Searching for Our Human Face: Healing the Unclean, Touching the Untouchable

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

Kim Fabricius writes movingly of the woman in Mark 5 who probably suffered from a uterine hemorrhage. Her condition is socially dangerous, physically fragile, emotionally crushing. Levitical law has sanctioned her outcast, someone who is not only very much outside, but whose presence threatens to make anyone in contact with her ritually unclean. For the ancient world in general, human experience was distinct from that of the modern individual. To be part of a community was to be constituted as a person. Outside of that was darkness, a ghostly half-existence. There’s a reason Socrates chose to drink hemlock over leaving Athens. In her vulnerability and odium, it is with great risk that the afflicted woman dares in desperate hope to come amongst the people in order to approach the Lord. Extreme shunning threatens fragmentation, a metaphysical state of Gehenna where the permanently unwelcomed are bitterly unhoused.

Touch—the word occurs four times in five verses. Contact with the unholy is supposed to make you unholy too. But Jesus—Jesus both violates and subverts the culturally accepted understanding of contagion: purity, he demonstrates, he teaches—purity, not impurity, is catching. In moral terms, goodness, not badness, is contagious, and acceptance trumps rejection.

The touch of Christ spreads life, not isolation and death. The alteration in touch is the music of Eucharistic reversal. The last bit is perhaps a slight misstep. Making holy is altogether an ontological transaction. Those who speak in moral terms frequently are talking about something quite different. This is nothing like the extension of liberal tolerance. “The goal is not something like Sweden: the goal is deification.” (Robert Adams quoted in Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ, p. 122). As John Zizioulas writes, “The Church is catholic, not because she is obedient to Christ, i.e., because she does certain things or behaves in a certain way. She is Catholic first of all because she is the Body of Christ” (Being as Communion, p. 158). And as William Desmond clarifies, the action of Christ upon the person takes place at a depth beyond the deliberations of voluntarist will: “A willingness beyond self-will has to take root in the deepest sources of the self; one has to be refashioned utterly into an other self of agapeic good will. This latter is not just an act of will, or a sequence of acts of good will. It is a transfigured condition of being” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 155; emphasis mine).

The transfigured condition of being is bathed in Taboric light. It is likely to engender babbling and being besides oneself. Certainly, an individualized sense of identity reveals itself to be indescribably barren and impoverished. Desmond, again, elucidates:

At the deeper level again, one finds that one’s will is not owned as absolute willingness. It is not that the words “my own” are to be disowned; rather “my own” is to be owned differently, by being dispossessed of ownership. “My own” is not “my own.” “Ownness” is a gift . . . “Mine” is not now entwined with “no.” The different owning here is twinned with a “yes,” that is not my “no” to the other. “Yes,” “no,” “mine,” “yours,” “ours,” all must receive transfigured expression. (p. 155)

I pick now, almost at random, from books at hand or in splendid disarray upon shelves overburdened and double-stacked.

There is no isolated, pure, independent ‘I,’ but there is a vast and universal web of ‘I’s, in which I have a true and right place. And understanding for me and for you comes by concentration not on your or my ego as such, but upon the web, the interrelation, through and in its several component parts. This is—clumsily put—an aspect of the characteristic Eastern understanding of dharma. (Rowan Williams, A Silent Action, p. 18)

The “obligation” to give myself to another is the ground of the possibility of freedom, precisely because the self that I give has been received by me from another, indeed, from a host of others. To refuse to give ourselves is not to refuse an externally imposed regulation, but it is a failure of that very self, whose nature is gift. (Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ, p. 196)

Personality from its very nature presupposes another—not the ‘not-self’ which is a negative limit, but another person. Personality is impossible without love and sacrifice, without passing over to the other, to the friend, to the loved one. A self-contained personality becomes disintegrated. (Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, p. 57)

The triple act of faith, hope, and love overcomes the inertia of the law of identity. I stop being I, my thought stops being my thought. By an unfathomable act I renounce the self-affirmation ‘I = I.’ Something or Someone helps me escape my self-enclosedness. (Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 51)

Yet, if this new sense of identity and connection is the truth of reality, few seem aware of it. Most who preach the gospel are unaware of it. Instead, they absorb uncritically the atomized self and profess the possibility of the redemption of the individual separate from the loving transfiguration of all. Further, to reject this soteriology is to be classed with the heretics, placed outside the boundaries of ecclesial smoothness. Not only is this wrong, it is incredibly lazy, full of a spiritual sloth that mistakes religious caution for steadfast fidelity. The bold patience, creative insight, the true ecclesial power is lost.

(Go to “The Kiss of the Muse”)

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5 Responses to Searching for Our Human Face: Healing the Unclean, Touching the Untouchable

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Lovely meditation, Brian. Thank you.

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  2. tgbelt says:

    When all the installments are published separately, it would be fabulous to see them combined into a single essay and made available for download…just for ease of access. 😀

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  3. MorganHunter says:

    This was quite beautiful! Perhaps vaguely related to your reflections on salvation as escape from the atomistic ego–last night I was thinking that Lawrence’s “Medlars and Sorb-Apples” offered one of the best descriptions of the experience of Hell in literature:
    Going down the strange lanes of hell, more and more
    intensely alone,
    The fibres of the heart parting one after the other
    And yet the soul continuing, naked-footed, ever more vividly
    embodied
    Like a flame blown whiter and whiter
    In a deeper and deeper darkness
    Ever more exquisite, distilled in separation.
    Each soul departing with its own isolation.
    Strangest of all strange companions,
    And best.
    Orphic farewell, and farewell, and farewell
    And the ego sum of Dionysos
    The sono io of perfect drunkenness
    Intoxication of final loneliness.

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    • brian says:

      Right, Morgan. The atomistic ego ultimately leads to an infernal destination, which is why the conflation of the aspirations of such an ego with freedom is so pernicious. The modern West can only imagine a beehive collective as an alternative. The whole thing is conceptually inadequate and utterly ignorant of the mystery of personhood revealed by the Triune God.

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      • MorganHunter says:

        I don’t have the quote at hand, but in his Introduction to Christianity Ratzinger/Benedict also used the Trinity to talk about the paradoxical nature of the simultaneous Christian belief in the primacy of the individual and the necessity of the individual existing in communion with others.

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