But when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man: “My child, forgiven now are your sins.”
Mark 2: 5
In the account of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic man, the gospel makes clear that it is the faith of those who bring him to Jesus that allows for his forgiveness and healing to occur. Faith, it would seem, is both profoundly personal but also somehow relational and communal.
One excuse that we offer to avoid the very challenging and difficult work of prayer and the inner awakening of our true spiritual identity is that prayer and the inner life are solipsistic. Yet, no one who has made even the slightest effort to abandon the lures of falseness and conformity and to stand before God in humility and truth can deny that where we truly live is a life in communion with all. To know oneself as a child of God is to know that we are all God’s children.
It is impossible to be touched by the love of Christ for oneself and to not, at the very same moment, experience the love of Christ for his suffering members. The love that is our own unique life is the same love for all, or in the words of Dante, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
There is a misunderstanding that at times takes hold that sees the practice of solitude and prayer as an attempt to foster a kind of personal “spiritual high” and to create a perfectly harmonious life of unending good feeling. The truth is quite the contrary, however. Deepening in faith and prayer is an ever fuller awakening to the truth of things as they are. It is a coming to realize that the love of God continues to be manifest in the Crucified One. As those whose faith led them to carry the paralytic man to Jesus, so our deepening in faith will always draw us near in heart, mind, and body to our suffering world. Those who brought the man to Jesus in the gospel story fully believed that the man’s suffering and sinfulness would evoke the attention and love of Jesus. Their faith trusted that when he saw this person in need he would cease his preaching of the word and turn his gaze and his love on the one who needed him.
The more truly we come to awaken to and realize our true identity in God, the more we recognize and realize the true life of the world. As the gospels make clear, no one understands and experiences the sufferings of the world more completely than Jesus himself. To encounter in truth the Lord within us will always be to take to heart the glories and the suffering of the world we inhabit in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions.
Because, in truth, “the ego works and the soul suffers” living and working in faith and humble prayer is very difficult. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis calls for us to realize that “Time is greater than space.” Time, he says, is the horizon of fullness, but moment to moment we live with limitation. From the perspective of prayer and a sense of the horizon of time, we are able to do what we can to serve and respond to the sufferings of our world; to set processes in motion the fruit of which we shall never see, “without anxiety but with clear convictions and tenacity.” (E.G. 223) It is in the ground of our own humility and limit but that also knows at its core the love, mercy and hope in God’s eternal providence that we are able to act in faith.
Those who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus do not know what will happen, but they have faith. They do what they can for no other reason than it is what is to be done. This is the faith that Jesus praises and that is the ground that is able to receive his forgiveness and healing. Pope Francis writes: “Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness.” (E.G. 224) At the level of ego, we cannot help but be concerned with results. It is only from the level of spirit, which must be cultivated in solitude, humility, and prayer, that we are able to cease being anxious about results and so engage in service from the perspective of “time.” This requires a capacity to keep desiring the good and God’s will while continuing to experience the pain and suffering which our efforts will never alleviate. Do we work in service of God’s will or for relief from our own experience of sharing the world’s suffering? At the level of spirit and soul, we are able to suffer reality and still serve, over the long haul, where we are called. Today’s gospel story reminds us that it is faith such as this which will receive God’s mercy and healing.
It is clear that Christian self-realization can never be a merely individualistic affirmation of one’s isolated personality. The inner “I” is certainly the sanctuary of our most personal and individual solitude, and yet paradoxically it is precisely that which is most solitary and personal in ourselves which is united with the “Thou” who confronts us. We are not capable of union with one another on the deepest level until the inner self in each one of us is sufficiently awakened to confront the inmost spirit of the other. This mutual recognition is love “in the Spirit” and is effected, indeed, by the Holy Spirit. According to St. Paul, the inmost self of each one of us is our “spirit,” or “pneuma,” or in other words the Spirit of Christ, indeed Christ Himself, dwelling in us. “For me to live is Christ.” And by the spiritual recognition of Christ in our brother, we become “one in Christ” through the “bond of the Spirit.” According to the mysterious phrase of St. Augustine, we then become “One Christ loving Himself.”
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 22