|Lloyd "Jay" Butler|
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ – Acts 9:10-16
Saul – who would become St. Paul the Apostle – had a vision of the Risen Lord and was struck blind. He is waiting for Ananias to come and restore his sight. Previously, Saul persecuted the followers of Jesus, so Ananias is none too happy to receive this particular assignment. In fact, he is afraid. Saul’s reputation as a brutal enforcer of Jewish orthodoxy preceded him. But the Lord assures Ananias that the one who, in his blindness, caused so much suffering to those who invoked the Name, will himself experience much suffering for the sake of the Name.
At first blush, this sounds like the usual tit-for-tat. Saul did a lot of bad things to people, and now he is going to get what is coming to him! But that is not why Saul suffers. This isn’t a matter of retributive justice, but rather of conversion. Saul suffers in the process of becoming Paul, someone much more and much different than he could possibly have imagined. He suffers for the sake of the Name.
“Suffering for the sake of the Name” had a very specific reference for 1st Century Jews. In the religion of Israel, the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple wore a crown that was engraved with the Holy Name. Only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, where the Presence of God dwelt, and only on the Day of Atonement.
The ritual of the Day of Atonement involved the sacrifice of two goats. The first goat was killed and its blood, which represented the life force, was used as a substitute for the High Priest’s life. The High Priest would take the blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it on the kapporet, the place of the presence of God, and then sprinkled the blood in the other parts of the Temple. This ritual act symbolically renewed the world, embodying the movement of grace from heaven to the rest of creation. In his person, the high priest represented the presence of God with the people.
When the high priest emerged from the Temple, he placed his hands on the second goat, transferring the sins of the people to it and then driving it into the desert. The High Priest symbolically carried the sin of the people in order to remove it, so that they, too, could participate in the renewal of the world. In the Letter to the Hebrews and in Paul’s own writings, Jesus is described as the sin-bearer who renews the world, the High Priest par excellence. He suffers for the sake of the Name. He enters into the reality of human experience and embodies the presence of God with us, removing the barriers that prevent us from receiving this Presence. Ananias is told that Saul/Paul, will similarly suffer for the sake of the Name.
What is true for St. Paul is true for all those who have been baptized into the Holy Name of the Trinity, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We are invited to suffer: to undergo an immersion into the reality of the world, to carry the joys and sorrows of others, and to embody the presence of God for them. In this sense, “to suffer” is not only to experience pain, but to willingly and consciously enter fully into human experience. It is certainly not to suffer pain for the sake of pain, or as a form of punishment, but rather as an act of compassionate solidarity for the sake of healing and renewal.
What are we willing to suffer – to undergo – for the sake of the Name, in order to be bearers of the presence of God and renew the world?
Like Ananias, we are often afraid to enter into the experience of others, especially when that experience is painful. We resist reality, preferring to edit out the parts we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable. The invitation to spiritual maturity is an invitation to accept reality in all its manifestations. In this sense, conversion is a movement from a self-centered and limited ego consciousness into a wide open awareness and acceptance of all of our experience. It is a movement from “small mind” into “big mind” that embraces suffering in the service of a larger wholeness.
I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying. I do know that, near the end, Jay accepted death, even welcomed it. “I’m done,” he said. “I want out of this prison.” His body had become a prison. Jay was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some 18 years ago. Eventually, he lost the use of both legs and his right arm. Swallowing food had become impossible.
About a year before he died, the disease began to affect him cognitively as well. Short-term memory was hit and miss. His personality also changed. Jay was always a gentleman, never speaking ill of anyone, kind, generous, and self-deprecating. As his world became smaller and the disease process took its toll, Jay became angrier and more fearful.
Fortunately, my mother is a retired nurse and was able to care for Jay at home. In the final months of his life, Jay and Mom benefited from home hospice care as well. I was able to spend the final month of his life with them, leaving just five days before he died.
I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying. I do know how I experienced it. It was painful to watch someone I loved suffer so much. It was awful to see how Mom became a prisoner in her own home as Jay became a prisoner of his body. I was angry and resentful that their lives had come to this place.
What was most surprising, however, was discovering the expectations I carried about how someone is “supposed” to die. My ideal was that dying should be a fully conscious process, entered into with courage, trust, and even curiosity. One should be grateful for the care one receives and avoid becoming a burden as much as possible. The closer one comes to death, the more transparent to God one should become, a window into an abyss of love. We do not have to be afraid of death.
I have witnessed people die this way. The possibility is a matter of faith, and I still have hope for such an end. In being open to Jay’s dying, I had to accept, however, that we are not in control of how we die, much less how other people die! This is, perhaps, the ultimate experience of powerlessness. We all must undergo dying – our own as well as those we love.
Jay was not in control of even his response to his dying. The disease process robbed him of that privilege. The only thing left to him was resistance or surrender. In the end, he chose surrender and entrusted himself to God.
What I came to realize was that in his powerlessness and absolute vulnerability, Jay’s suffering was not meaningless. He suffered for the sake of the Name. He became transparent to God in spite of his disease. It was precisely with respect to what he could not control that he surrendered to love; Mom’s love, my love, the love of friends and family, the church’s love, God’s love. MS robbed him of everything until nothing was left but love.
Jay was so much more than his disease. I remember the whole arc of the nearly 30 years I was privileged to know him. He underwent so much more for the sake of the Name than just MS, and not all of it was painful by a long shot. He experienced joy for the sake of the Name too. What Jay taught me in his dying, however, was that we can trust what we cannot control. We can be open to reality as it presents itself to us, moment by moment, and discover God there at work to make the whole creation new.
How much can we suffer for the sake of the Name? Everything. We can be open to the full range of human experience. Ananias could overcome his fear and resistance to God’s reconciling work. Saul could even become Paul. No matter how blind to reality we become, we can begin to see again. And accept. And heal. And, finally, surrender to Love.
Thank you, Jay, for being my Ananias, for releasing me from a blindness I didn’t even know I had. Thank you for this final gift, and all the others you’ve given me.