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

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

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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)

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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.

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

  1. ‘This is what I realised reading this….’I am not my own…’ On the contrary I Am only my own when I am given out to others. To believe and to hold onto myself and refuse to give myself to other who need actually means I am dead. Cut off. Unshared. Uneaten. Eucharist going mouldy, left unshared upon the plate. The more of myself I am willing to give ‘away,’ so to speak, the more I actually find of myself! For that is how God works. By self emptying Jesus IS Jesus. The only begotten Son. So to find who I truly am in Christ, I too must learn to self empty.

    Thank you, Brian. This post is mindblowing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Calvin says:

      I’ve never liked this sort of language. A personal who has truly “self-emptied” wouldn’t be interested in finding some “true self” or forming any kind of attachment, and in fact would be impossible to motivate to any kind of action whatsoever. He would be an empty shell, devoid of any kind of personality or desirability until he died from careless neglect of his body.

      Framing things this way has always struck me as hypocritical at best, horrifying at worst. It’s attempting to motivate self-destruction with the promise of self-interest, don’t you see that?

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      • brian says:

        Calvin,

        I do think the metaphysics is somewhat sloppy in articulation, but it’s really rather mean to nitpick someone who is simply trying to express enthusiasm and gratitude. The better way to put it is that person is fundamentally gift and relation. All our striving, the conatus essendi, is first passio essendi, that which is received. This is not the passivity of a dead thing, but receptivity that includes the message bearing ontological relations that implicity includes the entire universe. Every created singularity conveys symbolic depths and dramatic openness to novelty. Beyond that, in and amidst, the meta is the agapeic sending of creative love, the Triune invitation to epektasis, to the flourishing bliss of theosis that is paradoxically both destiny and origin. Short of grace, nature is not properly understood. Yet even simply in terms of being philosophically construed, the concrete thing hearkens to the robust, relational capacity of person. (Cf. Norris Clarke’s short work, Person and Being.) So, “emptying” might better be stated as “letting be” of the other, porosity, not jealously asserting identity as “buffered self,” or an atomized individual. The fella that wants to store reality in his barns as “standing reserve” acts prudentially in light of an economy of scarcity and a world of death. In that light, “emptying” is trust in the dynamic and perfect generosity of the gift. Even if one psychologically can come to exhaustion and a feeling of nullity, one’s personal reality is always held in the Father’s hand and renewed eternally. The Source is perfect Plenitude and the creature is called to live out an eschatological well-being that shares in the divine economy of “selfless gift and discovery.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Cspan says:

          “In that light, “emptying” is trust in the dynamic and perfect generosity of the gift. “

          One look at the actual world as it really exists, not in some invented ideal but as a cold hard fact, is sufficient to prove irrefutably that such trust is misplaced. If it has let someone down once it cannot be perfectly trustworthy, and it has let someone down far more than once.

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          • brian says:

            Cspan,

            There are metaphysical consequences of the gospel if it is true. If revelation occurs, it exceeds what is “patently obvious” to the person who lacks the perceptive awareness that arrives with revelation. I’m not interested in engaging in some sort of apologetics debate here. I think poetry and the epistemic value of the arts is somewhat analogous. For some folks, it is whistling in the dark and meaning is limited to the utile, the quantifiable, a pragmatic and instrumental reason set against a larger surd universe. We can project pretty pictures, but as Nietzsche thinks, it is a “necessary lie.” Others think that there is a “middle voice” involved — that inspiration points to a plenitude beyond the merely determinate, and thus, image, language, music bears witness to a transcendent Source that is yet discovered amidst and between. Faith is a fete; it’s not naive wishful thinking, but attentiveness. The Welsh poet, Waldo Williams says “earth is a hard text to read.” If you want to be a fundamentalist of sorts and claim the wise discernment I propose is irrational fiction, that is your prerogative. Grace enters into our lives in uniquely singular ways. The mode of rejection can only be penultimate, but you’re free to see where that takes you.

            Liked by 3 people

          • Cspan says:

            And if the gospel is in fact, not true, there are also consequences that one would be able to see by looking out on the world. The world being much more consistent with the “not true” option than the “true” option should be indicative of which is actually reflective of objective reality.

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  2. Cspan says:

    Quite the contrary. Is it not obvious from the nature of things that not only is life fundamentally divided, it is predatory? The lion does not become one with the lamb except insofar as devouring its corpse counts.

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    • brian says:

      Cspan,

      The economy of a Fallen world of scarcity and zero sum game is not the eschaton. The reality of a lion does not require the destruction of the lamb in a universe where death has been conquered. The obvious nature of things is not a matter of univocal self-evidence, but of prophetic discernment. Of course, if one dismisses the gospel and assumes the existential condition of entropic loss is all there is, then nihilist acceptance will be equated with rationality. The usual aplomb is even satisfactory to certain categories of Thomist with insufficiently robust imaginations regarding the capacity of grace to expand the limits of what a nature might constitute.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Cspan says:

        In actuality it does. If one actually looks at a lion rather than philosophizes about what one would like it to be, then they will swiftly find that literally everything about a lion, from its musculature to its psychology to its mating habits, it’s designed to make it a more efficient death machine and an incubator of ever fiercer generations of new ones, to the point of willingly mating with a new male that slaughtered their precious children before their very eyes. A lion that would lie down with a lamb is not in fact a lion but rather something else altogether that has killed the lion and is wearing its skin (and even then I don’t know why it’s obvious predatory features would be retained is this eschaton).

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        • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

          That’s actually an awful way of using a thing’s uniqueness to try and define that it ceases to be what it is because of a sense of becoming/or a possibility to change. Is a lion who has learned not to devour an actor on a movie set any less a lion? Of course not. What should we call lions that indeed learn to co-exist in some meaningful way…you even read of accidents that happen because that side of them is still there, but what about when it isn’t? The point about a lion laying with a sheep is that it is a metaphor for polar opposites finding unity. The natural order of a thing can be as harnessed as much as it can just be accepted without change. What makes a lion, a lion are the very things you mention, but it isn’t solely that small picture…that’s merely a surface that you define as an entirety, as. a limit. Any “a posteriori” realizations taken in actu as the all, are merely a subjective definition/illusion of what must necessarily be only because you see it. The “prius” of that thing, the very ground that allows you to see anything in the first place, can only be fully understood in both directions. Actuality posits an immediacy that then points to something beyond itself to justify its rational conjectures. The reason you are trying to use to say it must be this way is patently false because reason cannot ground itself. That’s kind of where Fichte missed the boat. It needs something more than just the I as ego. It needs a level of intuition and understanding that then allow you to create a rationally oriented view. It’s what makes us, us.

          Now what I will somewhat agree with you on is the notion of a self-emptying as a self losing itself in the divine plenitude is somewhat spurious. The notion of divine delight as cause, and also our own interjections for control using the kind of desire-soul that emerges from within the false views we create as the fall, makes a lot of sense. The tension of actuality is only ever balanced by the fact that there is more than just blind acceptance of the chain reaction of cause and effect, or merely what is as brute fact. Now, finding yourself in sheer delight, the movement towards a letting go of the selfish side of ourselves and flipping a perspective where one can find beauty in the trivial, the mundane, the necessary, is totally different. By realizing that as a self we are both a universal and a particular….as a piece of a unified whole, and yet also the individual. who has the very uniqueness which contributes to the fact that a whole exists is where we begin. That’s the function of a true existence. The finding of delight is fully realized in finding both the prius and the meaning of the posteriors of existence. Realizing that all of experience/becoming is pointing beyond the slavery of a position of the immanent only is exactly the point. Your true self need not lose itself in the divine plenitude but actually find itself fully. You are not truly you unless you have fully found the very delight that is embedded within you.

          The kenotic act is actually an expression that posits and affirms the actual purpose of man. In the descent, man is able to “ascend” in a posteriori sense, affirming what is the actual purpose of the creative idea for us all from the beginning. Kenosis is actually a way for us to realize and recognize the plenitude that is ever always there. Man’s uniqueness, the very purpose for which we are made is Delight finding itself via our own realization of delight, and joining in that divine movement.

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  3. Elizabeth says:

    Thank You Brian! I think I generally understand your message and also from reading the replies from others … My thoughts … “I am” interconnected, interdependent at multiple levels and intricate dynamics in the web of life. God contains all beings… Christ manifested himself in communion with others (in us) … and in Oneness. To be emptied of ourselves is the way of detachment. Leaving self behind to allow God’s grace to flow, to be “filled with”
    God … to identify Christ in ourselves, others, in creation. I understand it as ultimately being alive in the Spirit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Calvin says:

      If you’ve left self behind, who’s being filled with God?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Calvin it’s not that complicated, Brian’s reference of Desmond is quite plain about it, “It is not that the words “my own” are to be disowned; rather “my own” is to be owned differently.” So it’s about change, about seeing oneself and others from a different perspective.

        The language of religion and theology is unlike that of, let’s say, computer science or machine language.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Great question Calvin, thanks! Many religious traditions embrace the practice of leaving self behind… Jesus also practised withdrawing for prayer, for silence and for communion with God. But Jesus also practised communion with others, being of service to others. So both modes of being teach us about this emptying of the self … it is very much a radical return to a more internal, more deep within (inner work), a “pure knowing“ (detachment) and therefore a more real awareness of God in all things. If we leave self behind, we have the seed of God in us, in everyone ( we are created in His image ) … I see this question more about not who is being filled with God but What are we individually and collectively prepared to let go to allow ourselves and others to being filled with God…
    Love and peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. father11 says:

    One of those posts that just stops you in your tracks, even stops your breathing for a moment. To be caught up in such a beautiful flow of words from another (many others), healing and purifying words which pierce our isolation, allowing us to touch an almost inexpressible truth, and to be touched by that truth: no one is alone, no one is beyond the healing touch of the Other.

    There is no ‘I’ without the ‘thou’ of the ‘other’. Communion with God and with each other is not ours to create or establish. Why? Because it is already a reality; the Father’s gift to us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is simply receive this gift with gratitude, and enter into it with faith, hope and love.

    And, best of all, our pain, suffering and shame take on new meaning in this communion. Just as the woman with the flow of blood, in her pain, misery and desperation, was moved to seek out Our Lord, Jesus, to take the risk of touching Him, AND WAS HEALED. We can do likewise. Indeed, we are compelled to do likewise, not only because we seek relief from our pain and shame, but because we know that these wounds are in themselves merely symptoms, symptoms of an all pervasive, crippling existential isolation and aloneness that is the real wound at the centre of our being, a wound which we are powerless to heal on our own.

    The healing of our aloneness and isolation must take place in the wound itself: that dark hole at the centre of our very soul where we hide the ‘l’ that has been judged worthless, damaged, dirty, unloved and unlovable. Surprise, surprise, this hellish cavern of isolation turns out to be holy, a graced-space of communion, for those who dare to enter it, bleeding and marginalised, but hungering and thirsting all the more so for the presence of the Other. Here it is that darkness is made light, sin is made holiness, death becomes life – all in the gentlest of touches.

    “Take, eat…….Take, and drink of this…..”

    Liked by 2 people

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