While at IPF (The Institute for Priestly Formation) – a summer program designed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit by Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ, Fr. John Horn, SJ, Fr. Richard Gabuzda, and Kathy Kanavy to help seminarians fall more deeply in love with Christ, and most importantly, to stay in love with Him – I had the opportunity to learn about the priestly identities of Christ. A particular identity that resonated with me was Christ as the Spiritual Physician. Here, the emphasis is placed upon bringing God’s healing touch to others: His love, His mercy, and His hope – hope in something more than what our world can offer; it is hope in eternal life. But before a priest or the baptized who share in the common priesthood of Christ is able to effectively heal and minister to others, he, himself, must first be healed. In other words, the priest must be a healed healer. Have we been healed by the Divine Physician? Have I allowed Christ to enter into my heart, to make me whole, and to heal me? This was a question I more deeply explored in the context of personal prayer, in spiritual direction, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
As I reflected upon my relationship with Christ, my experiences of healing, I realized that God has been incredibly good to me. All that I have comes from Him. And it is not that I deserve any of it, but rather, it is a free gift from God, precipitated by His grace. However, though grace always comes first, we must cooperate with it. This led me to think about the ways in which I had cooperated with God’s grace, but also in the ways in which I had failed to do so: the times in which I refused or remained indifferent. To press further, I had to ask myself: why do I sometimes resist? Is it because I do not want to be healed yet? Is it because I am afraid of being vulnerable, even to Jesus, or could it be caused by times of desolation in which I feel distant from the Lord? I think all of these are contributing factors, and what IPF trains us to do is to acknowledge, relate, receive, and respond. In other words, we must first acknowledge our thoughts, feelings, and desires. Afterwards, we relate them to the Lord in prayer, and through prayer, we can patiently wait to receive His grace, His help, His love. Then, after being exposed to the Light, we respond to the grace we have received from God. Our response, though, may not necessarily entail doing something, but it might be that we accept the truths about ourselves and reject the lies that are given to us by the Evil One.
In this context of healing, I would like to say a little more about discouragement and desolation. When we encounter hardship, difficulty, or failure, our self-esteem might diminish. In addition, if we are experiencing dryness in prayer, a sense of discouragement can settle in. This, in turn can lead to spiritual desolation in which the Evil One strikes at us, trying to detach us from our relationship with Christ. We may, for instance, begin to believe that we are a failure, that there is no hope, that God doesn’t love us, that God doesn’t care. But they are all lies. Therefore, discernment becomes crucial in our prayer with God, especially in times of desolation. Two powerful ways in which we can safely move through the darkness come from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. The first is to never make a change while in desolation, for it is in this state that the Evil One bombards us with deceit. We must reject those lies and remain steadfast in our originally planned spiritual commitments (such as going to Mass, going to Confession, spending time with the Lord in prayer). The second is to bring our desolation – whatever grieves us, whatever is bringing us down, and whatever is causing us anxiety – to the light. We can do this by talking to a priest or wise spiritual person and allowing them to lead us through the turbulence.
Of course, we tend to be leery of such advice because it opens us up, it makes us vulnerable. And it is no fun being vulnerable; I’ll be the first to admit. But as St. Paul reminds us, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). It is in our weakness that Christ will heal us and make us strong. His grace is sufficient, and this is something that we need to be reminded of. In Vulnerability as a Place of Divine Encounter, Dcn. James Keating, Director of Theology for IPF, explains that “God loves us not because we are perfect but because he is good. He loves us always and not simply when we are ‘scrubbed up’ and ready for public display.” That is the confidence in which we need to approach Christ. The love and mercy of Christ is beyond our imagination, and He is always waiting for us to draw near to Him, to take comfort in His embrace. More to it, Dcn. Keating posits that “In order to live the way of divine ‘wounding’ or vulnerability we have to become experts in noticing the interior movements of our hearts. Once noticed we pour the substance of our hearts into the heart of Christ so that He can carry them to the Father, the fount of all healing.” True healing comes from the Father, and He most definitely desires to heal all those who come before Him in faith, with a childlike trust in the God who grants second chances.
As I write this, a memory of a powerful experience of confession comes to mind. I was healed that day, and I experienced the mercy of the Father through a compassionate priest. Each time we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, each time we receive the Eucharist, we are healed; we are transformed. Fr. Gabuzda recently reminded us that “God is very interested in our humanity, and He wants to help heal and strengthen it.” So I beg you to let Him, and might I encourage you to visit a priest for confession, too. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”