In “East Coker” T. S. Eliot brings us into the darkness of the via negativa—the way of dispossession and ignorance. We must wait without faith or hope or love. We surrender to death that we might be reborn.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part; / Beneath the bleeding hands we feel / The sharp compassion of the healer’s art / Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Suddenly we find ourselves on an operating table. There’s something wrong, though. Our surgeon is wounded. Why wounded? I would prefer someone who is healthy and fully functioning, unhindered by injury. But these are not normal circumstances. When it comes to the mysteries of the soul, we need a physician, apparently, who bears the wounds of suffering and death. Mere schooling is insufficient. Back in the late 70s I remember reading Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. I suspect a lot of seminarians read it back then. Perhaps they still do. Nouwen shares this story from the Talmud:
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave. He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied,
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all of their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds them one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
Nouwen then offers this interpretation:
The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds, one at a time, waiting for the moment when he will be needed. So too it is with the minister. Since it is his task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, he must bind his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. … Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making his own broken body the way to health, to liberation and new life. Thus like Jesus, he who proclaims liberation is called not only to care for his own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make his wounds into a major source of his healing power. (p. 82)
Sounds good on paper. Too often, though, those of us who are called to ministry simply end up drawing others into our pathology. Not so the wounded healer of “East Coker.”
I suspect that the Anglo-Catholic Eliot has sacramental confession in mind. The penitent kneels before the priest and names his sins. The confessor gently questions and probes, looking for that spiritual wound and deep sin that needs the healing absolution of Christ. He knows that his probing may be painful, yet only by this sharp surgery may the penitent find liberation.
The hands of the surgeon are wet with blood. Is it his own blood or the blood of the patient? Perhaps both. And may we not think the Crucified, whose hands were pierced by man for man, whose Precious Blood we drink at the Holy Mass? Are not the hands of every priest wet with the Blood of Christ?
I will never forgot the first walk I enjoyed with Archbishop Michael Ramsey around the Upper Nashotah Lake during my junior year in seminary. He asked me what my closest moment with Christ had been. I do not recall my answer. He then shared with me that his closest moments had occurred in the confessional. At the time I assumed he was speaking of his own experiences as a penitent, but now I wonder if he might also have been thinking of his ministry as confessor. That has been my experience. Rarely have I possessed insights or counsel that have been of any benefit to my penitents. Unfortunately, it took me a decade or so to begin to realize that my spiritual wisdom was not wisdom at all, just regurgitated shite I learned from some book. Yet I rejoice that despite my ignorance, I have been able to communicate to penitents the mercy of Christ:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I have seen burdens lifted and hearts reborn.
Our only health is the disease / If we obey the dying nurse / Whose constant care is not to please / But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse, / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
“Our only health is the disease”—what does the poet mean? My tentative interpretation: it is the disease, the curse of our alienation from society, ourselves, and the Creator, that has brought us to the Church. Only because of her gospel do we subject ourselves to her sacramental ministrations and ascetical disciplines. And as the surgeon is wounded, so our nurse is dying. Of course, every Christian in this world, like every other person, is dying. All go down into the dark, as Eliot reminded us in the third movement. Yet the dying of the Church militant is different: it is a mode of repentance and self-renunciation that feels like death and is death, yet it is a death filled with the promise of new life. “To live a Christian life is impossible,” states Elder Sophrony. “All one can do as a Christian is ‘die daily,’ like St. Paul.”
Our spiritual healing begins, Eliot tells us, by the acknowledgement of our diseased condition and our obedience to the counsels and precepts of our ecclesial nurse. Her vocation is not to please and entertain, but to speak the truth of our sinful predicament and present us the cure of the gospel.
The confessional is different from the therapist’s office. A therapist accepts us as we are; he withholds all judgment. This acceptance is necessary if we are ever going to trust him sufficiently to begin the journey of therapeutic introspection. The priest, too, accepts us as we are; but his task is different. He hopes to bring us to authentic conversion that we might fully surrender ourselves to the living God and be filled with his Holy Spirit. Like the wounded surgeon, he may need to apply the scalpel of the Word with merciless precision until the tumor of sin is removed. The goal of his ministry is not that we might feel better about ourselves but that we might become god in God. And because the disease runs so deep, it may need to get worse before we can get better. There can be no half-way measures. Death must be suffered until it truly dies.