Text: Luke 17: 11-19
Many of you have asked me what exactly I am learning during my sabbatical. It’s been a month since I started a Clinical Pastoral Education program at St. Boniface Hospital. It’s a hands-on experience involving the whole being – body, mind and spirit – in learning about pastoral care. The biggest learning so far has been about the importance of knowing myself in my attempt to care for others. Without self-knowledge, it’s not always clear whether what we do in the name of “helping others” actually serves the need of others or our own. It takes one second to turn a conversation into a self-talk if we don’t create a room for others. Our unresolved issues can come into play anytime and anywhere. We are all humans so we are all vulnerable. There is no way for us not to be affected by what’s going on around us. We all carry our emotional burdens or those of others. The closer we are the easier it is to be affected by those around us.
I had two options regarding my sabbatical. One was going on a pilgrimage – walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and the other was taking a course while staying in the city. Although the first option was very tempting – I wanted to escape from my daily routine – I chose the second one hoping to stay strong in ministry. I wasn’t particularly interested in gaining more skills or adding one more line to my resume. Ministry is a lonely place, and I have seen how ministers suffered from depression, loneliness or even guilt because they believed that they were responsible for the decline of the church. I wanted to learn how to be sustainable while fulfilling my calling. Turns out, the training is more like a pilgrimage than going back to school, an inward journey that invites me to go deeper not wider. I found the whole process of the training deeply spiritual and transforming.
With the help from my classmates and supervisor, I’m getting to know myself better including my strength and my weakness. I can finally grow up. So, to answer the question, ‘what do I learn?’ I say that I am learning to go deep within myself. For, we can only go as deep with another person as we have already been with ourselves. It’s hard to care for another person if we don’t know what it’s like to be in the place she is in. Going deep is an intense and painful experience, because it requires the courage to remain in the known or unknowable, with a high chance to reopen old wounds. We must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable while facing uncertainty or ambiguity. Going deep, however, can be the most rewarding experience because it is what the soul is hungry for.
Everyone is doing their spiritual work. In a world where so many unnecessary labels divide people according to their skin colour, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, age or physical or mental ability, it’s easy to forget that we all share what matters most – we are spiritual beings. There is a sacred territory in each of us where no one could ever fully grasp or nothing could ever damage. It’s deeper than anyone could ever imagine, and stronger than any power in the world. It speaks to who we really are. It has many names across cultures and religions: soul, atman, Buddha nature, image of God, the eternal self, the inner light, the spark of the soul. The nature of the soul is like a wild life. It is shy, and doesn’t want to be seen by others. But once it finds a safe environment, it can thrive, creating what the world is hungry for – the room for belonging, compassion, understanding, and acceptance. Like an inexhaustible spring, it can never be used up. It can always find a way to reach out to others drawing its energy from the ultimate source.
Today’s story – how Jesus cleanses ten lepers and only one person returns to say thank you – has been read regularly on Thanksgiving Sunday. The focus of the story has been on gratitude, how it is the thankful heart that brings him back to Jesus, and how thanking of Christ makes him whole. However, I am beginning to notice a deeper meaning of the story. It’s more than a story of healing or a story of thanksgiving. It is a story of how one person is willing to go with another as deep as he has been with himself.
Ten people with skin diseases cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Even in the midst of desperation, their body language, keeping their distance, shows the uncrossable boundary between insiders and outsiders. They have been shunned, cut off from their families and communities. That’s what the law says. The priests have a final say on whether they are clean or not. Only if they are declared to be clean, can they re-join their families and communities. Jesus sends them out to the priests. As they go, they are made clean. Then one of them turns back, praising God with a loud voice, and returns to Jesus and thanks him.
We don’t know how Jesus heals. I think it’s his compassion that heals – to suffer with, to endure, to remain in the place of suffering together – because that’s where God is. Notice what the man is celebrating when he sees that he has been healed. He recognizes the presence of God who turned his pain and suffering into celebration of love and joy. There was no easy fix or easy answer. All he needed was someone who was willing to go as deeply as possible to hit the bottom and bounce back. He gives thanks remembering where the real power came from, and thanking the one who was accompanying him. Thanksgiving is about going deep. This Thanksgiving let us go deep within ourselves so we can accompany others in their struggles. Let us give thanks remembering where the real power comes from and those who accompany us. I thank God for our continued journeying together. Let’s go deep in our accompanying each other. Who knows? Along the way we may find ourselves turning back, praising God with a loud voice, like never before.