Friday, June 28, 2013

Lord, if you wish...

In today's short Gospel reading taken from St. Matthew, we witness a scene able to capture the dynamic of many of our hearts. A man, a leper, approaches Jesus and says, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." Jesus touches the man and proclaims, "I will do it. Be made clean." The leper was healed immediately.

Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82
For me, there are two key elements in the reading. First, Jesus is not alone: he is surrounded by a crowd. The leper had to break into a crowd of others, many of whom would shun him normally, in order to approach Jesus. Before the crowd, this man had to acknowledge his need for help. He did what so many of us struggle normally to do: he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Second, the man gives us an instance of what prayer is at its best: he tells the Lord exactly what his heart desires. He doesn't pray for world peace. He doesn't pray for an end to world hunger. Instead, he opens his heart and asks for what he desires most: to be healed, to be made whole, to be re-incorporated into the human family that shunned him because of a disease. In front of the group gathered around Jesus, the man exposes his heart's deepest desire in an act of authentic prayer: he stands before the Lord and asks to be made whole.

During my three years of teaching high school, there were many times in the classroom or, more customarily, in my office, when a student would make his heart vulnerable. Each young man's heart's cry was different: abuse at home, sex and pregnancy, struggles with drugs/alcohol/porn, doubts about faith, suicide, uncertainty about the future, fears of failure.

I remember one instance in particular when a simply spectacular kid, whom I had come to know well, came into my office and told me that he had something he wanted to talk to me about "later on." To my eye, it was clear that "later on" was a code for: "Duns, I need to talk right now." So I told him to take a seat on the couch, assumed my usual position in my glider-rocker, and gave him the fairly open-ended,  "So, what's up?" (note: I have his permission to share this story)

"Abba Duns, I have something to tell you. But I'm afraid that if I do you won't like me any more." Tears started flowing and the requisite flood of snot began to pour from his nose. I handed him some tissues - a box was never more than a few inches out of reach from my usual seats! - and assured him that I loved him and that there was nothing he could tell me that could make him unlovable.
Footnote: I know it's uncouth these days for a teacher to tell a student that he or she is lovable. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that it is possible to say "you're lovable" or "I love you" in a way that is not creepy or sexually suggestive. In a youth culture frequently driven by "likes" on Facebook, hearing someone they trust say "I love you"goes a long way in giving the freedom to be who they are. 
"Okay. Umm, well, Abba...I'm gay." When he saw that I didn't flinch, he proceeded to tell me that he had told his parents the night before and that it had not gone over well. In fact, it went terribly. Dad refused to talk to him. Mom wouldn't stop crying. He hadn't slept all night, so gripped was he that his parents would kick him out of the house and that he'd never see his siblings again.

Now, today's Gospel reminds me of this because this young man, feeling alone and isolated, risked a great deal when he made himself vulnerable. Initially shunned by his parents, his last-ditch attempt was to open himself to a teacher. He risked judgment, ridicule, and further rejection. Yet he felt courage enough to expose this part of himself that had caused him such anxiety and pain. He opened his heart in trust, in spite of a fear that in sharing the truth of himself he would lose another's love and esteem.

To make a long story short, I let him rest in my office while I went back to the Jesuit Residence and contacted his mother, whom I knew pretty well. She, like her son, had spent a sleepless night filled with worry and concern. Her tears, she promised, were more out of fear of the unknown than out of disappointment or despair. Nor was her husband's silence one of hatred or rejection: he just didn't know what to say. We had a very good conversation and I was able to return to the student who had composed himself with glad tidings: his parents loved him, they were not kicking him out of the house, and they wanted him to call. I let him use my office office phone to call home and, as he talked to his mom, I went and wrote notes to the teachers whose classes he had missed and found the assistant principal to let him know about situation.

The Holy Father reminds us that we need to be living stones in God's Temple. Are we stones helping to build up the Body of Christ or are we lifeless, dead stones? Do we welcome people into our lives or do we tell them to "take a number" because we're busy putting things in front of people? When another stone enters our life, do we judge it and reject it if it does not fit our ideal type? Or do we honor the stone where as it is and rejoice that it, too, can make a valuable contribution to building the Temple of the Lord?

This young man now flourishes in his college. He has involved himself in the life of campus ministry and attends Mass weekly...I know because he frequently sends me messages telling me of how great his pastor is. He is a holy young man for no other reason than he has allowed himself to become whole. For so many of us, this is the most authentic prayer: not for us to be someone different but, rather, for us to be given the grace to be fully and wholly ourselves.

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