(Detail from "Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald, c 1515. Reprinted as an illustration from a set of Passion Prayers found at The Edge of the Enclosure website.)
"It is not easy to tend wounds that heal more slowly than we can observe, to accompany the friend whose life careens from one crisis to another or to work with the powerless crushed in a system stacked against them. Myths of progress and success infect our imaginations. The endless enthusiasm for healing and self-help programs on daytime talk shows, business training seminars and the like are shiny glosses over our deep anxiety about finitude. Our everyday language betrays our denial. We exhort the sick to “get well soon” but have little to say to those who will not."
--Vincent J. Miller, from "Holding On," America Magazine, April 25, 2011
I met the intersection of two very deep and reflective pieces in the past 48 hours. One was a very magnificently illustrated set of Passion Prayers that I got from being a regular subscriber to The Edge of the Enclosure website. The other was in the quote above, from an article in a Jesuit magazine. (My spiritual director's background is Jesuit; he's a great spiritual director because I think Jesuits and Episcopalians are a fairly complementary match, and Ignatian spirituality is a good counterbalance for my tendency to be more Benedictine about my own spirituality. Benedictine spirituality feeds the obsessive-compulsive half of me, and Ignatian spirituality jump starts my spiritual imagination. It's a good balance!)
Out of all the pictures in the Passion Prayers set, this is the one I drew back to, time and time again. My plan is to read this set of prayers off and on over Holy Week, (and probably blog about them) but I can already see that, out of all the illustrations in the set, this is the one I will go back to, again and again and again.
One of the things I keep going back to, as I reflect on both the picture and the words above, is that there was more than one set of wounded hands that created this picture. The picture obviously represents the Eleventh Station of the Cross--"Jesus is nailed to the cross." There's simply something quite jarring and awakening about imagining these hands--hands that healed, hands that taught divine mysteries and, because he was fully human--hands that scratched his armpits and wiped his own butt--pinned down and brutally violated with spikes.
But the more I reflect on it, I have come to accept that this act was committed by individuals with wounded hands themselves, within the hands of a wounded, broken world. Even Pilate's symbolic washing of his hands do not make his own wounds go away.
In a few weeks, we will talk of resurrection--and one of the more poignant stories in that is Thomas' recognition of "Jesus, resurrected." How does he come to that conclusion? He feels for himself the nail holes in Jesus' hands.
That image--that striking image of the violation of flesh by metal nails into a cross of wood--signify three things universally common in the human condition, to me--the vulnerability of our humanity, our powerlessness to the outside "wounding forces" of a broken world, and the binding of each of us, in our own personal suffering, to be bound to all suffering in the human condition. When Christ willingly allowed himself to suffer, he bound all that is divine and holy to all that is human. In that moment, he bound me to thirsty people in our companion diocese of Lui, Sudan, who have insufficient clean water to drink. He bound me to homeless people in the streets of Calcutta. He bound me to children in rural northeast Missouri who only get one decent meal a day in the federal school lunch.
In a Jesus who can submit to the violation of his own hands, I am bound to every single person in the world whose hands are figuratively and literally "tied" through hunger, thirst, homelessness, abuse, disease, and addiction.
It begs the question--what are my hands doing about it?
As I think about this picture in a different light--the light of Miller's quote--I am reminded of our own abilities and inabilities when it comes to observe uncomfortable things. To be a witness to the nailing of Jesus on the cross had to be a real queasy-fest, to say the least. Oh, I imagine people of that day had some degree of desensitization about it--after all, the Romans did this quite a bit, and there is a place where observing a violent act over and over desensitizes us as a self-protective mechanism--but I imagine watching this happen without a struggle from the about-to-be-crucified person was a real attention-getter. I imagine most people fought their tormentors as vigorously as they could, even if it was futile. To have someone willingly stretch their arms and legs out for this, to say the least, had to be an unusual occurrence, barring the about-to-be-crucified was too physically weakened to fight.
What this scene reminds me of, is that we are often uncomfortable with our own powerlessness when others are being injured.
The flip side of that, though, is we are also uncomfortable with the speed (or lack thereof) of "other people's healing," and others are sometimes uncomfortable with ours.
There have been lots of times I have thought about others, "Wow. You oughta be past this one by now," and I am sure there are times others have thought it about me. We all have this little clock in our heads that say someone should be "over" a situation (or at least past it where it doesn't appear to bother them in the presence of polite company) and when they don't live up to our expectations, we find a way to "blame" them, or sometimes even blame God about it. Sometimes we retain our anger at forces or people we see as the perpetrators of it. Sometimes we simply go into denial about such things.
The fact of the matter is, all of us carry nail holes in our hands of various stages of healing. The mystery to me is that God--whom I envision with the most perfect, wonderful hands--uses all of us in the glory of the woundedness of our own hands--nail holes and all--to tend the wounded hands of others.
I'm not always sure how I feel about that.
At one level, I can find myself miffed that folks with hands no better off than mine think they can help me. I can be a little self-righteous about that at times. I long to be tended by perfect hands. But at another level, that means if I get my wish, it means my hands are not good enough to tend the wounds of others--and I honestly think God has used me now and then to be a "good enough" set of hands. So insisting on perfection is ultimately a destructive attitude.
I am reminded, though, that Jesus--who accepted the role of being a bridge between the divine and the human--carries those same defects in his hands. In that reminder is my hope and the hope of the world.