Tending our brokenness
In our journey to the heart of Christmas this season, we have tried to bring together the rooms of a monastery with our inner landscape. Birthing the Divine challenges us: to open our hearts, to deepen our self, to make room for sacredness and communing, to learn anew and to pause at the threshold. It is a cleansing process, where we welcome the dark, so the light can break in.
Today we enter another monastic space, which teaches us to tend to our vulnerability and brokenness. Monasteries have been since time of old places where the healing arts have been practiced and developed. They have been the first places in Europe running “infirmaries”, places to care for the sick, their own as well as people from the community asking for help. The first apothecaries came out of monasteries, using their knowledge of herbal medicine and their rich medicinal gardens, to create medicine for the common ailments of their time.
Saint Benedict, the. founder of the Benedictine order, went to great length in his monastic rule, to emphasize a healthy life style: He recommended a balanced diet, enough sleep, moderation in eating and drinking, a regular structure of the day, and the balance of vita active and vita contemplative, active and contemplative times throughout each day. But Benedict also saw care for the sick as a central function of the monastery. In this tradition, Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Abbess based much of her theology on our God-given task to work towards the restoration of a healthy soul in a healthy body in harmony with all creation. Thus, infirmaries have been the places to care for the ill, as the latin infirmus suggests, which means weak or sick. The infirmary was often situated outside the cloistered part of the monastery, so the sick could receive visitors, which was understood as an important support on the way to recovery.
Creating space to care for the weak and sick requires the cultivation of humility and patience in both the care giver and the sick person. It means creating space for healing, and space for dying and mourning. This has always been an important part of the monastic community.
We live in a time where the health and wellness industry prospers promising perfect lives. We have outsourced the human vulnerabilities of sickness and death to the expertise of highly specialized medical complexes. We are in love with our illusion of unending health and happiness and do not want to be confronted with the finitude of our human condition, with the possibility of mental and physical hardships. The monastic approach to care for the sick reminds us that weakness, crisis and illness are an integral part of our humanity and thus needs places to tend to.
Thus, from the very beginning, monasteries have been places to heal both the body and soul. It is for this reason that monastic gardens are famous for both their beauty and their healing properties. They rejuvenate the soul and strengthen the body. They are places in which to walk or meditate which also provide medicine from God’s pharmacy, herbal remedies known from early times to keep body and soul healthy. They remind us that a central task of becoming whole and human is maintaining a healthy and wholesome life style. A way of life that cares about health but also about care for the sick, since illness is part of life.
How do we translate this into our inner journey? From the monastic infirmary we learn that weakness needs its room, that we must come to terms with, and even welcome, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness and our need for healing. We must allow ourselves to ask for help when needed. To tend to the imperfections of life, human suffering and hardship, we need empathy, compassion and mercy, for us and others. We need to face, and to smile upon, those places in us which long for healing and those which have been broken and perhaps long forgotten. We need, again and again, to open the gate to our innermost being, the chamber of the heart, so the Divine light can break in and shed light, on what has long lain in darkness there.
From the monastic infirmary we learn that weakness needs its room, that we must come to terms with, and even welcome, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness and our need for healing.
The infirmary helps us recognize that the Christmas story is a story of vulnerability, of a God who walks the way of becoming human from the very beginning. And of a courageous mother, who carries the Divine child to term, and a father, who sticks with his family against all doubts.
As I walk with child through this Christmas season I am reminded of our vulnerability, and of a God who wants to dwell in us, be born in us. As I cannot control my body any longer for my own sake, but must share it now with new life growing in me, I become aware that being in control has been an illusion all along.
Still, God has chosen the woman’s womb to write history, to keep God’s creation going, and to give us a powerful metaphor of how Divine wisdom comes to us — we all must go pregnant with the Divine child, carry the burden of insecurity and fear, of loss and suffering, we must all walk through the growing pains and birthing pangs, until wisdom is born within us.
Mary said her “Yes” to this impossible task and became part of co-creation in the universe. We also must do the “women stuff”, as Richard Rohr points out — the stuff which still offends a patriarchal society, which wants to be in control and does not like the weak Jesus, who offers the other cheek.
God has chosen the women’s womb as a powerful metaphor of how Divine wisdom comes to us — we all must go pregnant with the Divine child, walk through the growing pains and birthing pangs, until wisdom is born within us.
The cycle of life, creation and pro-creation includes suffering and pain, labor and child birth, but the cycle also contains wholeness and healing. For this reason, our broken hearts long for healing, and for a healer who is no stranger to our brokenness. Still, to open ourselves to this healing, we first must tend our brokenness, must realize our wounds. “We must die, we must lose, we must be powerless.” (Richard Rohr 1991, 25)
We do not grow in faith without an inner wound, without a crisis of faith. Surrendering to, embracing, this crisis is the only way we can grow in faith. By getting sick of the rigid God images we have inherited in order, finally, to let them go.
The crisis of faith, and our inner wounds, belong to our journey. As long as we want to hold on, want to control, we will not find to a deeper self. We will live in unhealthy bonds because we do not want to become vulnerable, do not want to embrace the stony silence of the night, which the holy chooses as its stable.
May the wondrous child by its Divine birth show us the way.
How do I tend to my weaknesses and those of others?
Where do I long for healing?
How do I integrate a healthy life style, as well as space for illness, mourning, and healing, into my spiritual journey?