"Health," said a very bright and good-natured colleague of mine, "seems absolutely necessary for human flourishing. After all, if you don’t have your health, you can’t very well contribute your talents to the community."
Most of the other members of our seminar agreed. That in itself was illuminating, because we didn’t agree on a whole lot. We could agree on no definition of human nature, nor even on whether such a thing existed. We could agree on no definition of the good. We were not sure, granting for argument’s sake that human beings were free, where that freedom lay, how it was made manifest, and what it was good for. But we knew at least that without health, you cannot have much of a life.
And yet I sat there, uneasy, wanting to concede the obvious, that health is a good thing, and very much not wanting to concede what is not so obvious, that there is no point whatsoever to suffering. My eyes wandered over to the crucifix upon the wall, and that epitome of what it means to be human, and good, and, shockingly enough, free — free to love, even unto death.
In our postcultural time, as I see it, we slide toward the inversion of the communion of saints: the collectivity of the self-willed. We are simultaneously indistinct from one another, and disunited. We rejoice in no transcendent good that blesses us all together and blesses each one of us uniquely. But those of us who profess the Catholic Faith still have a way of beholding the world that marks us apart from our neighbors, as surely as if we bore the cruciform ashes on our foreheads every day of the year. We are seldom aware of this way of beholding, and yet it is there, and maybe it is time for us to think about it more keenly.
For the world knows the comforts of the world, and though comforts do not bring hearts and souls together, they can assuage the pain of loneliness and make the ride on the conveyor belt to death a little smoother. But we Catholics cast our eyes toward heroes who left comfort far behind, knowing both suffering and joy. I think of Blessed Margaret of Castello, born in 1287 to a cruel Italian warlord and his wife. The child Margaret was lame, stunted, deformed in feature, and blind. Her parents gave out that she had died, revealing the terrible secret of the child’s identity to but a few maids in their fortress home and to the priest.
That man, Margaret’s confessor, perceived in her a ready intelligence and a devout heart. All the worse for the little girl, for against the bitter protests of the priest, her father conceived the idea of walling her up as an anchoress, in a small cubicle attached to the chapel in the village some miles away. There Margaret lived in almost total isolation for nine years, till she was released at age sixteen.
For most of her life she was shunned and mocked, but she bore insults with such meek heroism that she won many to her side, particularly the poor, among whom she often lived in the streets, to whom she ministered (for though she was blind, she could work hard, cook, clean, and tend the sick), and who ministered in turn to her. She spent a year or two in a convent, as a novice of an order of nuns who had grown slack in their observance of their ancient rule. At first the nuns were kind to her, but when Margaret quietly but firmly attempted to keep the rule — for instance, by declining to accept gifts from rich patrons — they hated her for it, and expelled her from the convent.
Is that, so far, a life of human flourishing?At the point of despair, she lay prone upon the dusty street, and she seemed to hear in her mind the voice of the wounded Christ, saying, "Margaret, will you also leave me?" No, she said; no, she loved Christ too dearly, and if suffering was to be her lot, then she would suffer beside Him, rejected even by the poor, yet loving them all the same. Her reputation for sanctity grew, and when she died — at age 33 — the common people gathered in a great crowd to demand that she be buried in the church. The miraculous healing of a paralyzed girl settled the debate. Margaret’s remains, almost seven hundred years later, are incorrupt.
It has occurred to me that the wise and prudent of my world — I mean academe — would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason why an infant Margaret of Castello should be allowed to see the light of day. Yet, for all their wisdom, they can agree on little beyond that it is good to enjoy the health of our brittle bodies and a few amenities of modern living. Margaret, who had a keen mind, had an even greater heart, and lived a more human life than we can imagine, because she loved much, suffering patiently and praying for those who persecuted her. Her life was full because it was good. She folded her pain into her daily happiness of loving Christ and loving His image in her neighbors.
We Catholics still retain some patches of a culture, insofar as a story such as Margaret’s makes sense to us, causing our hearts to beat more quickly and our eyes to glisten with understanding. Our opponents, though legion, have no particular way to look upon the world, except to say, with the smirk of weariness, that there is no particular way to look upon the world.
Yet I am persuaded that secretly they envy us that we see something, and that we all see, in our sundry ways, the same thing. Or rather the same Person, in the features of men’s faces. The world sees success in a business suit, and we see Christ in the poor little man of Assisi, halting down the slope of Mount Alvernia, his palms bright with blood.
The world sells cruises, a vast swimming pool and spa afloat; we see Francis Xavier on the shore of Japan, fumbling his way to preach the gospel, stuttering out Japanese in a heavy Basque accent. The world sells sex, as cheap as dirt and, finally, not much more interesting, and we see the blessed Mother, appearing in royal womanhood to the peasant Juan Diego.
The world sees the unwanted — the orphan lying alone at night, the old man alone and losing his mind — and wishes in pity to ease their pain by ushering them out of our way. We see our saints of loneliness, Charles de Foucauld, Benoit Labre, and that unknown soldier named in our prayers, the Most Abandoned Soul in Purgatory. The world dispenses anodynes for grief, but we take grief in, and make up in ourselves what is lacking, as St. Paul says, in the suffering of Christ. The world sells fun, and we look for joy, what Dante called the "laughter of the universe."
The world has weekends, and we have holy days. The world prepares us to be food for worms; the Church invites us to the wedding feast of the Lamb. The clock rules the world, but God is the creator of time and all its works, and time is but the moving image of eternity. The world is blind, but Margaret of Castello saw. Let us see likewise, and proclaim what we see. But we had better proclaim it loudly. For that old world is hard of hearing, too.