This past Christmas marked 10 years since my father’s passing. During his illness (that began in early October), there was a two-week hospital stretch that I remember as a “twofer.” For each morning, I sat in the middle of a room he shared with another man (a WW2 veteran) also suffering from a heart condition. During Morning Prayer, with both men sleeping (my father on the right and the other man on the left), I prayed that God would heal them, physically or spiritually.
In the Gospel passage (Mark 1:40-45) for this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, physical healing is on display. As we just heard, the leper approached Jesus, knelt before Him, and begged Him: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” And Jesus did! In an instant, Jesus transformed this marginalized leper and catapulted him among the “included” class. By doing so, Our Lord provided those who followed Him with a visual instruction manual of the ways we should be concerned for others. Later, in his Letter to the Corinthians (10:31-11:1), St. Paul put this to words: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Regarding our physical (or biological) selves, a now-deceased Jesuit professor once told me that he had “outlived his earthly warranty.” After many years, his words have stuck with me because they are true! While not seeking to sound depressing, each of us have been created by God with “earthly expiration dates,” a reality I experience each time I preside at a funeral or listen to my knees crack while descending the stairs of my house.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency for us to hold onto the physical aspects of things. We search for pills or creams or “you name it” to prevent us from the inevitability of getting old. In my house, I have a running joke with my youngest daughter that as soon as a hair restoration pill arrives, “I’m in.” So, our hopes and wishes for the “perpetual physicalness” of our lives are just that—hopes and wishes.
Given all of this, isn’t it spiritual healing that we need the most? A spiritual healing that invites us to open our hearts to Jesus, the Divine Physician, and allow Him entry to heal our past hurts and disappointments and tragedies. For we know that with these, there is no putting “Humpty back together again.”
To repeat the words of St. Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” And this begs the question, if the Lord has called us to follow Him, do we think it unlikely that God might be asking one of us to be His hands and feet so that He might touch others— through us? I don’t!
In that vein, one story that I like is of Deacon Jack Sullivan. In the summer of 2000, he was studying for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Boston when he was told by his surgeon that based on scans of his spine, surgery would be necessary to repair it. Later that day, a dejected Sullivan returned home and began channel surfing, eventually finding his way to a program on the life of English Cardinal John Henry Newman who lived from 1801-1890. Aware that Cardinal Newman had been a convert and brilliant man who preached about the influence of God in everyday life, he recalled a message that had scrolled across the screen that “all favors received from Cardinal Newman’s intercession be made known to the Postulator of his Cause for Canonization.”
The next morning, after having prayed for Cardinal Newman’s intercession, he awoke with no pain—a condition that lasted for a year. But, on August 15, 2001, Sullivan’s spinal pain returned, and he was required to undergo spinal surgery. Following the surgery, his doctors told him that his recovery and ability to walk might take a year. While this was a setback, he was mostly upset that he would miss his final year of studies and ordination. So, he turned to his holy friend and prayed: “Please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained.”
When he suddenly felt heat all over his body, warm and intense, that lasted for a long time. Eventually, he received an insight that he could walk, and so, with nurses and doctors watching, he did! Eight-years later, Pope Benedict XVI announced that it was this miracle that would lead to Cardinal Newman’s Beatification in England in September 2010—a Mass that now Deacon Jack Sullivan served at and proclaimed the Gospel with Pope Benedict as celebrant. Today, did you know that Deacon Jack Sullivan has received the gift of healing and travels extensively and presides at healing services where he prays for both physical and spiritual healing for those who attend?
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a day when the Church turns from Ordinary Time to the Season of Lent. It is a day when we receive ashes upon our foreheads and hear these words: “REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE DUST AND TO DUST YOU WILL RETURN.”
May these words not frighten us, but rather, grant us eternal purpose: That we might turn our minds and hearts to what really counts; that we might touch and stand by those in our families and world who are marginalized and excluded; and that we might be unafraid, like the leper, to approach the Lord and ask Him to heal us—physically or spiritually.
And once we do, may we be at peace and remember that the decision is in His hands. For as the Psalmist reminds us: “We turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill us with the joy of salvation.”