Leprosy is a terrible disease. In the modern world we have it more or less under control, but in Biblical times leprosy was an extremely serious matter. Leprosy is a bacteria that infects the body and starts rotting away the extremities; it is very contagious, so much so that in Biblical times it was required that any man or woman with this disease carry a bell with them. If an infected person saw somebody coming along the road towards them they had to ring their bell and cry out, “Impure! Impure!” as a warning.
In the Bible, leprosy is not just a physical disease, but a disease of the soul. It was believed that whatever afflicted the body was a reflection of what afflicted the soul; if there was impurity in the body, there was impurity in the soul. In the case of leprosy, the victim’s rotting limbs were evidence that the soul itself was rotting away. In today’s Reading we hear of Naaman, a commander of an army and a pagan, who suffers from Leprosy. In the Gospel we are told of a Samaritan who also has this disease. Both of these men are miraculously cured.
I once had a very illuminating conversation with a friend of mine. This friend and I would often go out for a glass of wine, and discuss politics, religion, and theology; we had some fascinating conversations. One night he said, “You know what? I don’t believe in Christianity anymore. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe in any form of organized religion.” “OK,” I said, ” Why do you say that?” He said, “Well, I think that you, and only you, have the right to decide what is good and what is bad. Christianity, Judaism, Islam – all of these forms of organized religion tell us what is good and what is bad, and if we don’t conform to those expectations we end up feeling bad about ourselves. But I think that nobody has the right to make us feel bad, except maybe ourselves.”
This conversation was on my mind all week until I finally called him and said, “You know what? The wine is on me this time.” We went, and I told him, “You know what? I don’t believe in the world anymore.” He was surprised. “What do you mean you don’t believe in the world?” “Well,” I said, “the world is what make us feel bad. See, the world tells us, “You’re not handsome enough, you’re not rich enough, you’re not popular enough.” You only have to turn on the TV and watch a couple of commercials to see this in action, “You should have this, and you don’t. You should look like this, and you don’t. You should be popular, influential, successful, and you’re not.” Over and over again the world tells us, “You’re not good enough.” But my faith, Christianity, tells me I am valued and loved for who I am: I am a son of God, and I am worthy of all His love for who I am, not for what I have.
Like the illness of leprosy, we can also fall into a spiritual illness of leprosy, where our minds and our souls start rotting away. Why does this happen? It happens partly because the world sows seeds of dissatisfaction in our lives. We become afraid of not having things, or we are terrified of losing what we do have. This anxiety keeps us glued to our phones and our computers; it keeps us fixated on our Facebook feed, our email inbox, and the number of likes we are getting on social media.
“Stand up and go,” Jesus says to the grateful Samaritan, at the end of today’s Gospel, “Your faith has saved you” (Lk 17:19). Jesus healed ten lepers that day, but only one – the Samaritan – returned to thank Jesus and to praise God. So it is the Samaritan, seen int hose times as “not a real Jew,” who is blessed and saved by Jesus Christ. The faith that Jesus speaks of in this instance is a very concrete kind of faith, one that is expressed through thanksgiving, gratitude, gratefulness. The Gospel acclamation says, “In all circumstances give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:18), or the other way around, “This is the will of God for you in Jesus Chris: In all circumstances give thanks.” Now we may ask ourselves, could I give thanks to God for everything? For everything? Should we be thankful to God for suffering, or pain, or poverty, or hunger, or violence, or abuse? We cannot be thankful to God for that. But we can be thankful to God in poverty, in suffering, or in pain. In all circumstances we can be thankful to God; we just need to find an authentic reason, and herein lies the challenge.
A priest friend of mine, a teacher, has a beautiful anecdote about finding reasons to be grateful to God. He says, “Perhaps the most grateful person I’ve ever heard of was an old woman in an extended care hospital. She had some kind of wasting disease, and her strength and abilities were steadily fading away. A student of mine happened to meet her. The student kept going back, drawn by the strange force of the woman’s joy. Although she could no longer move her arms and legs, the woman would say, ‘I am just happy and grateful to God that I can move my neck.’ When she could no longer move her neck she would say, ‘I’m just so glad and thankful that I can hear and see.’ When the young student asked the woman what would happen if she lost her sense of hearing and sight the gentle lady said, ‘I’ll just be so grateful, that you came to visit.'”
Gratefulness is a choice, it is not a matter of circumstances. We may trick ourselves with false thoughts: When I am full, when I am happy, when I am successfully at the height of my life, then I will be grateful. This is lie, a deception. Gratitude is a matter of choice, and a way of life. Gratitude brings God alive to us throughout our day. Gratitude purifies the heart, and prevents it from getting tangled up in discouragement, sadness, withdrawal, bitterness, loneliness, or dissatisfaction. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: Whenever you find yourself trapped in the emotions and thought patterns of victimhood, loneliness, and dissatisfaction, see if you can find something to be grateful to God for in that moment. Allow yourself to be truly and wholeheartedly thankful to God, and observe how this shifts your experience.
Gratitude shows us spiritual amazement that heals our spiritual leprosy; it is a new way to see life itself. When we are grateful we acknowledge that every single moment is a gift from Our Father. Gratitude is a matter of seeing life with a new, fresh attitude, an attitude of the heart. Pope Francis says the following words in his Encyclical,
We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers (LS, 226).
One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need (LS, 227).
Have you noticed how many times Jesus gives thanks to his Heavenly Father throughout the Gospels? We see Jesus grateful in the Last Supper, giving his Body and Blood (Mc 14:22; Mt 26:26; Lk 22:19); when revealing the mysteries to the childlike (Mt 11:25); before multiplying the bread (Mt 15:36), and in other miracles. Over and over again, he reiterates to us the need, the central aspect, of thanksgiving in our faith. The very word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving in Greek; the Holy Mass itself is a glorious, cosmic, divine Thanksgiving Dinner. It is easy to fall into the trap of demanding things from God, but it is so very important to the health of our faith to just give thanks to God for being God, to fill our heart with thanksgiving for having a Father who loves us unconditionally, and with such strength and faith.
We start the Eucharistic Prayer by saying, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere, to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father.” How grateful are we throughout our day? May Mary show us how to be thankful souls, grateful souls, Eucharistic souls. May she show us how to see our Heavenly Father’s presence throughout our day, always and everywhere. St Bernard used to say, It is only our ingratitude which prevents growth in our spiritual life. What are you grateful to God for today?
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