A highway will be there, / called the holy way; / No one unclean may pass over it, / nor fools go astray on it. / No lion will be there, / nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it. / It is for those with a journey to make, / and on it the redeemed will walk.
Isaiah 35: 8-9
And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence. But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”
Luke 5: 18-20
To be a truly human being is to be always “on the way.” At any given moment culture, tradition (as handed down to us), custom, and social norms are defining us. They are telling us what it is to be human, from their very limited perspective. At our core, however, every human person possesses what Adrian van Kaam calls “transcendence-ability.” We are always more because our Source, our Origin, is utter Transcendence. As our tradition teaches, God is both transcendence and immanence, so that at every moment the reality of God is breaking into our life and consciousness. To realize this, however, requires of us that we live out of a ground of humility and openness. To live out of such dispositions is what it means to be “on the way,” to understand our life as an ongoing journey of incarnation and realization of the truth of who we are.
It is not easy for us to live in this way, to live in a state of continual openness and waiting on the Real to show itself to us. We prefer to make real what is fixed in us, in our minds and hearts. We long for an absolute truth, and so we are prone to become in one way or another fundamentalists, trusting more in our own ideas, or our own wisdom, or the inerrancy of our particular culture, tradition, religion, and customs. So often we fail to walk the highway that is “the holy way” because we are stuck on the dead end of our own certitude. We are living our life among those whom a teacher of mine referred to as “the dead certain.”
The author of the Gospel of Luke in his penchant for detail allows us to particularize the gospel stories to our own experience. Today we read of the men whose love for their paralyzed friend and whose faith in Jesus led them to face and overcome every obstacle to their bringing their friend to Jesus to be healed by him. “They were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence.” The goal is for their friend to be “in the presence” of Jesus. The prime obstacle to this desire is the crowd. This is also the case for us. It is the crowd and all that conformity to the common wisdom of “the crowd” demands of us that blocks us, so often, from the presence.
The noise and demands of the crowd take many forms in us. At any given moment it can be the thoughts of the crowd that alienate us from deeper presence, but it can also be our inner concern of what the crowd thinks of and feels about us. Our false identity can consist in mere conformity with the crowd, (with our group, our culture, our religion, our family) but it can also be the result of our need to “stand out” by being seen or recognized by the crowd in a particular way. One sign of the acting out of our false self is the compulsive nature of our actions. We all know that so much of what we say and do is, in the moment, felt as a necessity. It is not at all easy to attain the state of freedom of which human beings are capable. To become free, by realizing increasingly our spiritual potential, requires of us a long and arduous journey. It also needs to be, as we learn in the gospel story, a creative journey sourced by our transcendent potential.
Luke tells that that the men, unable to find a way to carry their friend through the crowd, take him up on the roof and lower him through the roof tiles so that he is directly in front of Jesus. As my mother might have said, this takes “a lot of gall.” As we are then told, Jesus forgives their sins, and then heals the man. It’s doubtful that when they set out with their friend to seek Jesus’ healing the men had any idea of what they would have to do to get him into Jesus’ presence. So, when they see the size of the crowd, they are undeterred and ready to do whatever is required, however it looks or whatever reactions it evokes, to receive the healing of Jesus, to be – front and center- in his presence.
It seems in the story as if it is this unpredictable and somewhat outrageous act that leads Jesus to commend them for their faith. As we hear repeatedly in the gospels, faith is not a conformity to rules and doctrines. It is, rather, living “on the way” to we know not where. It is, as the late theologian John S. Dunne expressed it, “Living step by step out of the heart.” These men will spare nothing to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus. They will risk life and limb as well as open themselves to the ridicule of the crowd in order to do this because they trust and believe. Jesus’ response to this is to tell them that their sins are forgiven, that is that they are walking on the right path, on what Isaiah calls “the holy way.”
As often in the gospel, the scribes and Pharisees then appear as the foils of these men. They do not walk by faith but rather by arrogant certitude. They think they know who God is and how God manifests in the world, and this is not it. Unlike certain other times the scribes and Pharisees appear, however, this time, after Jesus commands the paralyzed man to rise, pick up his stretcher and go home, they all are “struck with awe.” That is, even they, at this point, experience the mysterious nature of life and creation.
There is an intimate connection between faith and awe in our lives. We can only have faith, in its deepest meaning, when we are in touch with and live out of our primordial human disposition of awe. Awe is our heartfelt recognition and experience of the mystery of life and world. It is what arises in us when we realize that the Divine life pervades all of creation and that we ourselves are participants in that life and love. Thomas Merton, whose anniversary of death is today, speaks of our need “to escape from the prison of our own false self” if we are to “enter by love” into union and communion with that life.
There is a childlikeness in this behavior of those men who lower their friend through the roof so that he can be in the presence of Jesus. We recognize how filled with awe are infants and small children. As with wide eyes they take in the world around them, we can see on their faces expressions of sheer wonder and delight. Conformation into our societies and cultures seem to diminish over time at least the more obvious and persistent manifestations of that awe in us. To walk along Isaiah’s “highway . . . called the holy way” is too dare to live “step by step out of the heart.” Our heart never forgets our capacity for awe and wonder, even as our “heads” get preoccupied with our own false projects. We are so much more than the paralyzed lives of vital impulses and functional ambitions that we take to constitute our lives. Merton reminds us that when we “enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings” within all that is, including our own souls, then everything we see and hear and encounter “purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and heaven.”
The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His love we possess all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And thus as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and heaven.
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 26-7.