Wednesday, February 15, 2012

12-02-12: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46 / Psalm 32 / 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 / Mark 1:40-45

The readings this week continue the theme of suffering and Jesus’ response to it. Coincidentally, this Saturday (February 11th), we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. If you’ve ever been to Lourdes you might agree that it is especially moving to witness the great numbers of sick who are escorted to Lourdes by loved ones and volunteers (usually young people in search of something greater than themselves). All come seeking the curative waters and the possibility of a miracle. Most leave still suffering from the disease that brought them there yet claim, despite that fact, to have found a miracle nonetheless.

Illness and disease not only produce physical pain but also isolate the sick, causing them to withdraw from friends and family or causing their friends and family to withdraw from them. Sometimes this is a direct result of the type of illness: leprosy, a case in point. In the biblical accounts isolation was enforced, as a divine mandate, for the good of the community, leaving the observer to wonder which is worse: the disease or the isolation. If you’ve ever talked with a person who is seriously ill, especially the elderly, they’d tell you it’s the isolation and loneliness that end up hurting a lot more than the disease.

When a child suffers from illness, especially of the developmental kind (as in the various manifestations of autism) the entire family can feel isolated. Such a story was beautifully told in a recent New York Times Magazine article, Wonder Dog (2.5.12), about a couple who adopted two unrelated children from Russia: the girl, normal; the boy, later diagnosed as suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As the boy grew the symptoms of his disease became more manifest: an inability to relate and communicate, his propensity for severe tantrums and, as he now enters adolescence, his inability to exert any kind of self control.

As you read how the family tried to deal with their son’s illness, your heart breaks for them. The boy’s illness not only isolated him, but caused his family to withdraw and isolate from the wider community. And then, when things seemed to become impossibly difficult, along came Chancer. Chancer was the Golden Retriever service dog who entered their family and changed everything. No, the boy did not suddenly become “normal” and everyone lived happily ever after. But the dog was nonetheless a miracle. Chancer was well trained as a service dog and became completely devoted to the boy. Although not uncommon for such dogs, but still fundamentally inexplicable, Chancer would somehow sense the approach of a tantrum before it engulfed the boy. In such tantrums the boy’s arms would lock as he grasped his shoulders, he would throw himself on the floor and begin to scream and wail. These tantrums could happen anywhere, at any moment - at home, at school, in the supermarket. When Chancer sensed such a tantrum about to erupt, he would run to the boy and place his snoot firmly on the boy’s chest as his arms were about to lock, preventing them from doing so, resulting in the boy embracing the dog. When Chancer was a bit too late and the boy was already engulfed in the tantrum, screaming and howling, the dog would begin to lick his face, slobbering all over the boy, as dogs are wont to do. And, in an instant, the screaming and howling became laughter and giggles. Chancer changed everything.

Miracles are usually identified when the pain of illness or disease is relieved or reversed – and there are well-documented cases of such happening at Lourdes. What’s not documented, at Lourdes or anywhere else, are the miracles that occur when the effect of disease and illness – the isolation that the victim suffers – is relieved and reversed, as in the case of this boy and his dog. The divine can enter our human reality in stupendous, extraordinary ways. But most often it arrives through the ordinary. Chancer is a dog, not human, not of our species. Yet he serves this boy unconditionally and without judgment. By entering the boy’s world and placing himself in the boy’s arms, licking his face, converting anger and frustration into laughter, we can understand how grace builds on nature – even our very flawed nature. Or, as Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian Muslim put it: “Be helpless, dumbfounded / unable to say yes or no / then a stretcher will come from grace / to gather us up.”

Grace – that healing divine presence - comes to us in many ways, in many forms: as angelic beings or slobbering Golden Retrievers. God always surprises.

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