Sunday, January 25, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part II

This posting will make more sense if you read the previous one, "Town Folk of the Mind--Part I" first.

And the paralytic? Who is he among the town folk of the mind? In the story, he is an interesting figure--unknown but known. We are given only one fact about him: he is unable to walk unaided. We are given two hints. First, either he is a man who inspires friends or relatives to go to great lengths to help him, or his carriers are the kind of people who pop up in the wake of fire, famine, flood and earthquake to rescue their fellow human beings for no apparent reason other than generous kindness. Secondly, either he is a sinner, or Jesus is working from the assumption popular at the time that any misfortune, but particularly sickness, is God's retaliation for sin. (Jesus contradicts this assumption elsewhere. He was patient enough to work within the given frameworks of his hearers and only gradually to expand them or shatter and rebuild them.)

Among the town folk of the mind, the paralytic stands out as radical dependence in radical need. The dependence in this case is on others. The paralytic is utterly unable to act in his own behalf. The need, though, is for Jesus. No one else can heal his paralysis. No one else can forgive his sin. In other words, no one else can set him free from all that constrains him within the small circle of his own helplessness. Perhaps he knows that himself. Perhaps only his friends put their trust in this new Healer. It doesn't really matter: need is need, whatever the motive that plants us at last at the feet of the One who can meet it.

Perhaps the need is what causes the crowd to ignore him. The "thoughts" or "passions" that drive us wear a mask of self-sufficiency. That is part of the ruse they use to snare us: “You can get what you want if you get out there and fight for it.” They are intolerant of powerlessness. Greed grabs more than its share; lust dehumanizes both its agent and its object into fodder for sheer abusive use; anger arises in response to the frustration of powerlessness. Vainglory is embarrassed by any manifestation of helplessness: it makes us look so bad when compared with the achievers around us! Pride simply refuses to accept powerlessness: it can do all things unless thwarted by the perversity of others who will not give in to us. These "thoughts" and their companions don't want to see or know that part of us which cries out to God, "O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!" Only weaklings show that kind of neediness. The strong, the beautiful and the good do for themselves.

In his helplessness, the paralytic has another strike against him. He is quite unable to produce any tangible fruits through his labor because he is unable to labor. That part of us that seeks God out of deep need is not, apparently, productive. That in itself is a capital sin in a techno-consumer culture. The demon of productivity is not listed per se among the “thoughts” identified by Evagrius Ponticus and the other desert sages because productivity was not one of their goals. They worked at weaving mats and baskets out of local reeds, but they did so both to earn their own living and to earn money to give to the poor. They were useful, but they were not driven by the need to be useful as we so often are. There may well have been some among their number who surreptitiously compared his or her basket output with that of the neighbors to satisfy the competitive spirit of pride, but I haven’t come across their stories in the desert literature as yet. Perhaps enslavement to usefulness does belong to pride, but it seems to be ruled by a desire to be accepted as often as it is by a desire to win the race to achieve the most toys or the biggest cheese. It is certainly a major roadblock on the road toward God. No one can measure the “accomplishments” of prayer, particularly the prayer that asks for nothing but deeper communion with Christ. As spiritual writers often lament, it is perceived as a useless waste of time. “Get out there, get busy, contribute!” scream the voices in our head. As contemplative nuns, we are often forced to wrestle at least inwardly with the judgment, implied or sometimes even stated, that we are nothing but parasites wasting God’s gifts by shutting ourselves up in our cloister and spending too much time in prayer. Paralytics in a society where success is defined by product, men and women who seek God in their need for that sometimes unnamed “more” and who contribute nothing to the world but love poured out in prayer, in the cloister or in the marketplace, will get many a cold shoulder from the crowd, sometimes even the crowd gathered around Jesus’ door.

Yet need our paralytic. We need our powerlessness. We need the recognition that only one is God, and we are not the one. Otherwise, we are apt to spend our whole lives turning our back on the radical Love that can heal us and free us--if only we will allow others, and even that Love itself, to carry us up on that roof and lower us down at the feet of Christ, who shows an uncanny knack for honoring what we despise in ourselves and others by touching our weaknesses, speaking to them, explaining them, pardoning them, and converting them into strengths.

To be continued: Part III—The Pallet Carriers

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

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