Sunday, February 4, 2024

Homily for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she waited on them.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ first exorcism. Today, we heard his first physical healing, each of them a manifestation of the presence of the kingdom in our midst.

Peter’s mother-in-law was healed through physical contact with Jesus. She lay sick with a fever, restricted to her bed, prone, in the posture of a dead person. Jesus came to her, entered her house, and helped her up, literally, “he raised her” (ἤγειρεν αὐτὴν (Mar 1:31)), grasping her by the hand. This is the same word used by the angel to announce the resurrection at the empty tomb at Easter: “He has risen, he is not here” ἠγέρθη (Mar 16:6). Mark presents us here, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, with an intimate connection between the physical touch of Jesus, his power to heal, and his resurrection. His resurrection, of course, implies his Cross and cannot be separated from it. By faith, we know that by it we have been healed, made whole, freed from the curse of sin and death. In this sense, Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is already a fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection and a share in it; yet it remains only a pointer, a foreshadowing of the resurrection on the last day (12:24-26), where, clothed in our resurrected bodies, sickness and death will no longer harm us, and we will share in the Lord’s glory. 

Yet how does this very concrete experience of being touched by the very hand of Jesus and healed by him fit in with our present condition; our state of being in the between, in which we no longer know Jesus according to the flesh, but we have not yet received the resurrected body and vision of God that lies on the other side of this life, in heaven? 

One of the ways in which the Church has responded to this mystery is the rich tradition of the spiritual senses, which can be found in Origen and many others in the patristic period and beyond, including, as we well know, our Cistercian Fathers. The Song of Songs provided a particularly fertile ground for this thinking. I have chosen to look at this teaching by means of a few well-known texts from St. Augustine. In Augustine’s teaching, just as we have bodily senses for knowing the material world, so are we equipped with a sense capacity that is able to perceive God and his presence in the world; to our five bodily senses, there correspond five spiritual senses.

For Augustine it is the inner self that knows God. If we are to know and love him, we will not find him with the outer man (homo exterior) which uses the bodily senses to know the material world, but by turning to the interior man (homo interior). For Augustine, God is the object of all five senses of the interior self. We see this movement from the outer to the inner, from the perception of the splendors of God’s creation to God himself, presented magnificently in the famous vision at Ostia in Book IX of the Confessions. 

Monica is near the end of her life. She and Augustine are on their back to Africa, and are waiting in this port city outside Rome for their ship. In this scene, they are alone, leaning against a window which looked out on a garden within the house where they were staying, conversing very intimately about God, his Son, and what the eternal life of the saints would be like. Recalling the moment, Augustine says to God: “Eye has not seen nor heard not human heart conceived it, yet with the mouth of our hearts wide open we panted thirsting for the celestial streams of your fountain, the fount of life which is with you…

He continues: “Our colloquy led us to the point where the pleasures of the body’s senses, however intense and in however brilliant a material light enjoyed, seemed unworthy not merely of comparison but even of remembrance beside the joy of that life, and we lifted ourselves in longing yet more ardent toward That Which Is, and step by step traversed all the bodily creatures and heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shed their light upon the earth. Higher still we mounted by inward thought and wondering discourse on your works, and we arrived at the summit of our own minds; and this too we transcended, to touch that land of never-ending plenty where you pasture Israel forever with the food of truth. Life there is the Wisdom through whom all these things are made; …And as we talked and panted for it, we just touched the edge of it by the utmost leap of our hearts…” 

There is much that could be said about this rich and beautiful text, but sticking to the spiritual senses, here at Ostia, Augustine highlights the sense of touch, the most intimate of the senses, by which he and Monica came to the very edge of the land of never-ending plenty, where Wisdom, the Word of God, his Son our Lord, dwells; a place ‘eye has not seen nor heard nor human heart conceived.’ 

Throughout his works Augustine speaks beautifully and profoundly of our call to see God ‘face to face’. For him, human happiness consists in the perpetual vision of God, but we only attain the full ‘face to face’ vision in the world to come, where we receive our resurrected body. In this world, as the eyes and ears of our heart are purified, we can come to see God more clearly, and sometimes even hear the music of heaven, as Augustine puts it, nevertheless, it is only a beginning, and the experience of it is brief. Here, we live by faith and look toward God ‘through a mirror in an enigma’. For Augustine, all human perception in this life – whether bodily or spiritual – is a dim reflection of this future life. In the meantime, touch is the closest we come, that grace by which Monica were caught up to the edge of eternal life “by the utmost leap of [their] hearts”. Here they touch God and one another in a profound unity and intimacy that is bestowed on them from above, in a way utterly appropriate to mother and son. This is a social mystical experience that, as such, is a model for all contemplative communities, in the first place, in the liturgy. 

In another famous text, from Book X of the Confessions, Augustine uses all five senses to describe the new vision of God that he received upon his conversion: “…the sky and the earth too, and everything in them – all these things around me are telling me that I should love you…But what am I loving when I love you? Not beauty of body nor transient grace, not this fair light which is now so friendly to my eyes [sight], not melodious song in all its lovely harmonies [hearing], not the sweet fragrance of flowers or ointments or spices [smell], not manna or honey [taste], not limbs that draw me to carnal embrace [touch]. He goes on:

“Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part That is what I love when I love my God. (Conf. X. 6. 8)

It is love that pushes him to withdraw from created things to God himself, ‘as he is.’ Consistently, Augustine moves from the most remote of the senses, sight and hearing, to the most intimate, smell, taste and touch. In the next life, in the beatific vision, sight will fill our hearts to overflowing with light and joy, but here below the highest union is expressed by touch. There is an order here, but none of the senses are to be left behind in progression to the other. Each are essential to the experience of God and bring to it their own essential characteristic. 

Augustine is clear that ultimately only God can bring about this new sensory life. A bit later in the Confessions, retelling his conversion in the famous text beginning, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new” he says to God: “You called, shouted, broke through my deafness [hearing]; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness [sight]; you lavished your fragrance [smell]; I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.” 

This peace is the fruit of a restored sensorium. Because of sin our senses have become confused, fragmented and individual, pulling us in every direction and rendering us incapable of distinguishing between material things and God; Originally, they had functioned as a unity, and were directed wholly toward God. As such, they were at peace.  Christ came to restore this original unity and movement toward him of all our faculties. Biblical man stands before God as a whole, so when Christ touches him, he touches the whole man with his whole sensorium, bodily and spiritual, and stands him upright, so that restored as a whole, he may love him and serve him in freedom just as Peter’s mother-in-law was raised up by the hand and served Jesus and his disciples.  As contemplatives, we are called to this mission: to be caught up in the vision of God together in a restored sensorium, bodily and spiritual, given by God, through love, caritas, toward God, and toward one another. Our life is ordered around this task. The food we need for this journey is provided for us, right here, in this Eucharist.