When a friar is sick, local house custom dictates that during Office he sit, not in his usual place in the choir, but in a dark back corner of the chapel so as to avoid infecting his healthier brethren. So it was that I found myself one recent morning in a dark back corner of the chapel. As I sat slumped in that creaky chair with sore throat and wandering mind, the thought hit me like a sudden coughing fit (which may in fact have accompanied it) that my bodily illness, more than a mere nuisance, was a sign of the sickness of my soul: that our occasional physical maladies point to our far more harmful spiritual ones. For some reason I found this hysterically funny—my pathetic head cold is an image of my dire need for God’s mercy!—and I began to quake with laughter in my little corner, doing my best to stifle my chortles as I delighted in the sheer surprise of the thing.
This is not of course a new idea; it’s one of the oldest spiritual insights there is. But even the oldest and oftenest repeated truths can at times strike us in new ways, like hearing the Goldberg Variations for the hundredth time and being inexplicably seized anew by their brilliant beauty. The image of our sinfulness as an illness and of Christ as the physician—a theme we can see in the thought of theologians of every age and even of Jesus himself (Mt 9:10-13)—finds its perduring power in its simple familiarity: we know well that we are susceptible to sickness and even more so to sin and that it’s not in our best interest to let either one of them stick around long.
But the Divine Physician is not like other doctors, not just because he’s divine but because he himself became sick for the sake of our salvation. This is the meaning of the Incarnation—and its mystery. The Word became flesh: the only-begotten Son of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and became a man, born of a woman.
But his lowliness became lowlier still: as a man he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross—and it is precisely in this that we are healed. The Son of God was not just born as a man but died as a man, and one despised and rejected at that. Christ became afflicted to heal our affliction; the Physician has taken the burden of the disease on himself to save us who are utterly unable to save ourselves; with his stripes we are healed. As T. S. Eliot wrote:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The remedy for our sin is found only in Jesus, the wounded surgeon, whose love for us is bound up inseparably with his mercy; and his mercy endures forever. In a Lenten homily he gave in Munich in 1981, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger preached beautifully about the relationship between the humiliation of sin and the humiliation of the crucified Christ, who precisely in his humiliation reveals the inexpressible love of God:
In the humiliated Jesus we can see how tragic, how little, how abased the human being can be. In him we can discern the whole history of human hate and sin. But in him and in his suffering love for us we can still more clearly discern God’s response: Yes, that is the man who is loved by God to the very dust, who is so loved by God that he pursues him to the uttermost toils of death. And even in our own greatest humiliation we are still called by God to be the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and so to share in God’s eternal love.
God’s mercy also features heavily in the writings of St. Catherine of Siena (who was herself well acquainted with sickness and disease, having devoted herself to caring for the victims of the plague which ravaged Siena in 1374). Of this inexhaustible font of love she writes:
O mad lover! It was not enough for you to take on our humanity: You had to die as well! . . . I see your mercy pressing you to give us even more when you leave yourself with us as food to strengthen our weakness, so that we forgetful fools should be forever reminded of your goodness. Every day you give us this food, showing us yourself in the sacrament of the altar within the mystic body of holy Church. And what has done this? Your mercy. O mercy! My heart is engulfed with the thought of you! For wherever I turn my thoughts I find nothing but mercy!
Yes, the same mercy that led Christ to the cross has also left us the Eucharist, the consummate reminder of God’s goodness toward us forgetful fools who so often spurn him and find ourselves sick with sin. And when we are thus enfeebled we throw ourselves yet again on the love and mercy of God, which cast dazzling light even into our darkest corners—such majestic mercy is enough to make us laugh for joy.
Image: Dominican House of Studies Chapel