October 20, 2012

Hansen's of the Heart

Of the many books on my shelf (or truthfully, bookcases' worth of shelves), I prize highly the collaborations of physician Paul Brand and writer Phillip Yancey: Fearfully & Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Problem of Pain. Each delves deeply into the mine of human physiology for deep veins of  spiritual wisdom. Brand began as a physician missionary in India, and worked for decades with leprosy patients. It was he who finally determined that leprosy (or Hansen's disease, as it's also called) attacks the nerves and simply destroys the ability to feel.

This is a stunning realization. It means every single deformity of leprosy is traceable to an injury or negative contact that was never felt. If I do not feel the surface of my eye drying out, I do not blink; the eye dries out, and blindness eventually results. If I walk too far in poor shoes and get a blister, but do not feel it, it can ulcerate and become infected. Infection eventually takes the whole toe or even whole foot, and I never felt a thing.

Running errands yesterday, I pondered leprosy and its effects. Thoughts about the heart, surrendered or self-protected, meshed strains in fugue with thoughts about leprosy and pain. While steering, I was suddenly stunned with what spiritual leprosy must look like to God...

We live in a manipulative world that excels at abuse of the emotional appeal. Our solution to this is to numb ourselves to appeal, grow calluses so we are not so easily taken advantage of. We cultivate loss of sensation and think it a good thing. I have not weighed all possible options, but it seems to me that every deformity of character, as with leprosy, is traceable to a lack of sense or perception. When life crosses my path in its muddy, messy hallmarks, I steel myself to look away or rise above it. I fail to feel. Over time, that lack of feeling leads to blindness.

Brennan Manning wrote of standing in Times Square years ago, talking with friends. He was approached by a prostitute who recognized him. The woman kept trying to get his attention, regularly interrupting his conversation. Pent up with frustration, he finally whirled on her and heatedly told her to stop bothering them. She withdrew, and her softly-spoken response left him stunned to sensibility: "Jesus wouldn't have said that to Mary Magdalene." He was so caught up in the image of who he was, assured of his celebrity, he forgot to see the life in front of him.

I wonder what it would look like to see the spiritual realm in physical terms. I wonder how many people around me (and the image in the mirror, too) would reveal grotesque contortions of soul. How many times in my life have I pushed through an inconvenient interruption by telling myself to walk right past? How many limbs have I lost, how many perceptive faculties have I forfeited, by choosing to believe that not feeling is somehow better, because pain is intolerable? I don't know anyone with Hansen's disease, but I can guarantee that not a single one would agree with that lie.

1 comment:

Erin said...

For some reason I got a mental image of the Picture of Dorian Gray while reading this. What would we look like if our portraits showed our souls? Numbness can be so dangerous. Thank you for sharing this, Susan.