unclean! unclean!

These are the last lines of the first poem from Ann Sexton’s famous collection, An Awful Rowing Toward God, the poem called simply “Rowing.” Hopefully they will make sense at the end.

I am rowing, I am rowing,

though the wind pushes me back

and I know that that island will not be perfect,

it will have the flaws of life,

the absurdities of the dinner table,

but there will be a door

and I will open it

and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,

the gnawing pestilential rat.

God will take it with his two hands

and embrace it.

In the 1st reading today from the Book of Leviticus we hear what lepers are supposed to do––mess up their hair, tear their clothes to shreds and announce before themselves, “Unclean! Unclean!” When I heard that reading read again this morning, I thought to myself, I wonder how many times we actually do this to ourselves, at least metaphorically, act in such a way as to let everyone around us know that we think we are unclean, unworthy––maybe before they do it to us! Not to mention how many times do we do it to others as well, cast them out of the tribe.

We get our idea of holiness from our image of who we think God is. We hear three times in the Book of Leviticus the command to be qedosim––‘Be holy as I am holy.’[i] That begs the question, what’s God like? How is God holy? For the ancient Jewish mentality, at least by the time of Moses and the Law, holiness was usually associated with separateness. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had walked around with God in the cool of the evening breeze; but by the time of Moses God is in the fierce darkness, wholly other. That separateness of course is first of all a separation from sin; so we get the Ten Commandments and all the corollaries that followed on them. But there was also being separate from other nations and especially from the gods of other nations. Hence too there were also all the rules for ritual purity as we heard in the reading from Leviticus today about avoiding lepers.[ii]

There is also something going on in the evolution of human consciousness in that long ago era, what we call the 1st Axial Period, a certain separation from created things and from the earth itself, because to be like God is to be “other,” to be heavenly, or at least angelic. The philosopher Ken Wilber says whereas for the primal peoples sin would have been doing some harm to the earth and being out of right relationship with creation, for these Axial Period religions sin was being too attached to the earth. I always associate that two other things as well––the body and the feminine, and that’s why women were especially suspicious to this 1st Axial mind; they were so closely tied to their bodies and the earth.[iii] Hence, the so-called “purification” rituals after childbirth…

This goes along with the earliest stages of the spiritual journey in general. I think at the beginning of the spiritual life there is always a need for some kind of separation, and it often goes along with a rather abstract longing for purity. In some sense that is even what monasticism is based on, including the observance of cloister, and elected poverty and chastity. At first it is seen as separation from all that is sinful, and then from all that we think is not holy, from all that’s “worldly.” When it becomes a problem is when we get stuck there and it becomes a dualism, somehow thinking that creation itself is bad or that beauty is useless or that the human body or physicality is intrinsically sinful.

But Jesus is calling his co-religionists, and the Gospel is calling us, to something new, something more, maybe adult food rather than pabulum. Jesus is calling us to the next stage of spiritual growth. He is certainly trying to stress the heart of the covenant, the kernel of the Law, throughout his ministry. What’s really important here? What is the point of all this? Whereas for the ancient mind holiness was separation because God was wholly other, for Jesus holiness is being totally immersed in creation, because God is very near. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

The other day we heard, again from the Gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus telling the folks that ‘Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile a person…[iv] And the evangelist adds, parenthetically, Thus he declared all foods clean. And I thought maybe the evangelist could have added in here too, at the end of this story about cleansing the leper,[v] “Thus he declared all people clean.”

There’s a famous story told about St. Francis of Assisi, that one day while he was “praying enthusiastically to the Lord” he heard a response: “Francis, everything you loved carnally and desired to have, you must despise and hate, if you wish to know my will . . . what before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter.” There’s that first stage of the spiritual journey––put everything behind you; everything you loved carnally and desired . . . you must despise and hate. But there was a follow up to that too in this message that Francis got: “… and what before made you shudder will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight.”

Well, one of the things that made Francis shudder was the sight of lepers. The legend says that the sight of lepers was so bitter to him that he didn’t just refuse to look at them, but even to go near their dwellings. If he did happen to come near their houses or to see them, even though he was moved by piety to give them alms––through an intermediary–– he would always turned away his face and hold his nose. One day while riding his horse near Assisi he met a leper. And he forced himself to get off his horse, and gave the man a coin, and then kissed him. And then he accepted a kiss from the leper before he got back on his horse and continued on his way. After a few days, he moved into a hospice of lepers. When he arrived, he called them all together, kissed each one of them, and gave each one of them alms. The legend says that, “When he left there, what before had been bitter . . . was turned into sweetness.”[vi]

That’s a higher stage, when even the difficult things become holy and sweet, when the dark things are brought into the light. (There’s actually another stage too, as St. John of the Cross says, “I have all things when I have them without desire,” but that’s another story.)

We ran into this passage that I had forgotten in Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing, and it was shocking to me all over again. There are two different Greek words used in the New Testament to refer to the body––sarx and soma. Soma usually refers to the human person in a good way or at least in a neutral way. But the word sarx, on the other hand, always refers to the human person pejoratively, negatively, when there is something unfavorable about them. We are soma when we are healthy, attractive, virtuous, when we rise from the dead. We are sarx when we refer to things like bodily smells, sickness, sinfulness and death. That’s why it’s so shocking when Jesus says in John 6, the famous passage that we think of as being about the Eucharist, ‘Unless you eat my sarx, you cannot have life within you.’ Rolheiser says Jesus here is referring “to his flawed, exzemed body, as it is met in the community of believers, and he is mandating that we must also deal with this if we wish to deal with God.”[vii] We have got to kiss the leper, the flawed exzemed body of Christ, if we are going to follow Jesus.

For the Jewish mind, to be holy was to be separate, to be set apart. For Jesus, on the other hand, his revolution/evolution of the Jewish mentality, to be holy was to be as close as possible. St. Peter quotes Isaiah’s Song of the Suffering Servant––our wounds he bore.

We’re supposed to identify with both the leper and Jesus in this story. We can’t be afraid to face our own leprosy, our own sarx in need of healing. We must also deal with this if we wish to deal with God. Why that story of St. Francis is so powerful and archetypal is because it calls me to kiss the leper in me, kiss something in me that I don’t want to look at, loving not just my soma but my own sarx too, that smelly, sinful, dark part of me, touching it and allowing it to be healed. And then to be kissed by it! That’s the exact thing the Divine Physician wants to heal, that part of me I don’t want to accept, I don’t want to admit, I don’t want to look at.

But then we are called to be like Jesus, like Francis finding other lepers to kiss and heal. It may only be when we make peace with the leper in ourselves that we have the freedom not to fear or be repulsed by the lepers outside of us. Actually I am not sure which comes first though––if we have to reach out to the outer lepers so that we can face our own inner one, or if we have to have our inner one healed in order to reach out to the outer one, but I suspect that it doesn’t matter. I do know that the gospels record Jesus quoting (or misquoting, as the case may be) the passage about being qedosim–holy as well. Matthew uses the Greek word teleios, ‘be perfect as I am perfect, but in Luke’s version Jesus says, ‘Be oiktirmenes–tender, merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’[viii] It never hurts to start out with mercy, toward ourselves and toward our fellow lepers. “Be holy as I am holy. Kiss the lepers like I do.” As it says of St. Francis after he encountered that leper, from that day on “he began to consider himself less and less until, by God’s grace, he came to complete victory.”

Let me end with these lines of Ann Sexton’s poem again:

I am rowing, I am rowing,

though the wind pushes me back

and I know that that island will not be perfect,

it will have the flaws of life,

the absurdities of the dinner table,

but there will be a door

and I will open it

and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,

the gnawing pestilential rat.

God will take it with his two hands

and embrace it.

And embrace it!

cyprian 11 feb 18

 

 

[i] Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7.

[ii] Lev 13:1-2, 44-46. It’s unclear how many of the laws around ritual purity were actually based on practical considerations. Pork, for instance, would have been very hard to keep fresh in hot climates. The ancient civilizations in China, Egypt, and India thought that leprosy was contagious as well as being an incurable and mutilating disease. It’s actually not that contagious. You can only catch it if you come into close, repeated contact with bodily fluids from someone with untreated leprosy––but they didn’t know that.

[iii] This mentality will carry on and get worse for centuries and then easily carry over into Christianity. Robert preached on this just recently on the Feast of the Presentation, which used to be called the Feast of the Purification of Mary; and we saw it again in an episode of the series on Queen Victoria––how Victoria was infuriated and humiliated for having to be “churched” before she went out in public after giving birth, having to submit to a ritual cleansing, even as the queen, because of her contact with blood and whatever sin was deemed to have been attached to childbirth.

[iv] Mk 7:14-23.

[v] Mk 1:40-45.

[vi] “Legend of the Three Companions” (L3C 11: FAED II, 74)

[vii] Holy Longing, 97, 127.

[viii] Lk 6:36.

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