That repulsive call

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Repost from 2014

[Jesus’] fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them (Mt. 4:24); That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick (Mt. 8:16); Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them (Mt. 15:30)

There was woman I used to know in D.C. who was an RN. Her name was Marilyn. She was a woman of deep Christian faith who saw her profession as an extension of her call to discipleship. Raised an occasionally practicing Methodist, she came to passionately embrace her faith in college. Always very much up on her theology, she frequently gave me a run for my money by challenging me on all-things-Catholic, which made our 2x/week encounters lots of fun.

Once we chatted about how she deals with the sight of “blood and guts,” as I called it. She knew I was squeamish when it comes to that type of thing, so she’d intentionally describe procedures in vivid detail just to get a reaction out of me. She told me her years of working in the field of nursing had numbed whatever discomforts she once had. She said, “Yup, I’ve seen pretty much everything. Nothing really bothers me anymore. At least not the body issues. Only the soul ones get me now. It’s hard to watch people suffer day in and day out.” I asked her how her faith in Jesus found a place in all of this. She said something to this effect.

Well, here’s what immediately comes to mind. In my early years as a nurse, I had to overcome my natural repulsion to certain odors that come with the job. And there’s lots. Unless you work in this field, you don’t know how overpowering smells can become. Some days early on, I would vomit regularly. I learned to carry a vomit bag with me throughout the day. Sorry to be so graphic.

But I remember, there was this one particular day that really stands out. I actually haven’t thought of it in a long time. I was attending to an elderly woman who was incontinent. The poor thing was so embarrassed every time she’d soil her diapers. One morning I was cleaning her up, and started to feel my gag reflex kick in. But then I experienced the strangest feeling. I felt this surge of love inside me toward her. Like, out of nowhere, and from beyond me. I can’t explain it. I loved patients, but I just knew it was Christ loving her inside of me. Wow, I haven’t remember this in so long. [she got emotional]

I remember thinking — Amazing how what repulses me is what attracts him. That thought flipped my world upside down. You know? I guess kinda like when St. Francis faced his disgust and kissed a leper and was converted in an instant. From that day on, any time I felt repelled by any situation, I’d immediately ask Jesus to show me where he was loving there, and ask him to share some with me.

Years later, when I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I came across a passage where he makes the same point Marilyn did. In discussing ascetical disciplines, John says that being attached to only pleasing scents, as with all forms of gluttony, weakens our capacity to love. But John argues even further that God’s purifying grace gets deep down even into our physical sense of smell, freeing us from attachment to pleasure. A sure sign of that purification, John contends, is when we find ourselves able to sense in the stench of the poor who are in need of our care the attraction of “the sweet perfume of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). What once repulsed nature, he says, God now turns in service to love.

I would have thought that a strange thought had I not known Marilyn.

One important biographical note behind John’s insight is that, beginning when he was 15 years old, after his father died, he helped to financially support himself, his mother and his brother by working as an aide in a hospital dedicated to those suffering from syphilis, and to the very poor. Imagine the scents that filled that 16th century hospital. I wonder if John might have had a Marilyn-type experience of Christ in his service to a patient, a first inkling of the masterful spiritual vision he would one day offer the world.

As I was writing this post, I had this insight:

Jesus was “tested in every way we are” (Heb. 4:15). Every! So I imagine he must have had any number of natural aversions, maybe even phobias. I don’t know what those were, he undoubtedly had them. However, Hebrews adds “yet without sin” to Jesus’ “every way” of being tested, so he must have overcome them sufficiently to not allow them to keep him from doing the Father’s will. Imagine how many such moments of struggle, and then conquest, he must have experienced every day. Think of it, he was surrounded incessantly by every imaginable human problem, ailment, psychosis, neurosis, disease and horror.

Then there’s this. This goes way beyond smell. Think of how many of Jesus’ commandments and parables launch humanity on a collision course with its deepest, darkest fears, aversions and repulsions. It’s astounding! Forgive 70×7 times, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, speak well of those who speak ill of you, face your darkest shadows, reconcile with estranged family members, invite only the poor-crippled-lame-blind to dinner, don’t worry about the future or fear death, touch lepers, pray with the possessed, mingle with sinners and outcasts, give away all your possessions, befriend ideological opponents, defend the maligned and so risk being maligned, live in a way that brings hatred from others on you, be ready to let go of everything love requires. Oh, and many many more.

Good Lord!

There’s no question that Jesus constantly invited, and re-invited the Father into his own repulsions and fears. We know this, because he did this in a paradigmatic way at Gethsemane by laying out, naked and complete, his repulsion before the looming cross. And the cross is the summation of EVERY repulsion.

At the same time, Gethsemane, the apex of his inner agōnia (Lk. 22:44), is also the summation of his constant response to fears and aversions: surrender them into the hands of the Father and invite the Father to dwell in them. The prayer in John 17 is Jesus surrendering to the Father the whole scapegoated mass of human disease being loaded down on him, the full violence of chaotic-Babel viciously tearing-apart, to the near-breaking point, of the Only Begotten God (Jn. 1:18; 18:1-19:42).

Right in the middle of all this dia-ballein, this diabolic “tearing apart,” the Son, now made sin (2 Cor. 5:21), plunges ALL into the abyss of the Father’s redeeming will. In the Son’s will for the re-unification of divided humanity is the War of all wars, between fear and trust, hatred and love, apathy and mercy. Jesus’ will, now eternally resolved, has the power to heal all the repulsions, aversions, fears, hatreds and apathies that paralyze and alienate us.

And so we must invite this tested Jesus in, into our fears and disgusts, aversions, repulsions or regrets. He brings with him the Father and their one-ing Spirit. He is our compassionate High Priest who comes to us in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Jesus’ consenting to death in the face of his terror and the Sacrament of his trust in the Father’s death-destroying love revealed in the Resurrection. When we eat and drink the Elements, we eat and drink all of this reality:

…this is my body which will be given up…
…this is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many…
…Abba, Father, for you all things are possible;
remove this chalice from me;
yet, not what I will, but what you will…
…At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…
…Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Having said this, he breathed his last…

May I have the courage to say Amen to that immortal medicine crafted for the death of my every repulsion and the resurrection of his every love.

2 comments on “That repulsive call

  1. Jennifer says:

    I love this so much.

    What can I say about John’s sweet perfume comment but that it’s true? It’s something I’ve experienced more than once. It’s all grace, period. Jesus’s love burns through the stench. It’s a mystery to me, but thanks be to God, it’s holy ground.

    This suddenly reminded me of something that happened about six years ago. I was holding a child in Mass who peed through his pants and onto me, both of us reeking of urine, and I couldn’t leave and i was suddenly flooded with the scent of roses a la Ste Therese. I think I may have told you at the time. Anyway, that was such a sweet consolation to me from the one who reminds us to do small things with great love.

    It's other things that repulse me though, and I thank you for the reminder to pray MORE and invite Christ in to those relationships in the same way. Thank you.

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