The view from the hospital corridor

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  • November 2, 2011

Self-loathing.

Am I, underneath all I have and have done, worth anything at all? Or is my secret suspicion true, that I’m really nothing? Or nothing good, anyway.

When I was doing parish work, I found this question lurking hidden in the hearts of a surprising number of people — including people whom the rest of us might readily consider better, smarter or better-off than ourselves. Next time you walk down the street, imagine those you see having a huge rock on top of their head or great bulging sacks hanging from each hand and you may apprehend more than your eyes can see.

I once saw a Rodin sculpture entitled The Fallen Caryatid. Caryatids are the statues of mythical, powerful, beautiful women that stand casually as the pillars holding up ancient buildings. They have their hands behind their back because it’s so easy to bear this enormous weight. The sculpture shows a caryatid crumpled on the ground, her sad face looking down, her place and her work lost and broken. Aching and weary as she is, the burden remains on her shoulder. She’s unable to put it down, even in her fallenness. Is she the image of humanity?

Recently, I mentioned this to a parish youth group. The group understood the idea that each of us carries a burden and that this burden, for many, is a sense of worthlessness. They mentioned another load they commonly see in their colleagues (and perhaps themselves). It runs like this: “I can do it all myself. There’s no God to rely on, and I’m powerful and independent, so I’ll be accomplishing everything and doing it on my own.” This lead-weight might stem from a wrong-centred sense of self-worth, and I could imagine many crumpled-up caryatids bearing that one.

So I began to see the invisible burden. And then I discovered that early Church writers liked to refer to the Church as a “hospital.” What an illuminating word.

Growing up, I had a variety of images of the Church. It was a social centre, a family place, a house of prayer; sometimes a tedious duty, a remedy for guilt or exotic pageantry; at times a place of light and music, at times sombre and difficult. In those days, the Church was generally full. As a young adult, I sometimes saw the Church as the tiny remnant, for most people my age had abandoned it. As a pastoral worker, I discovered that a common, though unspoken and unrecognized, image was the Church as prison — not necessarily an unpleasant prison — where one served out a life sentence to fulfill the law. I hadn’t given much thought to such images until I discovered the hospital one. Hospitals have changed over 2,000 years, but their purpose remains to care for the sick and wounded. If that’s what the Church is, then what are its members? Not guilty people needing punishment, but ill or hurt people needing to be tended. Those weary, heavily laden caryatids, in a place of succour and healing. The primary events here aren’t judgment and sentencing, but diagnosis and treatment. What a difference.

Consider the scriptural image of the prodigal son. There’s a liminal moment at which the younger son, having spurned and despised everything his father was about and pursued his own self-interest, ends up with less than nothing, himself despised and outcast. This story should end in despair or death. Instead, the son somehow turns around — literally turns from this trajectory of sickness and decay, in which he’s completely misunderstood himself, his father and everything about the world, “mistaking less and less for more and more.” Lower than the lowest point imaginable, the son turns and begins the long road back toward home. Why? How? What happened at this moment of utter despair and worthlessness — that empty place in every human heart?

The answer’s in the parable. It wasn’t judgment that soothed the depths of that weary heart, or duty, or guilt — though these may have played a part. The transforming power was the boundless love of the one he’d betrayed, longing for him, searching for him, as God longed for Adam walking in the cool of the evening garden.

Our burdens may be heavy; the internal ones the heaviest of all. As November wanes, we prepare for new beginnings, with the new Church year that begins with the first Sunday of Advent. We celebrate together what isn’t always easy for us to remember or feel:  underneath the impermanence of all that is lies one unbreakable truth, that of God’s love for us, us who are indelibly stamped with His own image. All healers in the world are only agents of the divine Physician who welcomes us to health and wholeness. He doesn’t stop to ask what we’re worth. It may be our question for each other, but God’s question comes from the lips of Christ: “Do you want to be made well?”

Hope.

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