SANCTITY: APPEARANCE AND REALITY
We all know a few of them: little old ladies stooped right over with age and arthritis, unable to look up or to see anyone face to face. They have existed in every age, so it is not surprising to find a few of them in the gospels. Jesus met and healed one of them (Luke 13). "She was bent over and could not straighten herself." He healed her without being asked. There are other examples of Jesus healing people without being asked: see Luke 6:8 (the man with the withered hand) and 14:4 (the man with dropsy). Sometimes we feel we have to grovel when we ask God or Jesus for something; we imagine (at some level) that God sees us as dirt, and that we have to grovel and to learn the false language of beggars if we are to get anything.
But the woman in the story had been grovelling for eighteen years until she met Jesus! It was he who enabled her to stand up straight with the unique dignity of a human being. "At once she straightened up and she glorified God." There's another little old lady, a widow, in Luke 18:1-8. She was looking for her rights. Widows were always penniless, and therefore of slight interest to a corrupt judge. But this one was persistent. "She will wear me out!" said the judge. This was a story told by Jesus, a very robust one! It is about prayer. But there is no swooning or moaning recommended, no forced emotions, no whining, no false manner. It tells us we should come to God as we are, warts and all.
The God revealed by Jesus is one who invites in "the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame...." But that doesn't mean that we have to look or feel like that figure you often see in religious paintings, the typical beggar. The saint, looking supremely smug and condescending, strides among beggars as they lie strewn on the steps of the church, with pious plaintive looks on their faces. They are all very clean and well laundered (which should be the clue to how unreal the picture is); and they look as if their language could only be the most reverent imaginable. They and the saint have one thing in common: they all accept their respective roles without question. The beggar is not really a long-term human being; he or she is there only to highlight the sanctity of the saint. As the beggar is a model of beggary, so is the saint a model of sanctity; he experiences no ambiguity, no challenge, no shame, no call to lay down his life. Neither he nor the beggar has the faintest flicker of political awareness.
The beggars that we know in reality could hardly be more different. Usually they are addicts to alcohol or drugs, sometimes both; and it is this that leaves them penniless. Their clothes are not nicely laundered like the clothes of the painted beggars, nor is their language! They are more real than any painting. Try loving a few of them, dear painted saint, and you may become a real saint instead of a painted one!
Very little religious imagery (either of sanctity or of misery) touches us today; much of it is remote from our reality, and perhaps from all reality. Therefore we have to make our own! We have to look straight at the miserable patches in our own lives, with no disguises or evasions; and at the patches of misery in our society. The times require great honesty of us. I have to ask myself: In what area of my life am I prostrate? In what area can I only see the ground, and a small patch of it at that? - like the crippled woman in the gospel. Only when I admit my own real poverty will I be willing in fact to look at it in other people. Then as human misery is revealed to me more and more, so will sanctity become more than a holy picture. It will be the Gospel, the Good News, for "the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed and the lost" (Ezech. 34).
Donagh O'Shea OP