“St Catherine and Deeper Desires” (4/2/2019) Jn 5:1-16
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
The sick man never really answers Jesus’ question. Jesus asks, “Do you want to be well?” Rather than saying “Yes, I want to be well,” the sick man instead refers to his daily routine: “Whenever I try to get to the pool of water to be healed, someone else gets there before me.” The man expresses his frustration, but he doesn’t speak of his desire to be healed, which is what Jesus asked about.
It’s as if in the midst of his daily practice, the sick man has forgotten the underlying reason for it all, his desire to be healed. Jesus, in his mercy, heals him nonetheless but tells him not to sin anymore. It seems to me, he’s referring to the fault I have mentioned. The sick man has lost focus on his underlying desire for wholeness. After 38 years of illness, does he even want to be well anymore?
And this sheds light on the Sabbath controversy that begins in the Gospel today. The Jews mentioned here are intent upon observing the Sabbath, yet they fail to desire the Lord of the Sabbath, who is in their midst. Routines are good and necessary, but without a right desire for the Lord, they don’t cut it.
The sick man too has a good routine going, but he has lost touch with his underlying desire. After 38 years of illness, does he even want to be whole anymore? Is he attentive to meeting the Lord who is his wholeness and his salvation?
St Catherine of Siena speaks of a similar thing in the Dialogue. She insists that vocal prayer should be left behind at times when grace draws one up into mental prayer. The obvious exceptions are liturgical prayers like the Mass and Office. By “mental prayer,” St Catherine means a more intimate conversation with God, speaking from the heart and expressing our deepest desires to him. It would be the kind of prayer that simply cries out, “Yes Lord, I want to be healed!” “Be my salvation!” This more intimate communion with the Lord has a certain priority over vocal prayer in our personal prayer.
This is basic enough. But it seems we could also apply Catherine’s teaching to our life of study. Sometimes we read something and are struck with an insight of wisdom and understanding. With this infusion of light, God might be calling us to stop reading for a time and turn to him in prayer, to ponder the insight. If we need to read a lot, don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of dry spells for this. But these flashes of light and insight may be promptings to turn to mental prayer.
In a few lines from the Dialogue, here is what St Catherine hears from God: “A soul may set herself to say a certain number of oral prayers. But I may visit her spirit in one way or another, sometimes with a flash of self-knowledge and contrition for her sinfulness. Sometimes in the greatness of my love, I may set before her mind the presence of my Truth in different ways, depending on my pleasure or her longings. And sometimes the soul will be so foolish as to abandon my visitation, which she senses within her spirit, in order to complete her tally of prayers [or we might add, to finish reading another book].” Catherine concludes, “You see, then, perfect prayer is achieved not with many words but with loving desire” (sect. 66).
It’s this loving desire that Jesus sought from the sick man when he asked, “Do you want to be well?” Yet the man was too occupied with secondary matters, he neglected the visitation of God. From the examples we heard from the Dialogue, we see that these divine visitations can happen in ways that are fairly common: moments of a profound appreciation of the truth of God, or of one’s sinfulness.
So, how attentive are we to these divine visitations, whether they come in vocal prayer, study, or any other time? Are we willing to drop more secondary matters for a time, so we can attend to God’s visitation? If all we have to offer God in this encounter is our loving desire, this is enough. For as we heard in the Entrance Antiphon, “Come to the waters, all who thirst; though you have no money, come and drink with joy.”