“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.I've always loved that image of the Church as a hospital and so I was delighted to see it in our Holy Father Francis's instantly-famous 'interview.' As an image I think it makes some sense of the tension we see and feel between a salvation we know to have been fully accomplished, a Kingdom of God we know to be in some sense arrived, and our experience of feeling still broken, still being sinners in a world that still suffers and which seems to insist on its suffering. As a baptized person, I know that I have become free from original sin. And yet, the wounds left by sin still fester in me, sometimes even so badly that it might be hard to believe I had truly received that freedom in Christ.
But it's precisely in the sense of that tension that I found brilliant Francis's little qualifying statement: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle." ('Church' there is capitalized in the original Italian version of the interview, by the way, just saying.) Jesus Christ is victorious. He has won the victory on our behalf. But he has done so by the sublimely humble means of joining his divinity to the suffering we have insisted upon for ourselves and each other with our sins. And so our disease is healed but our injuries remain for the care Jesus himself wills to be in us for the sake of each other, that we might share in the redemptive work he was already accomplished. This is the mystery of the incarnation as it comes to dwell in the baptized. As Edith Stein writes:
Thus a new incarnation of Christ takes place in Christians, which is synonymous with a resurrection from the death on the cross. The new self carries the wounds of Christ on the body: the remembrance of the misery of sin out of which the soul was awakened to a blessed life, and a reminder of the price that had to be paid for that. The pain of yearning for the fullness of life persists until, through the door of actual physical death, entrance into the shadowless light is gained. (The Science of the Cross, trans. Josephine Koeppel, OCD)I was reflecting on all this especially after sitting with St. Augustine in the Office of Readings this morning:
Those, then, who by some bad desire are lovers of this world and thus kept away from good works, lie sick and tired, such that languishing in this state without any strength, they are unable to do good. Such are in soul like the paralytic who was unable to approach the Lord himself, whom they had to carry, open the roof, and lower down.Over the years, this gospel scene has become increasingly meaningful for me. (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26) I appreciate it precisely as an image of friendship. It is surely a great effort to carry a paralyzed person up to a roof. It's also a little outrageous to dismantle someone's roof in order to lower him down again. But I think it's a challenging image of the friends we are called to be for each other as patients in this 'field hospital' that is the Church. It shows the effort we are called to make and the outrageous lengths we are called to go to in order to bring each other into the healing presence of Jesus Christ.
For we are all, to one degree or another, with some constellation of afflictions or another, like the person St. Augustine describes, kept from the fullness of the good we might be about because we are rendered sick and tired by bad desires and attachments to ourselves and things that are outside of the love of God.
And yet we are not totally paralyzed; we can also be among the friends who carry and climb. We bear each other's sick, tired, and paralyzed selves to the presence of Jesus, first of all by the best and primary charity of praying for each other, but also even by outward invitation, by showing up when the Holy Spirit invites us into a situation, and by striving to let the love of God shine through our way of being and relating, something which often works best without explicit mention of God. He's humble that way. And when we let this happen, we find that even the wounds that are our remembrance of misery become also windows through which the love of God wills to shine through us, their pain having become, as Edith Stein says, the very yearning for heaven that is the Holy Spirit praying within us.