastic action by saying “they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (Mark 2:4). Think for a minute about the scene. Having discovered that Jesus was home in Capernaum, “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:2). You can imagine people jostling one another for a better spot so they could hear. A few well-placed elbows and a little toe-stomping could probably get a determined person to the front. Some of the crowd may have brought their own sick to be healed. Others were no doubt looking for something exciting, some action or some word that would liven up their day-to-day existence and give them something new to gossip about. This rabbi was new on the scene, after all, and had been known to work wonders already. Whatever their motives, they were apparently not ready to make way for a paralyzed man carried by four other men. Although Capernaum seems to have been a good-sized place that drew business from the surrounding area, chances are that a lot of people gathered knew one another, but they don’t seem to have been exhibiting much neighborliness.

Why not? What sort of people would ignore and even bar the road to such obvious need? Were they so preoccupied with hearing and seeing for themselves, so blinded by their own determination to get close, so hungry themselves that they could not make space for a man whose need for Jesus was so much greater than their own? Evidently so.

This troublesome little scene stuck in my mind like a burr when I heard it read in church lately. In the context of the gospel, the story is neither parable nor allegory, but it forced my thoughts toward the town folk of my own mind. Are there in me preoccupations, plans, purposes that stand in the way of my own need to seek and find Christ in the busy marketplace of my days? Of course there are. Usually, they look like harmless squiggles in my planner, but the ancient monastic tradition of the early Christian desert prods me into recognition that some of them are more than squiggles and far from harmless. Those unforgettable voices of a wisdom that knew all too well the foibles of the human spirit spoke plainly about the “thoughts” that drive us. Conventions of translation used to call those “thoughts” the “passions”, but once “passion” was generally co-opted by the literature of sexual morality, it lost the real flavor of what the desert fathers and mothers were talking about. They meant the inner forces that invaded the peaceful harmony of mind, heart, spirit, and body and drove those powerful faculties into a focused preoccupation that shut out prayer, charity, wisdom and balance in order to concentrate all energy on whatever “thoughts” consumed and drove the hapless human taken up with them. The desert teachers eventually named them gluttony, lust, avarice, acedia (a sort of restless, unfocussed dissatisfaction that guts initiative and perseverance in anything worthwhile), anger, despondency, vainglory and pride. The list is familiar. These are not passing whims but the gathered energy of imagination and body toward the fulfillment of some need perceived as urgent, with the collaboration of a mind happy to provide all sorts of convincing rationalizations.

Wait a minute! We began by considering the mindset of people so eager to hear and see Jesus that they block the way of a paralytic carried on a pallet. Surely these “thoughts”—which, in fact, do become passions—do not apply to the mind in quest of Christ? Of course they do. I won’t speak for you, but I am perfectly capable of setting up an imaginary Christ sketched from the gospel but cleverly twisted by my own thought processes to represent the fulfillment of all the desires of the almighty Me. The crowd in Capernaum was likely as driven by curiosity, hope of break from their normal routine, avidity for wonders, undefined desire for something more, competition with the others to get the best place, and anger when someone else got there first as they were by pure religious impulse. Most of us are sometimes, aren’t we? The town folk of my own mind don’t differ much from the town folk of Capernaum or of any crowd collected to hear and see any celebrity.

To be continued...Part II: The Paralytic


©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

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