Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 9, “The Sick”

My dear friend,

I haven’t heard from you since I began this series of posts about Romano Guardini’s The Lord over a week ago. I hoped that these rambles of mine might stimulate more dialog between us about Christianity. But, well, whatever—

I’m getting a lot out of the exercise anyway. These posts are a lens helping me examine my own early experience of religion, helping me see how my religious sense changed or atrophied during our years together at school.

In chapter 9, Guardini reminds us of the early miracles of Jesus. I am sure there was a time in childhood—though I can’t remember vividly—when His healing of the sick, blind, and leprous astonished me. But then I didn’t need to become a little child, I was one.

By the time I graduated in 1969, though, I was blasé about most things and cynical about the remainder. How much of that attitude came from me, how much from my peers, how much was enabled by the school? I’m sure that if I even thought about them, the miracles of Jesus struck me then as some sort of symbolic stories—myths was the term we favored—cooked up by first- or second-century followers, to be hashed over in religion class with the help of readings in Tillich, Niebuhr, and the like.

But look at the details!

“Now when it was evening, and the sun had set, they brought to him all who were ill . . . ” After sundown: is that to be interpreted metaphorically or did this happen at a specific time of day? And if metaphorically, then what calculating writer later cooked up these details, such careful observations? Isn’t that the way the modern, so-called scientific mind thinks?

Jesus places his hands on the eyes of a blind man, and the latter says he sees “men as though they were trees, but walking about.” Friends lower a sick man on a stretcher through a hole in a roof to get him closer to Jesus. What are all these oddities? Inventions? Metaphors? Facts? They couldn’t be facts, could they?

And if metaphors? If symbols? What lessons are we supposed to draw from Jesus’s miracles? Do we take him as some sort of utopian idealist who thinks humanity can right itself and do away with suffering if it just does the right thing?

Guardini rejects this notion: “We know of no word from [Jesus] that reveals him as an utopian. He never even suggests that pain will be banished from the world. . . . With customary realism, he looks it straight in the eye . . . ”

Or perhaps we should understand Jesus as a model for our modern-day philanthropist, the do-gooder who gives away a portion of his wealth?

“Modernity,” Guardini writes further on, “with its vital social and caritative sense, has tried to define the Lord as the great philanthropist, the friend of mankind who saw and helped its sufferings wherever possible. But modernity is over-simplifying. . . . Jesus is not merely a great figure of charity with a boundless heart and tremendous capacity for service. He makes no attempt to track human suffering to the root in order to eradicate it. He is no social reformer . . . ”

So what is he?

“Jesus sees the mystery of suffering much more profoundly—deep at the root-tip of human existence, and inseparable from sin and estrangement from God [my emphasis]. He knows it to be the door in the soul that leads to God, or—”

I like that: Our suffering results from turning our backs on God—and therefore it can lead us back to Him!

Guardini: “This is obviously what is meant by his words about taking up the cross and following him (Matt 16:24). Perhaps we come nearer the truth when we say: Christ did not avoid pain, as we try to. He did not ignore it. He did not insulate himself from it. He received it into his heart.”

When I read these words, I realize how far I am from understanding these miracles. For surely something happened?

You and I and so many in our class were idealistic, utopian. We wanted to change the world. But we also suffered. Remember the encounter group sessions a dozen of us had with the school psychiatrist during senior year? Remember how that “group grope” (our term) cut through blasé attitudes to the hurting, wounded children underneath?

Sick and suffering ourselves, and with no one to mentor or comfort us except for the school shrink, whose German name we pronounced with mocking accents . . .

We could have used a little religion, a little faith, even a little miracle.

Well, that’s enough for one evening, my friend. . . . Tomorrow, chapter 10, and a provocative title, “What Was Lost.”

Indeed, what was lost?


This series of letters continues here with chapter 10.


  1. "Jesus places his hands on the eyes of a blind man, and the latter says he sees “men as though they were trees, but walking about.” Friends lower a sick man on a stretcher through a hole in a roof to get him closer to Jesus."

    In my catechism class all this is treated as literal truth; and lessons are learned via that literalness.

  2. I hope it's clear that I agree. The questions about metaphor and symbol are meant to be rhetorical. Thanks for reading


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