Paralysis of the Soul
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” ~ C. S. Lewis.
That is what Uncle Screwtape advises. In an imaginative tale, C. S. Lewis describes the story of an uncle and nephew. Two devils, a senior and novice, write letters to one another about temptation. The inexperienced devil wants to tempt with all the exciting and licentious sins. Uncle Screwtape advises him otherwise. Just waist the man’s time, he says. Distract him with meaninglessness. Fill his mind with fluff. Make him sleepy, forgetful, and indifferent. Indeed, the gentle slope, the soft underfoot, the rut, is so easy to slip into. We get stuck. We fall into spiritual paralysis. That is the paralysis in us that Jesus Christ most longs to heal.
Our Gospel today is about paralysis. “Just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven’” (Mat. 9:1-2). This group of men pushes through the crowd. They bring into the room someone who is utterly incapacitated. His limbs are useless. He cannot move an inch on his on will. You can imagine the hush in the crowd. Everyone was waiting. Some believed. Others were skeptics. What would the rabbi do? Can God cure the paralyzed?
Most of the time, paralysis is the one disease we believe God cannot heal. I do not mean physical paralysis, but spiritual paralysis. St. Paul writes: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out…I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:15-19). The spiritual life is full of sinkholes.
Along the Alaskan seashore, every summer, fishermen come out to catch Salmon. The fish end a long migration by swimming upstream from ocean to river. They reach the bay and the fishing season begins. But the first day of work is the most gruesome. “Hell day,” they call it. The fishermen wait for the tide to ebb. Then they set out to anchor buoys in huge fields of mud. The mud is full of silt and salt water, and so holds together as a sort of gooey paste or quick sand. With every step, the mud oozes up to your boots or as high up as your chest, and it is no small matter to pull yourself through it. I can think of no scenario so similar to our spiritual journey.
I witnessed this in a six-year-old child the other day. “Why is it,” he asked, “that when I start to pray I have so many thoughts telling me not to?” He was so genuine, so sincere. Right there, in that small mind was the whole story of our struggle for holiness. I groaned inside to think that someone so young, so innocent, is not immune to the struggle. St. Paul goes on to say: “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it…In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war” (Rom. 7:20-23). This is our human condition from childhood to old age.
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home’” (Mat. 9:2-6).
What is our paralysis today? Is it anxiety or depression? If there ever was a time in history when life was predictable, it is not today. Our grandparents were born in a world where Sunday worship and horse and buggies were norms. Our children and grandchildren live in a world of smartphones, highly polarized political and ideological wars, and instant availability of porn and amphetamines. Carl Jung once observed: “About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” That was in the 1960’s. Where are we today? It is no wonder that we are tempted at times to simply crawl into our shells.
In other cases, our spiritual paralysis may be nothing more than our indifference to God. The Book of Acts describes this paralysis: “The heart of this people has become dull, and with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them” (Acts 28:27). If I am honest with myself, these words describe me all too clearly. I begin my day in prayer, but then immediately get sucked into the whirl of life. My endless to-do list fills my thoughts. My ears get clogged up with all the noise around. My eyes spin with the bustle of life and stimulus everywhere. No wonder so many are losing faith. We are too busy to take time to listen and look. The devil does not tempt with grandiose sins. He tempts with “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Life pulls you down to paralysis so easily.
So what is the solution? They brought the paralyzed to the feet of Christ. Christ is the solution, and the Church carries us to him.
“The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls,” St. John Chrysostom preaches. “She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins. Nothing is so joyous in our life as the thanksgiving that we experience in the Church. In the Church, the joyful sustain their joy. In the Church, those worried acquire merriment, and those saddened, joy. In the Church, the troubled find relief, and the heavy-laden, rest. “Come,” says the Lord, “near me, all of you who labor and are heavy-laden (with trials and sins), and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) What could be more desirable than to meet this voice? What is sweeter than this invitation? The Lord is calling you to the Church for a rich banquet. He transfers you from struggles to rest, and from tortures to relief. He relieves you from the burden of your sins. He heals worries with thanksgiving, and sadness with joy. No one is truly free or joyful besides he who lives for Christ. Such a person overcomes all evil and fears nothing!”
Spiritual paralysis is a real thing. Life bombards us, it cripples us, like the paralytic’s disease in our gospel today. So gradually, we find ourselves trapped in depression, anxiety, or simply indifference to God. Meanwhile, the doors of the church are open. The sacraments are available to all. When we check-in to the hospital of souls, we will witness our paralysis cured. Christ, in His holy Church, offers us life and healing.