We encounter the gospels more fruitfully when we approach with questions. A good beginning is simply to ask why a given story was recorded in the first place. Why, for example, do we hear of a deaf and mute man being healed by Jesus? (Mk 7: 31-37) Why did the early Church remember this incident, among many such, see it as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise (35: 4-7), and share it with us? Certainly to present Jesus as endowed with power, but what’s the significance of this particular power for us? Most of us aren’t deaf or mute, and most of those who are will pass their lives without receiving the same healing. What hope does the gospel want to incite in our hearts? Perhaps this: that someday, when it truly matters, lips long sealed will open.
A story to make my point. As a high school and college student, I spent most of my summers working in my Father’s grocery story. But one college summer, a surgery I had just undergone made such work impossible. A former high school teacher, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who had recently been named a pastor, invited me to work with him in his new parish.
The unique feature of this parish was the friary attached to it. It was large enough to serve as a residence for retirement-age friars, who could no longer do vigorous active ministry. None of these older men had been my teachers, but living, working, and praying with them for the summer was a wonderful experience.
One of them was a bit intimidating. Call him Gottfried, because that’s the first thing one noticed, his German accent. He must have been an engine of efficiency is his day, because he was always searching me out. “Boy, ve have a tree dat must be pruned.” Out we would go into the hot Kansas sun. I’d saw off a branch he’d selected, and then he’d select another one. I began to fret that we were eradicating trees, not pruning them.
Another friar, Anthony, was a much more gentle influence. He would regale me with stories of his pastoral ministry and ask me questions about the college seminary.
Each day I would pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the friars, and immediately I noticed something quite odd. Gottfried and Anthony, though they sat on the same side of the chapel and therefore should have prayed the psalm verses in unison, never did so. They were always a word or two apart.
More unsettling was their behavior together outside of chapel. Neither ever acknowledged the other’s presence in the room. Sometimes I’d end up sitting between them at table. Each would carry on a contemporaneous conversation with me, as though the other were not also speaking. Anthony would be recommending castor oil for digestive troubles, and Gottfried would suddenly start talking about the restorative properties of Swiss Chard, but without any acknowledgment of what Anthony had just said.
One day I asked a third friar, Bonaventure, why Anthony and Gottfried never prayed in unison, never acknowledged each other’s presence. “It’s so sad,” he said. “Thirty years ago, Anthony was a very popular preacher and pastor. Back then he wasn’t bald or portly. He was a very handsome fellow. Women adored him. Whether it was true or not — I don’t know — Gottfried told the provincial that Anthony was too friendly with women. It wasn’t exactly an accusation of misconduct, just an insinuation that there might be a problem. They haven’t spoken to each other since then.”
“They haven’t spoken to each other in thirty years? How is that possible?”
“They didn’t plan on being together in retirement. When they both came here, they entered into a mutual silence. It’s been like that for years.”
Return now to the promise of the Gospel: that someday, when it truly matters, lips longed sealed will open. Can you see the significance of the Lord’s power in our lives? Can you understand what a grace it is, when life-giving words finally flow again?
My point is not to judge Anthony and Gottfried. I’ve never met a holier group of men than the Capuchins who taught me, and I wouldn’t exclude a wounded Anthony and Gottfried from the ranks of their sanctity. My point is that their story is all too familiar, that human life is full of former friends who will not reach out to each other, of married couples who daily converse and yet cannot speak of some silent concern that truly matters to their relationship, that separates their hearts, one from the other. How much of any human life is marked by silence, because the words that need to be spoken just won’t come?
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the angels know each other intuitively. The distances of space do not separate them. One angel only has to will another angel to know something, and knowledge is immediately shared. Communion is achieved without word, concept, or gesture. But we are not angels. We forge our humanity with words. We must seek each other out; we have to search for the right words; and sometimes we must pray for the grace, the courage, simply to speak them.
More than thirty years have passed since that summer, which I spent with the friars. Gottfried and Anthony had been silent that long before I met them, but I like to think that before each heard the Lord call them home, they shared life-giving words with each other. I don’t know. Just as Christ didn’t heal every sick person in the Palestine of his day, so today we certainly don’t see his power everywhere triumphant. That’s why we need to pray for, and await, outbreaks of grace. And within the silent chambers of the human heart, each of us must gently yet insistently question the self: what parts of my life are burdened and sore, because my lips are too long sealed?
Rev. Terrance W. Klein