Without your wound, where would your power be?

July 26, 2020

The Gospel passage about the paralytic being healed at the Pool of Bethesda has always perplexed me. (John Chapter 5). A quick reading of this passage would indicate that there is a connection between sinning and disease or prolonged illness. As someone who witnessed the debilitating illness of Alzheimer’s that my mother suffered with for over a decade, I find it unfathomable to believe that there was causation between her sinfulness and her long infirmity. She was robbed of memories and speech, recognition of loved ones and, basic human dignity.

We do not know exactly what infirmity the man lying at the Pool of Bethesda suffered with for thirty-eight years, but we read that without his illness, his patience, and his faith, he would not have received the gift of healing from Christ. The man was aware of his inability to be healed through any action of his own. He was also reminded of the lack of human intervention which would have healed him in the waters of Bethesda. “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 5:7)

Many people who are afflicted with illnesses of the mind, such as my mother, who may only be partially aware of their impairment, are certainly unable to heal themselves and are unable to be fully restored to health with even with the most heroic of human intervention. Having ministered to several parishioners during my years of pastoral service who suffered with significant physical disorders, some congenital, as well those with decades long cognitive impairments which arose later in life, I can easily say that these types of suffering challenged my faith and pastoral witness more than anything else in my priesthood.

What do you tell a mother who knows that her newborn will never have a normal life, and will need constant care for decades? What do you tell a son who witnesses his mother commit unspeakable acts of self-degradation and yet has no idea that what she doing to herself? What do you tell a father whose only child was severely injured in a car accident on her 21 birthday, through no fault of her own? Do you tell them that their infant, their child, their mother sinned and therefore must suffer? Do you say they are there to manifest the glory of God? Do you tell them that they are bearing witness to the world with their suffering?

Whenever I hear or heard priests or other well-meaning people say such things to me or others, I could only conclude that they themselves had no idea what the family member was experiencing. The honest ones at least say nothing but do provide the gift of support by being present. Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice that I ever learned in pastoral theology class in Seminary was to “talk less, listen more.” (Thank you, Father Frank Estocin – Memory Eternal!)

For those of us cognizant of our illnesses, physical or mental ailments, we are hopefully aware of our sufferings. Perhaps they are nothing in comparison to what others suffer, but they are our afflictions, our pain, and our wounds. The great American novelist and playwright, Thornton Wilder in a short work asked the poignant question: “Without your wound where would your power be”?… In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.”[1]

I cannot answer the questions that I brought earlier in this reflection, but I am blessedly sure of the following:

1) When we become conscious of our own wounds, and transgressions, we can have greater compassion for others and their wounds, and transgressions.[2]

2) When we become conscious of our own wounds, and transgressions we begin to have humility; humility to seek forgiveness from Christ and the humility to forgive; forgive others, including ourselves.

3) When we become conscious of our own wounds, and transgressions, we have a greater power to listen, a greater power to help, a greater power to love.

4) When we become conscious of our own wounds, and transgressions, we become soldiers in the service of love, in the service of God.

What wound do you carry?

Can you turn it into a love to serve others?  

[1] The Angel that Troubled the Waters by Thornton Wilder. 1928.

[2] This idea has stuck with me ever since I read the book The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen (1972). I tried to make the idea of a wounded healer a centerpiece of my pastoral ministry.

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