Life Illumined

Repairing the Wound

An Italian version of this text is available here. It has also appeared in Swedish and, in abbreviated form, in German, Spanish, and French.


Je suis une morte vivante pour la vie. À 66 ans, je suis tellement vide que j’ai du mal à trouver les mots pour me révolter contre toi. 

I am, for life, a dead woman alive. At the age of sixty-six, I am so utterly empty that I find it hard to find words to rise up in revolt against you. 

Testimony of Catherine, cited in the Sauvé Report


An aspect of the Mass that strikes me more and more as the years pass is the stress placed, in the final prayers that precede Holy Communion, on healing. At the Elevation the priest holds up the Body of Christ, inviting the assembly to recognise in it the Lamb of God ‘who takes away the sins of the world’. The assembly responds: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ This acclamation makes explicit a sentiment the priest has just voiced quietly in two prayers assigned to him alone. One senses that celebrants do not always give them the attention they deserve. 

In the first prayer, the priests asks for mercy and protection for himself: ‘free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments and never let me be parted from you.’ It is the prayer of Adam redeemed, resolved never again to retreat into the bushes. It is a prayer that says: ‘Heal me, God, from the allurement of the dark!’ The second prayer asks that we may not stand condemned by the Holy Sacrifice — condemned, that is, by the fact that our lives do not correspond to what the sacrament signies. The priest prays that it may be for him, through God’s mercy, ‘protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.’ The phrasing of the Latin text has a slightly different emphasis: ‘prosit mini […] ad medelam percipiendam’. That is to say, ‘may it benefit me in such a way that I’ll be apt to receive healing’. Embedded within this phrase is the Lord’s challenge to the paralytic by the pool: to obtain healing, we must want it and arrange our priorities accordingly. 

These prayers of the Missal reflect a key insight of the primitive Church. One of the earliest extra-Biblical definitions we have of the Lord’s supper is a reference in Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Ephesians. Ignatius calls the Eucharist φάρμακον ἀθανασίας, ‘the medicine of immortality’ (Ep. Eph. XX). Death is the ailment for which the Eucharist is principally a remedy. And death, we know, is ‘the wages of sin’ (Rm 6:23). We would commit a mistake if we somehow tried to separate the Eucharist from the effective unfolding of our redemption. The healing it provides is not of the order of hot towels, essential oils, and honeyed infusions.

The Eucharist must not be cosified. Nor must it be reduced to the inoffensive status of a devotion. It is, and is intended to be, a stumbling block, rooted in the mystery of Christ as such. Ignatius refers to it as φάρμακον just after promising to send the Ephesians a further disquisition ‘concerning the dispensation of the new man Jesus Christ […], dealing with his faith and his love, his suffering and his resurrection’. Any perspective on the Eucharist narrower than this is inadequate. We must aspire to understand the sacrament in terms of the whole mystery of Christ, as an agent of death’s destruction.

The healing efficacy of the Eucharist resides in the way it incorporates us into the mystery of Christ. Eucharistic healing is different from Hippocratic healing. The latter is geared towards the preservation of life. The former makes us capable of laying down our lives. Again Ignatius of Antioch provides food for thought. An exceptional statement from his Letter to the Romans should be allowed to complement his words about the ‘medicine of immortality’. It was written when the prospect of martyrdom had drawn close (Ep.Rom. VI). He asks the Christians in Rome not to prevent him, by misguided good will, from offering his life: 

Forgive me, brethren; hinder me not from living. Do not wish me to die. Do not give to the world one who desires to belong to God, nor deceive him with material things. Let me receive the pure light; arrived at that point, I shall become a man — ἐκεῖ παραγενόμενος ἄνθρωπος ἔσομαι. 

Ignatius, the faithful bishop, who had administered the sacrament with fortitude, is emphatic: his wounded humanity will be fully restored only when he, in communion with his Master, makes of his life a holocaust. This is a noble example for us all, sprung from a high ideal.

Alas, this ideal has all too often been trampled in the dirt by men who were supposed to embody it and to be transformed by it. 

During the past week or two, I have been reading the Sauvé report on abuse in the French Church during the past 70 years. It is an exceptionally difficult read. The abuse scandal is a matter we all would prefer not to think about. The relentless, apparently unending unravelling of awfulness can seem more than we can bear. But we have to face it. Only the truth sets us free. 

The trauma of abuse has accompanied me throughout my consecrated life. I entered the monastery in 2002, at a time when cases of historical sexual abuse by clerics, including monks, were published so often and so fully in the United Kingdom that I went through periods of continuous nausea. To receive the novice’s habit in such a climate was strange. The garment that stood for my noblest, most joyful aspirations established me in some kind of symbolic continuity with the perpetration of deeds that had caused immense, in some cases irreparable, harm. 

It is hard not to feel contaminated by association and, to a greater or lesser extent, to interiorise a sense of guilt. This reflex was affirmed when, now and again, I caught a glimpse of what others might see when they saw me, a representative of the clergy. A decade after my clothing, when the extent of abuse committed by religious and priests was increasingly acknowledged all over Europe, I was making my way, one bright-blue morning, towards the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, bound for the Oriental Institute. On the Via Panisperna, I met a middle-aged woman who with calm deliberation spat in my face. I could intuit the depth of rage and hurt from which her action sprang. Perhaps I could even understand her. I could certainly sympathise with her — I still can. 

I thought of her the other day when, in the Sauvé report, I came across the following statement from Martin, a victim of abuse: 

The bastard crushed any real feelings of love and compassion in me. I’ve been left with a handicap in love, unable either to give or receive it. I’ve had to just pretend. But what is a life without love? 

Dear God, what a terrible, terrible indictment! And this harm was wrought by a man who should have been a minister of the φάρμακον ἀθανασίας and a lieutenant of the Divine Physician, a bringer of mercy, healing, forgiveness, and strength. No wonder lava streams of rage erupt and keep flowing. I would like to reflect on the example of one such eruption. 

On Monday 28 May 2018, four days after the Irish referendum on abortion, John Waters wrote a piece for the online edition of First Things entitled, Ireland: An Obituary. In it, Waters lets loose his grief with the cadences of an ancient bard. He shows kinship with the Hebrew prophets, too:

If you would like to visit a place where the symptoms of the sickness of our time are found near their furthest limits, come to Ireland. Here you will see a civilisation in free-fall, seeking with every breath to deny the existence of a higher authority, a people that has now sentenced itself not to look upon the Cross of Christ lest it be haunted by His rage and sorrow.

Do we take seriously the ‘rage and sorrow’ of Christ? He is, after all, the Lord who will come again to judge the living and the dead — with mercy, yes, but also with truth. 

Waters reflects on the brutal nature of the judicial change effected by the repeal. The Irish Constitution used to say that it ‘acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right’. That paragraph stood to be deleted, to be replaced by one stating coolly that ‘provision may be made by law for the regulation or termination of pregnancy’. The right to life of the unborn was swept away, a child in the womb reduced, in Waters’s phrase, to ‘the mere chattel of her mother’. 

There would be much to say about this legislative change. My purpose, however, is to hone in on what Waters says about the sentiment that provoked it — for it concerns not only Ireland. It concerns all of Europe, even the whole world. Waters sets out the stakes:

For the first time in history, a nation has voted to strip the right to life from the unborn. The victims of this dreadful choice will be the most defenceless, those entirely without voice or words. This is the considered verdict of the Irish people, not — as elsewhere — an edict of the elites, imposed by parliamentary decree or judicial fiat. The Irish people are now the happy ones who dash their own children against the rocks (cf. Psalm 137:9).

This is a passionate expostulation, a confessional statement, not political analysis. Still, the popular, populist, nature of the Irish campaign and vote should make us think, for a landslide of this order is not, cannot be, simply a positive option for agendas of women’s lib and political correctness. Such a change bears the hallmark of anger. It is clear at whom rage is directed. As Waters observes, ‘The leveraging of antipathy towards Catholicism is a core element of the pro-abortion strategy.’ Much of the vote seems to have been made as an act of spite, a way of spitting in the face of the Church and her pastors. It is a weird but not uncommon syndrome: rebellion against authority through self-harm. How has such fearful fury been stirred up?

Alas, the answer is at hand. The collapse of the Church’s credibility not just in Ireland but worldwide has been massive. Ongoing revelations of abuse — abuse of power, abuse of status, sexual and violent abuse — have driven large segments of the Irish nation, and of many other nations, to look on the Church with revulsion, and so to wish to cast off the Catholic ‘yoke’, to reject a Catholic identity and, as a way of filling the void, to embrace a radically secularist agenda. The Church’s discreet presence in the run-up to the Irish referendum can only be understood against this background: there was a sense abroad that anything the Church might say would just make matters worse, that the only course of action was, to paraphrase Isaiah, to go inside, lock the door, and wait for the wrath to pass.

This is a sorry state for us as Catholics to be in; no, it’s worse than sorry: it is abominable. What can we say about the fact that the repeal of the eighth amendment was greeted with music and dancing in the streets? It sends a chill down one’s spine to think that such a decision was in large measure an act of defiance. But for the rise of the spirit of defiance, which is not unjustified, the Church must answer — we must answer.

We are understandably keen to insist that there is another side to the coin. We invoke the many holy priests and religious we have known; the great good the Church has done and keeps doing; the suffering of those whose lives are wrecked by false accusations of misconduct. These are valid points. But the fact remains that abuse and infidelity have been epidemic, and not just in Ireland. One has the sense of being surrounded by time bombs as country after country reveals dossiers of pain and shame, with uncannily similar patterns of predatory behaviour. Sauvé calls these patterns ‘systemic’. The density and reach of the dark shadow is immense. It is likely that this past half-century, which at its outset was greeted as the dawn of a new Pentecost, will be remembered as a time of apostasy. I am not trying to be unnecessarily apocalyptic. But it matters to call a spade a spade, so to identify the task which is cut out for us. 

For of course we have work to do! I am convinced it is crucial to read this crisis in a theological perspective, and to formulate a theological response. On a practical level, much has already been done, thank God. It is painful but good to map the extent of abuse. Care for victims is essential. Perpetrators of abuse must answer for their deeds. Juridical and canonical reforms to ensure the efficacy of due process are good. It is good to have clear safeguarding procedures. It is good that we have found words to express a corruption that for too long spread silently. Still, if we are to deal with this crisis as believers, more is called for. For we do not face only a legacy of crime. We face a legacy of sin. 

Sin, we know, can be forgiven. The Church has always taught, in consonance with Scripture, that God is swift to pardon. Each day the Eucharist is offered ‘for the forgiveness of sin’. The fact that a sin has been pardoned does not, though, remove the hurt caused by sin, whether to the sinner or to those affected by the consequence of sin. There may still be a need for reparation and cleansing, whether in this life or in the next. Theology speaks austerely of the ‘temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven’. Personally, I find it helpful to think in terms of the ‘wages of sin’. We know what they stand for, from experience; how a sin committed leaves a wound in our soul, a wound on which we need to keep pouring the balm of God’s mercy. The graver the sin, the more infectious and slow-healing the wound.

To be a Catholic today is, I’d say, to live within a huge, unclean, ulcerating wound that cries out for healing. Who is claiming this wound, to hold it before God so that, eventually, health may be restored? To explain what I mean by this question, let me draw a parallel to the early nineteenth century. In the wake of the French Revolution and the horrors committed in its name, Catholic France fell to its knees in a prayer of reparation. The great monument to this surging remorse is the basilica of Montmartre, dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In its dome you can read, in letters of gold, this dedication: Sacratissimo Cordi Iesu Gallia poenitens et devota et grata. ‘To the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus from France penitent, devoted, and grateful.’

The basilica was built as a penitential pledge, a space dedicated to uninterrupted prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, to call Christ’s Eucharistic grace down upon a broken nation. What the basilica represents outwardly was lived as an interior, secret reality by countless souls. We shall never understand the resurgence of religious life after the Revolution if we lose this aspect out of sight; nor shall we appreciate the fervour of nineteenth-century mysticism. St Paul’s mysterious words about ‘making up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ’ was perceived as a personal call by many.

The saving sacrifice was made on Calvary once for all. It is perfect. But it is not ended. It unfolds within the Church, the Body of Christ, by way of a real presence. Pascal wrote in the Pensées: ‘Christ remains in agony until the end of time. That isn’t a time to be slumbered away.’ Many good Christians assumed their share in the task of repairing, through Christ, in him, and with him, the damage wrought by others. 

To us, this may seem terribly passé, even a touch embarrassing. The only echo we hear on a regular basis might occur at Benediction, if we recite the Divine Praises composed in 1797 by the Italian Jesuit Fr Luigi Felici as a way of making reparation for sacrilege. We should not, though, take this kind of piety lightly. While it did occasionally assume bizarre forms, it rested on solid foundations. Before sin is ‘taken away’, it has to be assumed and borne. That is the meaning of the Cross, which Christ calls us to share by means of a mystery embedded in the structure of the Eucharist. The victorious Lamb is inseparable from the Lamb of sacrifice, the Lamb who bears the sin of the world. 

Earlier this autumn I visited Poland. I was struck by a recurrent motif in that country’s sacred art: again and again I came across representations of the humiliated Christ chained to the pillar in Herod’s praetorium, awaiting the lashes of the whip. This same motif played an important role in the second conversion of Teresa of Àvila when, in her 40s, she came to see with her heart what she had always known with her mind: the overwhelming weight borne by the Son of God when he suffered ‘for our sake’. It is a motif we could profitably rediscover in our time, for our time. 

May I share an intimate conviction? I think there is an immense work of bearing to be done in the Church today. I think this bearing, consciously and freely assumed, is a precondition for healing. It belongs above all to us who, as priests and religious, live close to the heart of the Church, which is Christ’s heart, cruelly hurt by sin. But it is not ours alone.

Christ scourged at the pillar appearing to Saint Teresa. Fra Diego de Leiva, 1627

Are we willing to take our share of it, for Christ’s love’s sake? Is our heart alert, open, vulnerable enough to hear the cry of the poor and feel the pain of it? Do we share Christ’s ‘rage and sorrow’ in the face of outrages committed against his little ones? These are urgent questions if, in the renewal we badly need, we wish to maintain the vertical axis of the Church’s life. 

And what is the Church without a vertical axis? A humanitarian coffee morning, no more — which is an excellent enterprise on its own terms, but hardly a phenomenon that renews and orients our lives, kindles our love, fortifies our hope, purifies our joy, and forms in us courage and peace in the face of death. Life, and death, in Christ doesn’t drop from the sky. It needs to be striven for valiantly. The Son of God became man, not to hand out sweetmeats, but to redeem the world. When we look at the world today, it is clear that this work is still sorely needed. Whether the healing potential of the salvific mystery will show itself effective in our time depends in no small part on us, whom Christ calls to live as members of his body — on how we exercise stewardship of the grace entrusted to us, to enable it to spread.

The New Testament culminates in a majestic description of how, from the throne of the Lamb, rivers of the water of life flow out towards the ends of the earth. The rivers are surrounded by shoots of the tree of life whose fruit is unfailing and whose leaves are ‘for the healing of the nations’ (Ap 22:1ff). Will we let our living and our dying be a watercourse along which Christ’s healing may spread, to reach the desert, death-infected places of our world and of human hearts? The Seer of Patmos ended his book with a clear ‘Amen’. Let’s make that, likewise, our final note.