We’ve gone mystically tone-deaf.
Robert Bellah tells how one of his researchers, speaking at a conference, made the statement: “Some people believe that human life is priceless.” A scientific expert, in all seriousness, challenged him: “We have no data on that.”
We might smile a little at the naiveté of that but, sadly, most of us are often just as insensitive when it comes grasping some of the deeper things that under gird life. Mysticism is not our strong point and that leaves us mostly in the dark in terms of intuiting one of the central realities within the Christian faith, namely, how the body of Christ works.
We believe in what we can grasp rationally, but how the body of Christ works is not something we can grasp in that way. Hence some of what’s important to health inside that body is often neglected because we simply don’t know any better. Just as ignorance of what is good for us physically can lead to bad health habits, so too inside the body of Christ. We need to know how to keep a strong and healthy immune system.
How do we build up a strong, healthy immune system inside the body of Christ?
Part of our Christian faith, as canonized in our creed, is the belief that our unity and community with each other in Christ is so real, so deep, so physical, and so mutually interdependent that we constitute not an aggregate or a corporation but an organism, a living body. The body of Christ is not a body in the way General Motors is a body, but is a body in the way that a man or woman is a body. The unity inside that body is not mystical or analogical, it’s real.
And, just as in any physical body there are visible aspects that can be observed with the naked eye and other, more invisible, aspects that go on under the surface and escape simple observation, so too within the body of Christ. Most of what is happening regarding health or disease within the body, is, long before it shows up externally, not observable to the unaided eye. Enzymes, bacteria, viruses, and antibodies do their work for health or disease invisibly. By the time we see external symptoms, they have already been working for a long time.
This is true too inside the body of Christ. The things that, in the end, preserve health or cause disease are, like viruses and antibodies, invisible. They are only seen in their eventual effect on the body. What happens for health or for disease in any one cell, be it ever so small, eventually affects the health of the whole body. Thus, Christ taught, and the saints believed, that the most private spiritual and moral battles which go on inside one’s conscience have an effect for good or for bad on all of humanity. Private acts have a profound effect on the whole body, beyond what “we have data on.”
Therese of Lisieux based the very core of her spirituality on this and her life and death eventually gave us “data” that validated her faith in this. As a lively 15 year-old, she fasted and prayed that a condemned criminal might become a Christian before being executed. He did. As a dying 24 year-old, she offered her sufferings so that others might be healed and she boldly stated that upon her death she would deliver a shower of roses upon this earth. Everything that’s happened around her name and to the little town of Lisieux ever since provides considerable data that she did deliver on that promise. Small private acts can deeply affect the overall health of the whole world.
This idea can of course be badly understood. At its worst, it has been understood as a kind of “Divine Credit Union” into which the good paid and the bad withdrew—the crucified Christ and the saintly mother pay in and the wayward child takes out! In its most crass form, some of these divine savings bonds could even be sold as indulgences.
But such a misunderstanding is not our danger today. Our problem tends to be the opposite: An age which is besotted by the empirical and which de-emphasizes private morality, tends to forget that a body needs a strong immune system and healthy antibodies to keep it free of disease.
What are the antibodies that create a healthy immune system within the body of Christ? If we can believe those who have been doctors of the soul, we create healthy antibodies when we silently suffer for each other, when pray for each other, when live out lives of quiet martyrdom, and when we emerge victorious in our little battles with what’s petty inside of us. Our seemingly small sins—the grudge, the masturbation, the little lie, and the petty jealousy—do make a difference.
Mystics have secrets worth knowing. The health of a body depends on tiny processes invisible to the naked eye.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser