Being Made Whole
"Our prodigious medical advances today make us well – but the Gospel tells us that only faith and communion make us whole. Medical expertise is effective at curing but not enough for healing".
“Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole".
In the 70s and 80s the city of Calcutta was one of the most commercially active and prosperous cities in Asia. Its bustling harbour had attracted several industries: chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metals, cotton, and tea. The city enjoyed one of the highest wages per inhabitant of the whole sub-continent. Thus, whenever exceptionally destructive monsoons ravaged rural areas, millions of starving peasants flooded to the city in the hope of feeding their families. Soon Calcutta became one of the most densely populated and hellish urban accretions in the world, where dreadful poverty, homelessness, filth, exploitation, and disease were rife. The stream of destitute people swarming to the city was also joined by colonies of lepers looking for survival through organized begging at the mercy of the local powerful and ruthless mafia.
Leprosy is easily curable when detected early and has been eradicated almost everywhere in the world, except in India, where it still spreads to tens of thousands of new people every year. This is partly due to lack of sanitation, poor nutrition, and density of population, but even more so to the delay in treatment caused by the stigma attached to the illness. The disfigurement caused by it has long led to isolation and ostracism and fuelled superstitions and rumours of curses.
At the same time, in the second half of the 20th century, Calcutta’s lepers somehow also acquired world-wide notoriety for two reasons. Who does not know of Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who came to be known with the name of this Indian city as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, because there she started her ministry in favour of poor people and lepers.
Furthermore, Calcutta’s lepers were portrayed in one of the most riveting novels I have ever read, The City of Joy, by the French author Dominique La Pierre, first published in 1985. Based on real characters and on years of research, this novel counterbalances a raw description of the extreme degradation and brutal misery reigning in one of the city’s slums with the touching depiction of three heroic characters who devote their lives to bringing relief to its inhabitants: Stephen Kovalski, a Polish Catholic priest, Max Loeb, a young American doctor who treats the most unspeakable diseases with skill and compassion, and Bandona, a beautiful Assamese nurse who becomes an angel of mercy for the afflicted - all based on historical figures interviewed by the author of the book.
The young doctor’s father is a billionaire eager to persuade his son to return to the US to run the family business. Having exhausted all other ways of persuading Max, the father travels to Calcutta to make a last desperate and extravagant plea: he promises to buy the whole slum, build decent housing, and provide medical care to its inhabitants if his son returns home. The prospect must have been tempting for this young doctor who was aware that, for all his generosity and commitment, the relief he was able to bring to people only had a limited impact – in one page of the book he is portrayed as he braces himself to spend the whole day amputating several lepers’ limbs. And yet, he declines the offer and laments his father’s inability to understand the real meaning of his dedication to the people of the slum. It is much more than simply improving their life conditions or curing their illnesses.
In the young doctor’s answer lies one of the most striking messages of this book.
The doctor, the priest, and the compassionate nurse are depicted side by side to show that what people, in this case lepers, need most is not just medical assistance – however crucial this might be. Like Mother Teresa, so the Fr Stephan, the Polish priest, lives in the slum, befriends the people, listens to their stories, shares their lives. He does not patronize the locals but acknowledges their dignity. And the young doctor sees his role as complementary to what the priest and the nurse do – not just curing the sick but bringing them healing.
This is analogous to what happens in the page from Luke’s Gospel we have just read. The lepers’ social ostracism is suggested when it is said that they address Jesus from afar:
As Jesus entered a village – Luke says- ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!".
Interestingly, they do not beg for the disease to be cured, but for compassion:
"Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Then, the vocabulary used to describe their return to health is not medical but ritual: it is not said that they were cured, but that they were ‘made clean’:
Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean?
Finally, there is Jesus’ intriguing way of yielding to their request not by performing the miracle there and then but by the instruction:
Go and show yourselves to the priests.
Some have speculated that Jesus’ intention was to give the Jewish priests a proof of his messianic claims by sending them the living evidence of people who had benefited from his miracles. In fact, this injunction points to the real nature of healing. Being physically cured from leprosy was not enough for lepers to be allowed back to normal life. Even cured they were prevented from taking part in social and religious gatherings, they remained outcast - religiously, ritually, and socially ‘unclean’. They could be readmitted to society and to worship in the Temple only after they had been examined by a priest, as prescribed by the Leviticus:
This shall be the ritual for the leprous person at the time of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest; the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination. If the disease is healed in the leprous person. […] then […] he shall be clean. (Cf. Leviticus 14.2-9)
As you know, last Wednesday as part of our formation program and St Paul’s for this year we started a series of 4 online talks on the ‘Theology of Healing’, (the recordings will be available on our website soon). We started our series by reflecting on Jesus’ miracles and on the difference between curing and healing.
Curing is the elimination of the illness and the restoration of physical integrity: in the case of leper, the bacteria which causes it are destroyed, the person is not contagious anymore. Much more than physical integrity however is required for the person to be not just cured but healed: physical illness affects us psychologically and emotionally, is often accompanied by social segregation, threatens self-esteem, beliefs, and motivation. Beyond physical integrity therefore healing requires the restoration of social and personal meaning to life. Illness disempowers people. Healing restores our dignity, returns us our agency, gives us a voice.
Luke tells us that only one of the ten lepers who had been cured by Jesus turned back to thank him and to praise God. In other words, only one of them had been not just cured but truly healed or, as some translations aptly render this passage, had been “made whole”:
Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole."
Healing is somehow compared to picking up the pieces and putting them together again. This process needs doctors and nurses, but especially friends able to listen, to show compassion, offer support. More than anything else, healing needs meaning. In times of suffering, we are impervious to arguments, but are touched by comforting signs, gestures, presence. The church understood this from the beginning. The reason why some of the consecrated hosts are always kept in churches after the celebration of the eucharist in the tabernacle is to bring communion to people who cannot attend the celebration because they are bed-ridden and unable to move. The very way we describe this act says it all: bring communion to those who are ill – that is affirming their place as part of our community even when they cannot be physically present, making sure that we are in common union with them and making sure they remain in common union with God, with us, and within themselves – that they are made whole and feel part of the whole.
Our prodigious medical advances today make us well – but the Gospel tells us that only faith and communion make us whole – only by believing and by loving we can sustain hope. Medical expertise is effective at curing but not enough for healing. Jesus’ miracle lies not so much in the fact that ten people are cured of their leprosy, but in that one person’s agency is fully restored, that this person becomes able to look beyond himself, turn back, show gratitude, praise God – in the fact that he does not need to be brought communion any more but can “go on his way” -as Jesus says”, actively taking part in this communion, and bringing it to others:
“Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole".
Being made whole: this si the healing we can all be the agents of.
Being made whole: this is the healing we should all seek for ourselves.