And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.”
Matthew 8: 2-3
If we place ourselves in the stance of the leper in today’s gospel, we find that his disposition in approaching Jesus is not an easy one for us. As presented by Matthew, the leper opens himself to Jesus not only in the sense of asking healing of him but also by recognizing that Jesus’ response to him depends on a will, an understanding of reality, that may well be different from his. He expresses not only his physical suffering and need but also the limits of his perception and understanding of the nature of things.
In the age of talk radio, of endless talk, we have largely come to conflate our comprehension, our opinions with reality. It is a relatively small step from the claim that our opinion is as valuable and even true as any other to the sense that our will has an ultimate claim on the universe. Thus, we live in the world as if it is responsible to us rather than the other way around.
This way of seeing things has very practical implications. Be it in our smaller cultures of our families and communities or our national and global cultures, we are seeing that the demand “to have a voice” is much stronger than the desire to commit oneself responsibly to the shared life and work of the community. We want “our say,” with the hope that our view will prevail, but we are much more hesitant to commit ourselves responsibly to a shared common life whose outcome we cannot know. As Jesus pointed out in yesterday’s gospel, we build on rock only when we commit ourselves in action to another’s, that is God’s, will rather than merely speaking words that represent our own will.
In the words and vulnerable openness of the leper, we recognize that any real prayer requires of us that we first abandon ourselves to the will of the Lord. We represent who we currently believe we are and what we believe to be our need, but we submit that within the context of a Reality which we do not know. There is, perhaps, no greater human folly than to declare with certainty that something is God’s will, or, in a secular mode, that we, through our own cognitive capacities, have access to the absolute truth of things. To live in faith is to commit ourselves wholeheartedly with hope and in love to the life of the world and to all those in it, even as we have no idea of the outcome. Human beings must, at times, make public and lasting commitments because to commit ourselves to keep loving and working, even as life together unfolds in very unexpected, mysterious, and even ungratifying ways, does not come naturally to us.
The leper puts himself totally in the hands of Jesus and in submission to his will. He seems to hope with all his heart that Jesus will cure him, and yet, he submits himself and his life to Jesus, even if what he wants is not to be. This is what we do when we pray from the depths of our hearts. We present concretely and directly what we think we need and want, but we also dispose ourselves to respond to whatever the deeper truth of things, the will of God, asks of us.
Recently I read to a class of young writers a passage from Emerson’s “The American Scholar” in which he says, “In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time,— happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly…. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” These words caused a certain perturbation. The self is no longer assumed to be a thing to be approached with optimism, or to be trusted to see anything truly. Emerson is describing the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood, a privilege foreclosed when the mind is trivialized or thought to be discredited. The clutch of certitudes that, together, trivialize and discredit are very much in need of being looked at again.
Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Introduction