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Health and Mercy

“The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way.  The important thing is always to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds.”
-Pope Francis

A few weeks ago, following a series of talks I gave at a conference, a young man raised his hand to ask me how I think about what it means to be a healthy person.  He went on to extrapolate, endearingly, about how difficult this question seems to him personally as he can’t ever seem to get a handle on his own range of health, let alone those around him.  And while I answered him as best I could on the spot, smiling at the irony of being mistaken as one qualified to speak authoritatively about what it means to be healthy, his question has stayed with me.

In the moment I answered him with Christ’s teaching that you can know healthy people by the fruit they bear in their lives.[1]   It is a simple, practical, gospel-centered principle. And, personally, it has repeatedly served as a reliable bellwether whenever I have needed to get my own bearings on who’s who.  The fruit never lies.

Yet while I stand by the answer I gave him, when I woke in the early hours of that next morning with his face and his question still bouncing around my brain, I knew there was more I should have said.  Because while his question was about health, it was also about our fundamental lack of it. Even more, it was an expression of his own honest, perplexing struggle over what to make of his – and others’ – persistent failure to meet some relatively simple standards.   I didn’t do justice to that most important piece of his question, but if I could go back and try again, Pope Francis is who I would offer.

In his recent book The Name of God is Mercy Pope Francis writes, “Sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated, healed.” He says this particularly, “to explain the hypocrisy of those who believe sin is a stain, only a stain, something that you can have dry-cleaned so everything goes back to normal.”

It is this imagery of sin as a wound that I most want to offer my earnest young friend.  Because it validates his sense that even our best efforts at health fall short of what we hope. We are all fundamentally unhealthy, far more unwell than we realize. We are a wounded people in need of care and tending, not merely an unkempt people in need of some tidying up. And this fundamental understanding of our reality changes how we think about health.  In the former instance, when we see our sin as a gaping, bleeding, debilitating wound, seeking health is an imperative.  In the latter, where we see our sin as nothing more than a blemish, health is merely an exercise.

It requires, too, that we change our understanding of health as being something that is merely therapeutic to something that is deeply theological.  And that is precisely the kind of diagnosis the Pope offers in his beautiful reflection on God as mercy.  He writes:

“Humanity is wounded, deeply wounded.  Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them…. Pius XII more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin.  Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven.  We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy.  The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with intimate, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet.  We need mercy.”

In most cases, our best efforts at health are exercises in self-sufficiency. When they fail we often see that as an indictment on our inability to try hard enough or act sincerely enough. This is what the Pope wisely sees as “the fragility of our era”, this inability or unwillingness to see and express our own needs in part because we have no idea what to do with them if we do. But the prescription the Pope offers, which Christ offers, is precisely the opposite.  We must only acknowledge that we are in need of help to receive it.

The Holy Father goes on to write,

“If we do not begin by examining our wretchedness, if we stay lost and despair that we will never be forgiven, we end up licking our wounds, and they stay open and never heal.  Instead, there is medicine, there is healing, we only need take a small step toward God, or at least express the desire to take it.  A tiny opening is enough.”

The same is true of physical health.  My dentist once asked me why I had put off coming to see him about a tooth that had been causing me pain for months.  I told him I thought it might just get better.  He laughed and said, “People always say that, but let me assure you, teeth never get better on their own.” This is the paradox of health.  In both matters physical and spiritual, we can only get better once we recognize we need help. It is only by remaining mercilessly acquainted with our wound that God’s mercy might enter in and show us, reveal to us, the endless well of His love and care for us, by propping us up and getting us back on our feet.

And so as I reflect again on the question posed to me about what makes for a healthy person and how health can be known and verified, next time I am likely to offer less about fruit and more about wounds.  Our health depends on our willingness to tend them, and bring them to Christ the Great Healer by whatever means we are capable.

[1] Matthew 7:16-18, Luke 6:43

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