This Sunday’s Gospel is St Luke’s account of the healing of the leper, in which just one out of ten lepers who were healed returned to praise Christ the Lord for the gift of health. The Gospel gives us a healthy clue as to what sets Christ’s disciples apart from others. His last words were: “Go, your faith has made you well.” And at the centre of the leper’s faith is praise.
Today also marks the Canonisation of St John Henry Newman. One of Newman’s most epic poems is his Dream of Gerontius, which follows the soul of a man who passes from this life through death, hell and into purgatory, accompanied by his Guardian Angel. The centre of the piece is an unspeakable moment when Gerontius comes before God, unveiled, as he is and, in the leadup to this, he is guided through the choirs of angels who sing: Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise.’ This little section of the poem later became the hymn that many of us sing in Church even now. But there’s a moment in the poem when it is said of heaven: “The very pavement is made up of life.”
When we think of heaven in this capacity – that the very structure of it is life itself – we begin to see, perhaps, that the leper who returned to thank God is part of heaven. It is our privilege and our responsibility to praise in the heights and the depths, but also to actually ‘become’ praise – to allow that posture of praise for our creator-God to take us over, so that we might life for Him fully, God alone in all we do and are. We get to this blessed reality through gratitude.
Christ came across these lepers quite by chance, it would seem. On seeing Jesus, the lepers shouted together, as one: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” But far from engaging in any strange ritual, the lepers were asked quite simply to show themselves to the priests. The thought alone is ludicrous: for a group of outcasts to walk into the temple and present themselves to the priests. We can easily imagine some of them not being altogether convinced, as they turned to make their journey to meet the priests. No laying on of hands, no personal contact, nothing so much as cleansing water poured upon them: nothing. When we place ourselves in that situation, it becomes easy to see what faith was required in order to be healed. They set out on their journey as lepers but, at some moment on their way, they find themselves healed. It is amazing to think that Christ heals them through their own mundane action. And action of blind faith, in which we do not understand the mechanics of the healing.
But just one of them turns back to thank Jesus. We might wonder, what might we have done, when we saw those scales and wounds lift from our bodies, that terrible social stigma that kept us physically and spiritually apart from the rest of the world, even our families? Would we have run back, kneeling before the one who made us well? And then, those were Christ’s words: “Your faith has healed you.”
Later this week, on Friday, we celebrate the feast of the evangelist, St Luke. In the Gospel that day we hear Jesus exhort the disciples: “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”
This one-and-the-same Kingdom of God is what Newman was thinking of when he used the words: the very pavement is made up of life.” God’s kingdom is close to us in the work of charity and responding to the Gospel message. And so, heaven begins right now. Yes, in the present moment is a seed to the kingdom of God. That seed is gratitude, plentiful praise to our Creator, and it is the beginning of heaven. And through it, we become part of the kingdom. This is a beautiful thought to ponder.
Yet, beautiful as it may be, the reality can test us beyond limits. But then, heaven is beyond our humans limits, too. There is nothing to do but to trust, as we make that same journey that Christ told the lepers to make. We turn and walk, just as we are and, even though the scales are not yet lifted and the wounds are still painful, we carry on, because we have faith. We are doing what Jesus asks of us, and we live in the faith of health. We may not fully understand, but we respond in joy and in gratitude. This takes trust.
All of Jesus’ physical healings are indicative of a spiritual healing – a turning to redemption. We trust, in our own frailty and lack of understanding, that we might have the faith to be healed, spiritually, some way along that road. It’s often that dark and relentless road that makes us more understanding of love, as we have to suffer and go through hardship alongside others. It helps us to see others in a better light, because we get to see our pain in them, and theirs in us. And even as we make that journey, we praise him, we thank him, and we turn back when we see the work of grace working inside us, to give him ourselves, to be joyful in him, and to do that natural thing: to say thank you.
This week (Tuesday) also marks the feast of the Spanish saint, Theresa of Avila. You may already know her famous prayer, which speaks very definitively of our abandonment to God’s will as we make that journey towards the kingdom:
Let nothing disturb you,
Nothing affright you,
All things are passing,
God never changes.
Whom God possesses
In nothing is wanting.
God alone suffices.