The lepers in today’s Gospel story keep their distance from Jesus. In their day that was a matter of public health, but I’d like to mine the story for spiritual insight. Our minds fall into a groove that being “close to Christ” is always and for everyone a good thing. Maybe it’s not. (The text is Luke 17:11-19.)
Notice first, that in the story Jesus seems entirely ok with their distance. He doesn’t ask them to come closer to Him; in fact, He sends them further away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Only after they are healed and nine do not return does Jesus seem perplexed and disappointed: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?”
Jesus seems to know that something mysterious has to happen away from His presence before the lepers can approach Him. In the story, it’s their physical healing. But it may be different things for others. To try to come close before one is properly prepared is to set oneself up for failure – even, perhaps, for spiritual damage.
Note here that I don’t only mean “properly prepared morally.” While it’s certainly true (as Saint Paul tells us) that we should not approach the Lord in the Holy Communion unworthily, I want to see a larger significance both in Paul and in today’s Gospel. Our spiritual growth is far more than just getting our morals right. Maybe an image would help:
Someone once wrote that the priests’ vestments for Mass (and the prayers that accompany putting them on) are like the hazmat suits or turnout gear we see on first-responders in the news: they are protection for our bare humanity when we go close to overwhelming power which it would be dangerous to approach without precautions. Here’s where things get interesting.
The idea that being in the presence of God at Mass is the equivalent of being next to (let’s say) a burning railroad tank car of toxic chemicals is probably nonsensical (or even offensive) to some of you. We’ve certainly come to treat presence in church as casually as being in a supermarket. People chat, bring in coffee(!), slide in and out of pews without so much as a thought of Who we’re in the presence of. I suggest that this is almost entirely a bad thing. (I say “almost” because there was an irrational fear of God in past generations that we are well rid of. But losing the sense of power and awe was a high price to pay.)
Consider this possibility: We can insulate ourselves so as to be safely in God’s presence in two different ways: First, we can do it through inattention and superficiality – that is, unconsciously. In that case it is our very obliviousness that protects us. We are unaware of what we are doing (except on the most superficial level), and so we remain untouched by God. (It’s like we’re a radio tuned to the wrong channel – the signal is there, but we’re not prepared to receive it so nothing happens.)
The second way of approaching God’s presence safely is consciously, and with proper preparation. We make sure that, to the best of our ability, we are attuned to Who we approach and expect to be affected. This involves such practices as an examination of conscience, silent prayer, reducing distraction, and ritualizing our approach to deepen our awareness: blessing with Baptismal water as we enter, genuflecting or bowing before we settle in to a pew, perhaps kneeling, keeping silence, etc.
“Distance” from Jesus can serve a purpose if it prevents a too-easy familiarity that diminishes God’s power. As the poet Annie Dillard wrote: “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” The lepers wanted to be changed; so they knew to keep their distance. Until next week, peace.