The Holy Spirit has a funny way of leading us where we need to go sometimes.
This week, while searching through my Bible for one specific passage in the New Testament, I inadvertently found another that struck me so forcefully, it became my lectio divina for several days:
When the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves,
“Who is this who speaks blasphemies?
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply,
“What are you thinking in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—
he said to the one who was paralyzed,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” (Luke 5:21-24)
I was only in the first grade when Sr. Mary Gemma, RSM related this story to the class with a great deal of verve and enthusiasm, and it always stayed with me. My six-year-old imagination put the scene into heavy rotation as I considered a helpless man being lowered through a roof and, mere moments later, walking away healed—not only walking away, but first picking up his mat, after being told to.
“Why would Jesus tell him to do that?” I would wonder. “Why burden him with carrying his stretcher, rather than letting him just dance away?”
Being young, and the daughter of a house-proud mother, my initial understanding was pragmatic. Obviously, Jesus wanted the man to pick up after himself. “Don’t leave that thing here,” I believed he was saying. “It’s in the way, and no one wants to see it.” I’m pretty sure that at some point I imagined Jesus chiding, “A place for everything, and everything in its place,” as though he, too, had been trained by my mother.
Reading the story this week, it occurred to me that “pick up your stretcher and go home” was less about tidiness and more about the man’s taking the indication of his illness, and thus of his healing, with him. Jesus was actually inviting him to make a testimony of his life and God’s real involvement in it by walking with the evidence of his past paralysis in his very hands, and then keeping it in his home, always before him.
For moderns—particularly for a culture such as ours where we try to dispose of imperfections and any sign that we’d ever had them—this seems a strange idea. Was the man never supposed to let go of his past? Why did he need to keep that reminder around? After all, we don’t carry around the braces that straighten our teeth or our children’s legs, or prominently display them in our homes. If we sustain a debilitating injury, we don’t haul around the crutch once physical therapy is through.
Some, after losing weight, will undergo surgery to cut away excess flab rather than carry the marks of a chubby past or, even worse, the suggestion that they’d lived with a sin of gluttony. “Hey, that was the old me,” we think. “It’s not relevant to the new me, right? So, away with it!”
And yet that sort of attitude, that instinct to throw away our less-than-perfect pasts, may be precisely why Christ wanted the man to take his stretcher with him.
Simply in terms of effect, it had to be a dramatic and noteworthy thing within this community for a known paralytic to be carrying about the very tool in which he had once been carried. It would invite questions: “What happened to you?” And that would invite giving witness with the simple answer: “Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, happened to me. He healed me with the forgiveness of my sins . . .”
And too, taking the stretcher home with him meant keeping it before his awareness, helping him to see and be mindful of the whole of his story, every day. Rather than tossing the stretcher—relegating it to a past better forgotten and eventually disconnected from—the man would be encouraged, each day, to integrate his past and his present in a way that could contribute to and define his future, and thus strengthen his sense of wholeness. We are all of us incomplete stories; but if we are disconnected from our past, wholeness will forever elude us, because the past has a share in all we become.
Taking his mat with him, keeping it in his presence, means the man would daily have a physical prompt meant to remind him where he had been, where he was, and how he had gotten there. This is important. As our lives move forward, some of their most impactful moments become diminished in our understanding; we forget what surprising event was the catalyst for change, and for our good, and thus we forget to be grateful.
And without gratitude, joy is hard to come by, as is wholeness.
These things are all connected, in fact, all of a piece. Memory, mindfulness, gratitude: they all lead to joy, and joy is the thing that brings us to wholeness, no matter what our circumstances—whether we are rich or poor, fat or thin, clumsy or graceful, or even if we are encased in stillness and unable to pick up after ourselves.
If we can manage to keep before our eyes the ways in which we have been helped to change, if we can remain cognizant of how those changes had their root in an encounter with Christ that brought about some sort of healing (whether visible or invisible)—then we are, in a sense, discovering that in our lives there really has been a place for everything, and that we are able, with God’s help, to put everything in its place.
And then we are on a solid path to joy.