On Tuesdays, I’m the chaplain to the my congregation’s branch of the Episcopal Church Women. Before they begin their handcrafter’s guild, we do a rite of healing. I don’t stand over them and ask them about their illnesses, do a diagnosis, lay my hands and them and call them healed. But we do remember those who are ill and we do a laying on of hands with one another.
I’m not sure what happens in the service, but the ladies insist, and I’m glad to be of service. When we initiated the service, we discussed what it meant to be “healed,” the social and psychological consequences of being ill, and how people get better.
Maybe the ritual diminishes the impact of feeling alone or abandoned. It could be a formalized representation of care. Physiologically the work of saying the words opens up the mind to better allow the body can do whatever healing it can do. The words and prayers may invite a cascade of chemicals into the body that benefit. We know that words can hurt us and make us sick and stressed. The words we say together are healing words, and at the very least, words of hope.
Today in the Daily Office, Jesus exorcises a demon. Right after Jesus begins his ministry, he gets some guys to quit their family vocation and they go to Capernaum, where they see him rebuke an “unclean spirit.” I asked the ladies what they thought “unclean spirit” meant. Did they simply forget to take a shower? Did they break some rules?
One said, “mental illness.” Another said, “addiction.” Another said, “Alzheimer’s.”
We’re not in a culture where we see many exorcisms. If I were to lay my hands upon someone who was addicted to heroin, I doubt it would change their status. Nor would a liturgical prayer restore someone’s memory.
I wonder if “unclean” here is not merely about the chemical imbalance and physiological realities of mental illness. We only know that the man was in the synagogue, and that Jesus represented a certain kind of authority.
I once had a congregant who would come into my office, sit down, ask me questions, and offer advice. After he’d meet with me, he’d take whatever I said, exaggerate it, and add a few false rumors to the mix, usually resulting in a flurry of phone calls. He made the congregation, and me, crazy. But he’d been around a while, so it was hard to change all the relationships who had become to rely on him.
So I began to share ridiculous stories, exaggerating them myself, which he could not possibly retell. Pretty soon he realized I was being uncooperative.
And for a while the craziness died down. Admittedly, I was a young priest, not quite able to handle conflict directly, and I didn’t know what to say. But when he whined about me not sharing with him all the troubles of church, I said to him, “it must be hard to be you. I’m sorry, but I find our conversations to get altered when I hear them back.”
I don’t recommend being ridiculous in such conversations, however. Being too flip or whimsical could escalate the conflict. It’s not a replacement for the power of being direct. Fortunately, the other members of the church had begun to realize that he was, himself, unreliable. Simply put, they stopped asking me if what he said was true and began to ignore him. And soon he left.
It’s not merely about causing trouble: sometimes that’s what truth tellers and whistleblowers do. If anything, in Jesus we see something about how the truth can cause havoc on a system. When someone stops drinking, starts taking care of themselves, often their relationships go through a change and people resist. Trouble can be good.
Perhaps Jesus liberated the system in the congregation, identifying the problem, naming the elephant in the room. Perhaps the miracle is how Jesus takes authority in a new way. Or even, the miracle is what happens after the man has been freed. That story is the one we live in.