Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Strange theology, deeper healing

Doctor Strange and the Ancient One

On my flight home from Boston this past Sunday, I settled in to watch the remake of the film version of Doctor Strange.[1]   Marvel Comics fans will be familiar with the story.  Dr. Stephen Strange is a renowned, but arrogant, surgeon (imagine that!); the center of his own world.  He only takes the most interesting and challenging cases, those that will burnish his reputation.  If a case seems hopeless, or beneath his talents, he couldn’t be bothered.  Beneath the surface of his success he is driven by an outsized fear of failure.  Nothing – and no one – is allowed to penetrate his fa├žade of self-sufficiency and control.

When Strange suffers a near-fatal automobile accident that leaves his hands partially paralyzed, his worst nightmare is realized.  He can no longer perform surgery.  In response, he doubles down on his refusal of vulnerability, driving away the very people who most love him and desire to help him find another way to live.  He squanders his resources trying vainly to restore his hands, leaving him lonely, penniless, and despairing.

Desperate, he learns of a man who has miraculously recovered from a seemingly hopeless spinal cord injury; a man Strange had turned away as a hopeless case.  Strange tracks him down at a basketball court, and is stunned to discover that the man has indeed made a full recovery.  He presses the man to reveal the source of his healing, leading him on a quest to Kathmandu and the monastery of Kama-Taj.

Strange has no idea what he will find there, but he has nowhere else to turn.  When he finally arrives at Kama-Taj after much searching, he encounters the mysterious Ancient One, a spiritual master, who challenges all of his preconceptions.  When she suggests that there is a level of spiritual healing that is more than merely physical, Strange is contemptuous, declaring, “There is no such thing as spirit.  We are made of matter and nothing more.”  


Might St. James be your Kama-Taj, a place to which you are driven out of a desperate desire for healing?  We all carry wounds in need of healing; some visible, many deeply hidden.  Perhaps you share Dr. Strange’s nagging fear of failure, of not being good enough, unable to meet some standard you have internalized.  You worry that others, even God, will reject you.  If nothing else, we all carry the wound of mortality, the fear of death, wondering if we really are nothing more than matter, an accidental confluence of atoms in an ultimately dark and cold universe that briefly flickers into being and then is snuffed out forever. 

We arrive here and encounter the Ancient One, Jesus, who invites us to realize our true identity – so much more than mere matter.  We settle for the regard of others, a good reputation, and the earthly treasures we so assiduously pursue.  We have our reward.  But there is so much more that we desire, a heavenly treasure of surpassing value that our Father/Mother wishes to give us in secret.[2] 


Only after an overwhelming demonstration of spiritual power that literally blows his mind, does Strange become willing to explore the Ancient One’s teaching.  But Strange is a slow learner.  He does not open himself readily to mystery, to spiritual power that he neither understands nor fully controls.  He has great difficulty with spiritual practices.  In frustration, his damaged hands still weak and shaking, he pleads with the Ancient One, “how do I get from here to there?” – to the healing I desire.  She responds, as spiritual masters to often do, with her own question, “How did you get to reattach severed nerves and put a human spine back together bone by bone?”  “Study and practice,” replies Strange, “years of it.”


Years of study and practice.  Whoever said spiritual growth is supposed to be quick and easy?   Karen Armstrong, the well-known historian of religion, notes that all of the great religious traditions advanced the development of human consciousness, awareness of the transcendent dimension of life, primarily by developing practices that changed people at a profound level.  But we have to be willing to be changed.  We have to commit ourselves to ethical behavior and disciplined habits of awareness and compassion.[3] 

This is the heart of Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our practices of piety (justice and righteousness might be a better translation) are in the service of others, not ourselves.  They invite a transfiguration of the self from being self-serving to other-serving, from being self-centered to being God-centered.  The great truth is this: “It is not about you.”


Dr. Strange throws himself into spiritual study and practice with the same resolve with which he mastered Western medicine, and makes remarkable progress in the mystical arts; yet, his hands remain partially paralyzed.  He becomes less self-preoccupied as he is slowly drawn into Kama-Taj’s larger mission of resisting the forces of evil that seek to dominate and destroy life on earth.   In the climactic meeting between Dr. Strange and the Ancient One, Strange realizes that he has a choice to make.  He can use his new-found spiritual power to cure his hands and go back to his old way of life, or he can accept his woundedness and discover a more profound healing in an entirely new way of life in service to others. 

The old fear of failure still haunts Dr. Strange.  As the Ancient One comments earlier in the film, “We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”  Strange isn’t sure he is up to the challenge of this new way of life. “Surrender, Stephen,” the Ancient One assures him.  “Silence your ego and your power will rise.” 


The imposition of ashes that we receive today is an outward sign of the inward acceptance of our woundedness, our demons, our mortality.  Our wounds never really go away, but neither need they define us. We can engage in spiritual practices for ourselves alone, regarding our wounds as impediments to an old self-centered way of life.  It was that sort of approach that earned Jesus’ withering dismissal of those who “already have their reward.”  We can settle for earthly treasure.  These ashes represent a commitment to seek a deeper healing in service others.

When we accept our wounds, we can begin to learn from them.  We can integrate them into a larger wholeness that is generative of wisdom and compassion.  When the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, his wounds remain visible.[4]  They do not disappear, but rather become the touchstone of healing for others.  They are a source of power: cracks in our well-defended ego through which the power of God emerges to resist evil and mend the world. 

Like Dr. Strange, we have a choice.  We can pursue a superficial healing, making the wounds go away only to resume a mundane, unenlightened existence, much like the fellow on the basketball court who sent Dr. Strange on his quest in the first place.  Or, we can embrace our wounds, silencing our ego so that we can give voice to a deeper truth, a more encompassing healing, that unites us with Christ’s mission of reconciling all things to God.[5] 

Our reception of the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood unites us with Christ in his self-sacrifice, his self-giving, offering our own brokenness for the healing of the world.   In this Sacrament we open ourselves to a transcendent power that reveals the glory of God’s love and mercy at work in the world in and through us.   We realize the truth of St. Paul’s paradoxical acclamation: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”[6] 

Our mortality unites us with the great cycle of death and resurrection in which all things are being made new.  When we consciously choose to step into the flow of this powerful energy of love, when we silence the ego, we realize the greater reward, the heavenly treasure.  The kingdom of God is among you.[7]   Today is the day of salvation.[8]  We can let go of our death-grip on the old way of life to which we cling, so that we can receive the new life that God desires for us.  We can choose the deeper healing.

[1] Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios & Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.
[2] Matthew 6:1-21.
[3] Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. xiii-xiv.
[4] Luke 24:38-40; John 20:24-29.
[5] II Corinthians 5:17-21.
[6] II Corinthians 12:8-10.
[7] Luke 17:21.
[8] II Corinthians 6:2.