Where are the dressing stations or our world? Certainly not just in those remote exotic locations or battlefields, illuminated for a while by TV cameras, where our romanticism might draw us. They are all around us.
“Look at my hands and my feet,” Christ says today, gazing at all those who suffer or are wounded, near and far. “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
“Men and women are flesh and bone, hands and feet, the pierced side of Christ—his mystic body,” adds the author concealed by the pseudonym Moine de l’Eglise d’Orient. “In them we can achieve the reality of resurrection by our actions.” He challenges us to see Christ not only in the socially needy, the sick, the poor, and the abandoned, but above all in people who are remote from us and that we don’t like: “Christ is imprisoned once more in many of those men and women—in wicked and criminal people. Free him by recognizing him quietly and silently and you will invoke him in them.”
These are difficult, demanding words. Who can listen to them? And who has the courage to put them into practice, or at least try? We are accustomed from many sermons to being challenged to help people in social distress, and maybe we do so from time to time. There are not too many sermons about loving one’s enemies—and when there are, one often has the embarrassing feeling that neither the preacher nor his listeners take it too “literally,” or, more likely, they don’t take it seriously at all. That’s just something they say in church! We have already mentioned that the main difficulty with that saying of Jesus is that we take the concepts of love and hate to be simply emotions (and not attitudes and conscious decisions, the focus of our life). Naturally we are well aware that “there is no accounting” for emotions and that feelings of resentment persist in spite of our good intentions to fulfill Jesus’s outlandish command.
Here the pseudonymous author presents us with a new theological and spiritual stimulus to have the courage to accept those people whom we would normally not be inclined to—“the wicked and criminal.” He doesn’t tell us to love and accept their wickedness, or to ignore, downplay, or forgive their wicked deeds and characteristics. Nor does he urge us to have any emotional attachment toward them. He simply tells us that Christ is present in the humanity of everybody through the mystery of the Incarnation. He is “imprisoned” in the “wicked” because they have not allowed him his freedom, they have not allowed him to reign in their hearts and actions.
By realizing that they too “belong to Christ” (and hence to us too) we do not liberate those people from evil. So far we only liberate our relationship to them—by allowing Christ to enter our attitude to them as the faithful image of the Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Just how much our attitude toward them and our way of thinking about them influences our behavior and actions, and how much our behavior can retroactively affect them, influence them and possibly change them, is another open chapter of this story.
Christ only ever comes as a challenge, a proposition, an invitation to follow him, an open possibility—as The God Who May Be. It is entirely foreign to him to pressure us to manipulate us or not respect our freedom. The God that Christ presents us with (through his words and his personality) addresses us and challenges us but never forces us to do anything. That is what our Christian witness should be like: we are here to broaden the horizon of “possible” (i.e., anticipated, usual, “logical,” “natural” behavior—the way things are done, the way of the world) to include what to people who do not know God and don’t take Christ seriously naturally seems impossible. This also—being here as an “alternative”—is part of our ministry of healing, liberation, and “driving out evil,” of which many have a somewhat romantic perception.
The “supernatural” in day-to-day “exorcism” (driving out evil) does not consist of what gripping films about exorcists luridly describe. It is something quite different: the breaking down of the boundaries of “the possible,” or what the world around us regards as “normal” and natural, by our “impossible” behavior. Yes, we are called on to perform miracles—if we understand miracles, not in a romantic or Enlightenment sense of “breaking natural laws,” but as what they really are: events that we have no right to expect in the given circumstances.
The possible, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida declared (and it was repeated by many postmodern theologians for whom he has gradually become some kind of new “church father” of Christian postmodernity) is what lies within our capacities, or at least within the scope of our plans, desires, expectations, and imagination. The impossible is what totally breaks through this horizon and brings in something radically and divinely new—as art and religion do. That is why, in one of my earlier books, I called the Kingdom of God “the kingdom of the impossible” that is accessible only to “little faith,” that is capable of “impossible things”—forgiving where one could revenge, giving where one could keep or even take, taking risks and sacrificing oneself for others where one could enjoy a quiet life and one’s creature comforts.
How many scars would be treated and how many injuries would never occur if we were capable of removing (at least in our imagination) the “enemy image” from many people (an image, moreover, that is often one that we project onto them)—and if we were capable of seeing Christ in them—without in any way having to idealize them? We will probably only manage it insofar as we are capable of acknowledging that Christ’s image in us is also not entirely free of scratches, dust, or overpainting, and that it is not very easy for others to recognize! The first step to healing the world’s wounds is our conversion, repentance, humility—or in everyday language: the courage to be truthful about ourselves.
The Church’s confessionals are not—as people often imagine and as many desire and demand—washrooms where I can quickly and easily shower off what has soiled my ideal image of myself, where I can get rid of what disturbed my (false) peace of mind and go back to my pleasant illusions about my own innocence. Those who use and misuse the “sacrament of reconciliation” in this way (in the role of either confessor or the one confessing) more likely heap on themselves another truly grave sin (the grand lie, self-deception). Such people would scarcely understand the words (and life experience) of St. Augustine, who wrote that sins also (etiam peccata) can help us find the right path.
They can help us when, at a moment of true repentance, “the scales fall from our eyes” and we discover truthfully our place and situation in the world—when we realize that in the age-old battle of good and evil, which fills the deep dimension of our history (“the history of salvation”), we are not and cannot be neutral observers, and certainly can’t naively assume that our place is among “the good and the just.” Our hearts are also in the front line of that battle, and our life is a battlefield on which we receive many wounds, which we must first expose if they are to be healed (and if they are to help us heal the wounds of others). They include also our painful traumas, both the forgotten and the never discovered, and those we don’t admit to. They include disappointments and blows dealt by “fate,” as well as wounds inflicted on us by others—and also the wounds that we have inflicted on others (maybe even in good faith), and which (even though we are often unaware of it) frequently damage us more than those wounds inflicted by others.
I say mea culpa—my fault—at the beginning of the Mass, not so I will be hurled into the dust of hopeless self-recrimination and self-pity, but so I will come back to earth from the fake paradise of illusions about myself and experience God creating me anew (from the dust of the earth, ex nihilo—God’s favorite material, after all!), and breathing his spirit into me.
Man is made of dust and the Spirit, the vivid image on the threshold of the Hebrew Bible tells us; through sin, says the psalmist, people “return to their dust,” but God forgives them and sends forth his Spirit, so that they are created again.
We said that when Christ comes and shows us his wounds it can rouse our “courage for the truth,” our courage to take off the “armor, masks, and makeup” that we use to conceal our wounds from others, and often from ourselves.
This concerns first and foremost our traumas, which are so present in us in spite of our efforts to forget them that they constantly draw our attention to them. People are often worn out by elaborate pretense or constant overexertion in an effort to conceal, overcome, or compensate for them. St. Ignatius’s advice agere contra (to go against what our own inclination might be) is not appropriate in all cases; for instance, the constant joke telling of people suffering from depression can be somewhat tiring after a time. We really ought to face up to these traumas that demand our attention in this way and prevent our attempts at escape, compensation, or suppression. Often direct confrontation with these problems within ourselves is less tiring, painful, and dangerous than constantly fleeing from them.
When one is truly capable of relying on the assurance that God accepts us the way we are, including our traumas, sorrows, scars, and problems, then this awareness itself may sometimes offer an even safer place of rest (and respite from our own stress and demons) than a cushion on a psychoanalyst’s couch. (This is not to say that I underestimate the assistance of a psychotherapist, which is necessary in many cases and should by no means be ruled out when seeking a spiritual route to inner reconciliation and healing.)
But of course there are traumas that we have “successfully” displaced or that never entered into the full light of our consciousness. If, either in prayer, on a psychoanalyst’s couch, or at some other privileged moments of our life, these things return to our consciousness, then what applies are the words used by the Lord in so many Bible narratives when entering the world of humans: Be not afraid!
Yes, even something that emerges from the darkness of night and behaves for a long time as an enemy that we must do battle with, one that even wounds us, can eventually turn out to be a messenger from God. If we have fought it courageously it will bring us a blessing in the morning—remember the important scene in the Bible of Jacob’s wrestling by the stream called Jabbok.
The perfection that we are called on to seek in the Old and New Testaments is a matter not of flawlessness but of integrity, wholeness. The first step toward this integrity is the meekness that accompanies conversion: I’m that too!
What isn’t accepted cannot be redeemed, the fathers of the church taught when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. The first thing that God wants of us when he grants us the grace to see our wounds (truly demanding grace, not cheap grace), is to accept them and be capable of saying “yes” even to these realities of our lives, even when we do not yet understand the reason for our “yes,” even when we still harbor questions that are not yet fully answered: “Why?” and “Why me?”
It’s all right for me to have wounds! This a hugely liberating step toward healing. I don’t have to be strong and beautiful and successful like the heroes of movies and TV serials; I don’t have to be glowingly happy, unassailably healthy, and eternally young like the shop-window dummies of ubiquitous commercials for everything and nothing; I don’t need to have eyes blazing with determination, an extended hand, and a Colgate smile like the politicians on the (photoshopped) election posters.
God laughs at them—just as he did when he came down to see the puny Babylonian skyscraper—and we can laugh with him. It is very liberating to be allowed to be the way I really am.
At the moment of humble discovery (and acceptance) of what I really am, my authenticity, do I not become at last an authentic image once more of the one who is who he is? By accepting my imperfection do I not (paradoxically) take a decisive step in the direction of the integrity that he imprinted on man, as his seal, his image, but also as a mission and task?
The wounds I have been endowed with by “fate” and “others” I am allowed to have. To a certain extent they cease to be traumas if I accept them and if I endure my true nature, alleviated and liberated both from the burden of pretense and concealment and also from the dictate of advertising and external claims that force or tempt me to be what I’m not and what in reality I should not and cannot be.
But what about the wounds we have inflicted on others? And what about the wounds that are not just my private affair, because they have affected my circle of relationships? In this instance I cannot offer any surprisingly new recipes. Where I am able to apologize, I ought to apologize, where I can make amends I must make amends, where I ought to be reconciled, I must at least make an attempt.
Where I really cannot make up for what I have spoilt or neglected, I must be capable of letting go. In such cases it is important to have the courage to place such things into the flame of God’s mercy, and, trusting in God’s forgiveness, I must forgive myself. If my old faults have passed through the portal of prayer (or, in some cases, confession) to God, if I have submitted them to God’s mercy, and if in conversation with God they have become experience for me (and prevent me from repeating them thoughtlessly), then it is an act of faith to release them forever. Then they can and should become for me what is finally past, a past that has been redeemed and submitted to God, a past that I must and should no longer concern myself with. And if feelings of guilt should still happen to flare up from that past, from the still too hot ashes of my memories, and no longer lead me toward healing humility but impede my capacity for joy, freedom, and doing good, then I must deal with them as I would any other temptation: chase it away like an annoying fly, ignore it as if it were a dog barking beyond the fence of a stranger’s garden.
There are people who are incapable of believing in God’s mercy, incapable of forgiving themselves, incapable of freeing themselves from feelings of guilt. They torment themselves with more and more acts of repentance, seeing sin everywhere, where there really is none. They are called scrupulants. Amedeo Cencini, an author of incisive analyses of frequent problems of spiritual life, regards scrupulants’ behavior as an expression of narcissism:
So if a scrupulant accuses himself it is not delicacy of conscience, it is dictated by his ego (or super-ego) whose narcissism is offended, and it takes revenge and tries to re-stabilize itself, condemning itself and punishing itself in every possible manner. . . . This always contains an element of exhibitionism and a relentless yearning for utter perfection. . . . A scrupulant never experiences forgiveness because he has never taken into account the real nature of his sin. He lives in fear of discovering some real fault, and he doesn’t admit that he really is a sinner; he sees sin in trivial matters in order to protect himself from the thought that he might have sinned in matters of importance.
Scrupulants’ constant doubts and self-torment stem from a narcissistic focus on their own ego, which is their real sin, and in the meantime they ignore God’s love, and they will never know the liberating and healing truth that God’s love is greater than their sin.
We are summoned to live in the truth—the sin we are really to beware of is self-deception.
But isn’t the separation of sins into sins “against oneself,” “against others,” and “against God,” as we know them from traditional “confession mirrors,” and the similarly strict separation of injuries inflicted and suffered, actually an artificial division?
One is human insofar as one is human with others and for others. There are no “private sins” that concern me alone and do not affect others, and no actions of mine that harm others that do not at the same time harm myself. Even the deformation of myself in the most sealed chamber of my private life will eventually sap the power and authenticity of what I owe to others and what I ought to be for others and for the world. God—as our faith teaches us—created each of us as an irreplaceable original, and probably not at all out of the mere passion of a creator or collector of curios, but because—if I may be permitted to use naively anthropomorphic language (which the Bible itself does not shy away from)—God needed someone like that for his world, particularly for other people. If we fail to cherish and develop or actually spoil this original creation of God’s and mar God’s intention in making it, then we are not only harming ourselves but also cheating others, and are guilty of ingratitude and a failure to understand our Creator.
If we harm others, then, regardless of how much it might profit us in the competitive battles of our world, any such action (and, as Jesus taught, this also means word, attitude, and intent) is also inscribed in us. We too are part of that creatio continua—the eternal process of creation. For better or for worse we take part in God’s unfinished creation of the world and of ourselves. We either creatively fulfill the intention of the creator or foolishly try to mar it. Our every day, our every act, word, and thought, leaves an impression on the vessel that we are on the Potter’s ever-turning wheel.
Our humanity is constantly being formed not only by our common humanity but also by our fellowship with God and our relationship to God; at the same time our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to God are inseparably linked in manifold ways. One can also say: one is a human being insofar as one is a human with God, before God, and for God.
For God’s sake, some will immediately object: you mean you don’t consider atheists as fully human?
My response must be carefully differentiated. I am convinced that most people who declare themselves to be atheists are atheists “in name only”—they call themselves atheists because the mystery that is disclosed by Christian faith they do not call God. Nevertheless, it is obvious (and where it isn’t we may assume) that they have an openness to that mystery, and sometimes it is profounder than in the case of many of us Christians. Our relationship to God the Father does not manifest itself by the way we call Him so, but by the way we behave toward our brothers and sisters. We demonstrate our relationship to God the Creator not just by our opinions about the creation of the world but more fundamentally by our relationship to nature. We demonstrate our relationship to the mystery of the Incarnation not only through the verse in the Creed that we recite with bowed head during a religious service but above all by what we do with our humanity and with the humanity of others.
Of course, apart from these atheists “in name only,” who in many cases (and not only in those just mentioned) actually live the mystery of faith, there also exist genuine existential atheists, who demonstrate through their lack of respect for others, nature, and so on that they truly stand “on the other shore.” And I’m sure I don’t need to add that this kind of truly dangerous atheism (godlessness)—which is truly a human defect—is to be found not only among those who regard themselves as nonbelievers but also among those who regard themselves as pious believers.
No person has the right to determine who belongs to which category, for one thing because this dramatic contest between belief and nonbelief takes place in the heart of every human being if they are alive. It is up to Christ’s Last Judgment to reveal to people whether they have ranged themselves on the “right side or the left” when the whole of their lives is taken into account—and it is clear from the gospel description of this scene that everyone is in for a surprise.
Concerning repentance, we were speaking about the need to let go, to “surrender” certain facts that we cannot alter. Something similar applies to our relationship to other painful wounds that our hearts suffer in the form of great loss, particularly the loss of a dear one.
Of course, loss assumes a different form depending on whether a loved one has been taken by death or whether they have left us of their own accord. In the second case the pain of our grief is often intensified by a sense of being betrayed and deceived; we have to struggle not to allow our love to turn into hate, and instead of the remedy of forgiveness to reach for the poisonous drug of retribution. Nevertheless, every serious loss often involves a lengthy and painful process during which we generally go through phases that are well documented by psychologists: shock and reluctance to believe it; an attempt to “bargain” and an irrational longing to somehow “avert” or negate the painful event, followed by an inner struggle sometimes involving feeling of rage and revolt; and moments of resignation—before we finally achieve the peace of reconciliation—accepting the reality. (A number of authors mention that a similar process is undergone by people who learn that their illness is terminal and find themselves on the threshold of their own death, as well as by people who share the death of a loved one.)
At this time of trial and pain—particularly after we take final leave of someone who has died—the rituals of the Church can contribute significantly to the healing of wounds, and likewise the rituals in the treasure chests of all the great religions (and sometimes ceremonies used by secular society in an attempt to copy and replace the ministry of the Church). If we have been unable to heal all the wounds in our relations with our dear ones during their lives (and what close relationship does not bear any such scars?), it is still worth sending our inner forgiveness (and prayer for forgiveness) after them in the ceremony of farewell. Even when our notions of “life after death” may have paled into a vague question mark, if we take God at least a little bit seriously we do not abandon hope that the gate through which our departed have passed does not lead into “nothingness,” and that even if they eventually fade from our memory God will be here forever as the depths of memory, in which everyone and everything remains preserved forever.
During the grieving process (Trauerarbeit, to borrow Freud’s terminology), a period that it really doesn’t pay to “skip,” avoid, drown, or displace, we sometimes discover that after their life story has ended and they no longer live in front of us and with us, our loved ones “live in us” even more deeply and are more real—and we carry what they were for us a little further. But the time of mourning must also be a time and means for healing, not for reopening wounds. There comes a time we must really “let go” of our departed.
Here too faith plays a unique role: it gives us the courage and confidence to take this step, without having to worry that in doing so we are betraying or showing ingratitude to our departed. The gate that we let them pass through is not locked for good, and the barrier that separates us from them is not impenetrable. They are inaccessible only to our senses and to those people whose world ends at the limits of sensory cognition. But we have been entrusted with three paths that allow us (like the resurrected Jesus) to pass through even the locked gate of death to an inseparable fellowship. They are faith, hope and love, these three; and the one that most allows the dead to live is love.
If we really manage to accept our wounds—in the power of faith, in the confidence that God fully accepts us with them—they are thereby transformed. It doesn’t mean they must necessarily stop hurting forever—even old scars and physical wounds sometimes make themselves felt in certain weathers—but they now occupy a completely different place in our lives, and our life itself is now fuller, more integrated, and more abundant.
There is an old Czech Easter hymn that speaks of the wounds of the resurrected Christ: His wounds are healed and shine like precious stones. And the great medieval German mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen taught that even our wounds will change into pearls.
Anselm Grün writes in this connection:
The transformation of my own wounds into pearls means for me that I regard my wounds as something precious. Where I am wounded I am more sensitive toward other people. I understand them better. And where I am wounded I come into contact with my own heart, with my real being. I abandon the illusion of my strength, health, and perfection. I am aware of my own frailty, and this awareness makes me more real, more human, more merciful, and softer. My treasure is to be found in the place of my wound. There I come into contact with myself and my mission. I also uncover there my capacities. Only a wounded doctor knows how to heal.
When he was acting as theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council, Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of modern times, received a request from a Spanish priest that he should try to get the Council to give significant support to veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For several centuries during the late modern period this devotion—inspired by several female mystics—had become increasingly significant in popular religion, as well as in the liturgy of the church year and in official documents of the popes. The documents of the Second Vatican Council make absolutely no mention of it, however. In an essay inspired by that letter, Rahner wrote that maybe this type of devotion will become a relic of the past like the statue of the Infant of Prague in the dusty display cases of our grandmothers. It is one of the finest essays in the whole of Rahner’s many-volumed oeuvre. Its title is “The Man with the Pierced Heart.”
Even if this devotion ceases to exist in popular religion, Rahner continues, maybe it will become the secret of the spirituality of the priest in times to come. What will the “priest of tomorrow” be like? He will be someone who involves himself in the hard lives of his brothers and sisters, someone who can be trusted and counted on. He won’t be able to rely on the social power of the Church but will have the courage to remain powerless. “Tomorrow’s priest will be a man whose calling is most difficult of all to justify in profane terms, because his real success is always vanishing into the mystery of God and because he is not a psychotherapist dressed in the old-fashioned costume of a magician.” He will give God the victory even if he succumbs in the process. He will see the effect of mercy where he could not provide the sacrament. His strength will not be measured by the statistics of confessions, and yet he will live in the conviction that he is God’s servant and messenger, and this in spite of the fact that God’s grace operates outside of him and without him. The priest of tomorrow, Rahner concludes, will be a man with a pierced heart, “pierced through by the godlessness of life, pierced through by the folly of love, pierced through by lack of success, pierced through by the experience of his own wretchedness and profound unreliability, believing that only such communicates the strength for his mission, that all the authority of office, all objective validity of the world, all the efficacy of the sacraments’ opus operatum, are only turned into the event of salvation by the grace of God if they come to man through this ineffable channel of the pierced heart.”
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Touch the Wounds: On Suffering, Trust, and Transformation. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.