Girl in Lightbulb – Symbol of Isolation
One thing we could say about leprosy is that it is a disease that is both ancient and ever new. While it has virtually been eradicated from the world stage there is an aspect of it that is gaining momentum all over the globe.
In ancient times it was a dreaded disease that horribly disfigured the body with the extremities like fingers and toes, nose and ears rotting away. Because of its infectious nature it was the disease most associated with social isolation. Lepers were obliged to leave home, family and neighborhood and forced to live in leper colonies. Sometimes these resembled large pits in the ground where family members would occasionally lower food to their unfortunate relatives but without making any human contact. While out of the pit each leper was expected to ring a bell and announce himself as unclean and warn people to keep their distance. It was a dreadfully sad and lonely life, devoid of human contact that denied any sense of belonging.
The fact that Jesus usually cured a leper by touching him is most significant. Not only was human touch what that individual was most deprived of but in so doing Jesus was exposing himself not just to ridicule but to the charge of being unclean himself. Through mere touch he was risking becoming infected himself, so for others to come close and touch him it demanded an act of faith that they were not going to pick up something from him. Its amusing to think that some of us who may have a problem with holding hands at the Our Father or even giving the sign of peace have no problem with touching a 50 euro note that carries far more germs. It is a fact that some of us are more comfortable with touch than others and its something I had to work on myself. If you find it difficult, that’s okay but why not make the effort and extend the comfort zone. For new people who come here and see people relating in a natural human way and not being allergic to each other as in most churches, it is something they notice and has powerful witness value. So In his cure of the leper Jesus didn’t catch what he had but instead the leper caught what he had. So consider risk reaching out and you don’t need to wait for me to extend the invitation each time.
That ancient disease is also ever new and increasing by the day where the particular form it takes is of social isolation. A major contributing factor to the decline in mental health and the number on medication is simply isolation. The Biblical injunction is that it is not good for man to be alone yet in our society more and more are not just living on their own but experiencing a deep sense of isolation. The reality is that community is breaking down at an alarming rate to the extent that so many don’t know their neighbors or who might be living next door. We are already at the crazy stage where we no longer just call when we happen to be passing but feel obliged to send a text or first phone to make an appointment.
While I was in Oylegate I remember having a conversation with a lady who had been associated with the Parish there for over twenty years but lived just outside. Her children went to school in the area and her husband worked not too far away. Then he died rather suddenly and for some years she had been living in the throes of grief, slowly coming to terms with her loss. She spoke of how she had once been a happy go lucky person very sociable and having plenty of confidence. However the pain of grief had left her shattered, her self-esteem dropped and her confidence went out the window. All those who have been there know only too well how that can happen.
Week in and week out she sat on her own in the house and almost nobody called and then depression began to take hold. The traditional advice to someone like that would be to pull yourself together, take the initiative, go out and start meeting people, don’t expect them to come to you. This she did but on several occasions when she tried to make conversation with a few different groups of women some of whom she would have known, it became quite clear that they were just not interested. She then tried to do some voluntary work but found it to be a closed circle and she wasn’t well received. Having made several attempts in vain she went on her way feeling as she said like a leper. On one of those occasions it was at a church service where the reaction she got dashed any hopes of ever coming back to Church as a way of regaining her sense of belonging. One of the usual collectors was slow about coming forward and seeing what needed to be done she stepped forward and took the basket. Just then the usual lady jumped up and snatched the basket from her and in a way that she felt was quite rude grabbed hold of the basket and said, ‘that’s my job.’
What was going on for those ladies who had been so insensitive to her needs at that time? It’s the kind of childish behavior you would not want to see in a playground. Perhaps they were just plain indifferent and couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else apart from their own concerns.
Most likely they were simply unaware that there was a leper in their midst just crying out for help just at that moment. Therein probably lies the truth for all of us. We don’t set out deliberately to alienate someone but neither do we consciously decide to become aware of those most in need and so we miss those golden opportunities when they present themselves.
Her’s is a story that could be replicated more times than could be counted. We can all find ourselves rubbing shoulders with someone who is in deep trouble and without awareness not do anything to help. The difference was that Christ noticed, he then reached out and touched and his challenge for us as individuals and as community is to do the same. You could say that the only measure of our success as a pilgrimage community is to what extent we ensure that those who come here are healed of their isolation and go home with a restored sense of belonging. For that to happen all of us have a part to play.