In 1990, twenty-eight years ago, I was teaching high school English and Latin on Chicago’s south side at Hales Franciscan High School. I noticed one afternoon that I was having difficulty hearing my students. As it happened, I was living with a Franciscan friar who was also a medical doctor. I told him that evening that I was not hearing well in my right ear. He set me up with an appointment with an otolaryngologist at Chicago University Hospital which was just down the street from the high school. Many tests and procedures followed in the ensuing months. About a year later, the doctor told me that I had something called Meniere’s Disease which was slowly robbing me of my hearing in my right ear. To make a long story a little shorter, today I am totally deaf in my right ear. Although the doctor warned me that a third of those with this disease eventually develop it in both ears, I am still able to hear on my left side.
People sometimes say the strangest things when I tell them my story. One of the most common goes something like this: “Well, at least you aren’t going blind.” Apparently, being blind is worse than being deaf. However, speaking as someone who was and still is in danger of completely losing his hearing, I would simply remind you that being blind cuts one off from things while being deaf cuts one off from people.
Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment in St. Mark’s Gospel. Interestingly enough, this healing only appears in St. Mark’s Gospel. It is also remarkable in that St. Mark records that Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears, he spat, he touched the man’s tongue, and he groaned. In and of themselves, these actions are not all that strange. They are, apparently, all common to healers of that time period. However, then Jesus said something. “Be opened.” With these words, accompanied by these actions, Jesus restores the man’s ability to hear and his ability to speak.
To understand this healing, we need to understand how the people of this culture think of the human body. They divide the body into three areas or zones. First is the heart-eyes zone which is the part of the person that produces emotion-fused thought. Second is the mouth-ears zone which represents self-expressive speech, the ability to verbalize one’s thoughts. Finally there is the hands-feet zone which involves purposeful activity. The people of the Middle East thought of a truly healthy person as one in which all three zones were in perfect alignment resulting in a thoroughly integrated person. Emotion fused thought was expressed in speech and resulted in purposeful activity. Thus if one of the zones was defective or non-functional, as it was the case in this man, the person was considered impaired or disabled.
On the door post of every Jewish home is a little scroll that records the first and greatest commandment of Judaism. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” The first word of the commandment accentuates the importance of being able to hear and thus be open to the Word of God.
Though this story speaks of a man who was physically impaired, the Gospel story addresses itself to all of us. While we might be able to hear God’s Word, the sacred authors challenge us to examine whether we are really OPEN to God’s Word. Are we willing to let it penetrate our hearts and drive our hands and our feet in purposeful action to make it a concrete reality in our world? God’s Word asks us to stop judging one another by appearances, to be a little more open to one another as God has been to us, to make an effort to see God in the faces of the poor and dispossessed, in those who suffer from disease or oppression or loneliness, to refuse to shun those of another race or those who have been shaped by a different culture or who worship God in a different way. The first commandment of Judaism belongs to all people of all faiths. The Lord is Our God, the Lord alone! Though we call God by many names, God is the God of all people.
At each Mass, as we approach the communion rite, we pause and recite what has become known as The Lord’s Prayer. That prayer begins by reminding us that we are addressing “Our Father.” I have come to regard these first two words as the most important words of the entire prayer for they remind us that God is not my possession. God belongs to us all. God’s Word was meant to be heard by all people. As we receive God today, we pray that God’s Word will indeed penetrate our hearts and make us whole.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator