There’s a very poignant, very moving scene in the play, “The Elephant Man.” A physician who senses the medical research value in this horribly deformed human being houses him in a hospital for four years, during which time he shows himself to be a highly intelligent, loving person imprisoned in a grotesquely ugly body. A beautiful young actress is introduced to him, but only after she had been coached carefully on how to regard him, what to say, and in particular how she is to shake his left hand, the only one of his four limbs that is normal.
She is brought to the elephant man, converses with him, and immediately begins to appreciate what a substantial, interesting and warm person he is. She reaches out to shake his hand as she tells him sincerely what a pleasure it is for her to meet him. He responds with his normal hand, as he always did with others, not wanting to disgust or shock anyone by forced physical contact. The lovely young woman withdraws her hand, and smiling at him, waits in silence. He gets the message, pulls back his left hand, and gives her instead the sorry lump of misshapen flesh that is his other hand.
Maybe you’ve seen the play. I did, and I found the scene I’ve just described to be an unforgettable moment of tenderness and beauty.
Two Sundays ago we heard the Gospel account of the expulsion of what Mark called an “unclean” spirit from a man. This act of Jesus occasioned the comment, “He even gives orders to demons and they obey him!” Last Sunday it was Peter’s mother-in-law that Jesus cured of fever and sickness. “Everyone is looking for you!” his apostles said as they saw the crowd that wanted him to touch them and/or their sick ones. Today it is a man with leprosy to whom Jesus says, “I do will it. Be cured.”
We may never know the exact nature of those ills and we have to keep in mind that to the unscientific people of Jesus’ day any serious bodily or mental affliction was thought to be a sign of infestation by a demon, an “unclean spirit.” That said, it remains undeniable that Jesus did go about ministering to the sick and relieving them of their burdens in one way or another. He did this, not to prove anything about himself, but to awaken compassion in others by being compassionate himself. In this way he would be the vehicle, the instrument, of God’s power among us – not force or fear or wealth or cleverness, but loving, caring, sacrificial kindness.
Our next gathering for Mass will be during Lent, a period of time during which our Christian tradition invites us to be especially dedicated to the purifying of our lives, a lessening of our selfishness, an increased sensitivity to the pain of others, and a greater effort to help wherever we can in life-giving ways.
There is no better place to start such a program than where we live, where we work, where we are. We will find hurting persons there; it may even happen that we will see more clearly that we are among the causes of their hurt. With plenty of troubles of our own, we can go to them, in the words of a famous spiritual guide, as “wounded healers.” We can extend to one another our deformed selves, make even wordless contact, and discover the beauty in both of us that we have been overlooking for too long a time.