When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked. . . .
After this Jesus found him in the temple area and said to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.”
Yesterday a good friend sent me a passage from a book he is reading by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear. He said that he found the passage meaningful in light of his experience of working with young Brothers who are preparing for their perpetual commitment in our two Institutes. He wrote: “I find this passage very interesting since I am so often stunned by the young people’s willingness to commit, which in turn is giving me my best experience yet of the brother’s vocation.” Lear speaks of “being stunned” in my friend’s context as “the experience Plato was describing when he talked of us being struck by beauty.”
Today’s gospel relates the story of Jesus and his healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. We are told that the man had been ill for a long time. We discover, when Jesus encounters the man later on, that he had also fallen into a habitual state of sin. We do not know the specifics of the man’s sinful way of being, but we do know that it had seriously affected his way of living and could easily again threaten his well being.
Perhaps the sin of the man is represented by his willingness to remain ill rather than to seek help. We are told that he had been ill for a long time despite the fact that he lay so relatively close to the pool, which was the potential source of health. He tells Jesus that others always got there before him. He doesn’t say why, yet perhaps we could conjecture that the others had someone to help them and he had no one. He refused to ask for help and preferred, so it seems, to sit there in his isolation and illness. This is probably why Jesus first asks him if he wants to be well.
Jesus’ question is always a vital question for each of us. In our culture, we measure mental and emotional health often by one’s capacity for adaptation. Yet, spiritual health can be quite another matter. When Jesus happens upon the man who had been sitting by the pool and unaided for so long, he meets a person who has totally adapted to his surroundings and the measure of life to which he has become accustomed. He has ceased to feel conflicted because he no longer has any hope or expectation of getting into the pool to be healed. While Jesus is “stunned” by the man’s state, the man himself is perfectly adjusted to it.
In our early education and formation in the faith, many of us developed the idea that sin was mostly manifest in a strikingly bad or evil action. Yet, it is much more possible that the greatest sin of our own time is the capital sin of acedia, that is of not caring. It is a spiritual laziness that has lost its ability to be “stunned,” to be “struck by beauty.” It is a loss of our greatest human spiritual capacity, to be “awe-struck.”
In today’s first reading from Ezekiel, we read of the vision of the water flowing from the Temple, initially a trickle but which becomes a deep river that cannot be crossed except by swimming. The angel asks the Prophet if he has really seen this river, which flows to the sea and makes the waters of the sea fresh and life giving. Why would the angel ask Ezekiel if he sees the very water in which they were standing? Doesn’t it remind us of our own inability to see the very reality in which we are living, especially the graced reality?
Spiritual reality is, of its very nature, stunning. To be stunned and awestruck, however, tends to disorient us. Its precise nature is to change our typical perspective, our reduction of the world to a size that we are able to manage. Awe is an experience of our true relationship to God, and so to the world. It puts us in our place; yet, instructs us by experience that this true place is a marvelous one — for we are loved and cared for, as Julian’s hazelnut. Awe is the recognition of all that is so much more than ourselves.
What our world sometimes considers health is an adaptation to a very reductive understanding of life and world. Like the man in today’s gospel who takes for granted his daily life of isolation and frustration, we too find ourselves often living as if life offered us no more than minimal comfort and security. We are seldom “stunned” because we have no idea of how to respond to the awesome truth of the beauty of life and creation.
My friend writes of an experience of being stunned as he witnesses young men who, with their eyes wide open, are about to commit themselves for life to attempting to be brothers to all they meet despite the societal and even communal obstacles they will face. He is struck by the beauty of a human integrity and generosity that will follow its call, despite, perhaps, how much their choice is non-adaptive to the cultural norms and values that surround them. They also often are making this choice in full awareness of the communal struggles that come from living with others who have too often adapted their lives far too well to the materialistic, ambitious, and egoistic values of the world.
Human fidelity and nobility, and the love and generosity that flows from it, is truly a stunning and awe-filled sight. On a daily basis, the mystery of life and creation is always potentially stunning to us. Yet, as Jonathan Lear says, this experience of awe comes in a moment “of anxious disruption.” This is the reason that so often we prefer the illness of adaptation and acedia to being well. Human beings have survived, perhaps, because of our ability to adapt. The dark side of that, however, is that we can even adapt to things which do not belong alongside a distinctively human life.
In the United States, we are now engaged in a political debate about how to respond to the horror that our children can no longer feel safe in school. So, we practice lock down drills with six year olds, and we now speak of arming teachers, custodians, and other school staff member with firearms. We engage in an essentially insane conversation because we have adapted to a world that treats as equal values the individual right to possess firearms with the safety and mental and emotional well being of our children. We are willing to traumatize our young children with lock down drills and calls to hyper vigilance rather than drastically limit or even eliminate access to firearms. In this, as in many regards, we as a people could only truthfully respond to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be well?”, with a “No.” We prefer to remain in our sin, rather than to be well enough to do whatever it takes to offer our children a better life.
So, to be well in a spiritual sense, may make us, in fact, a bit less adaptable. We might well be stunned, and so feel anxiously disoriented, a bit more often. When Jesus heals the man by the pool, he then tells him to take up his mat and walk. It is the sabbath, and so Jesus is commanding him to “stand out” from custom and crowd. To answer yes, to Jesus’ question of whether or not we want to be well, might well mean for us to “act” differently, to cease being lost in the crowd and collective, and to move about in the world in a way that is struck by and responsive to its beauty. To be well in the distinctively human sense is to be all that becomes us as human beings and to reject what makes us less. To adapt to that which is inhuman and inhumane is not health. To adapt to a life that is less than that to which we are called is sin. It is to lose and to waste the life that is given to us as a gift for others and the world. It is this losing of his life again that Jesus warns the man about: “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.”
As Lent draws toward its close, we might well ask ourselves how much we are still struck by the beauty of life and world. Are we moved to be differently by the beauty of human generosity which heals, touches, and enlivens others, by the beauty, innocence, and potential of our children, by the glorious gift of time we are given each morning of our lives? It may well be that the true measure of our health is our capacity to be stunned by life, to be struck continually by its beauty.
“. . . and you begin to wonder, What does any of this have to do with being a doctor? For a while, you reflect on taking up the issue with your colleagues, perhaps organizing a conference about medical values, about revisions we might make, and so on. And then a moment of anxious disruption sets in. You are struck by the idea of health—what is it?—by the very idea of one person promoting the health of another. It is a stunning idea—and here something striking happens. You are no longer stepping back to reflect on the thought that it is a stunning idea; rather, you are stunned by the idea. This seems to me the experience Plato was describing when he talked of us being struck by beauty.”
Jonathan Lear, Wisdom Won From Illness