Ad Salutem Humanam
Thomas Aquinas begins his mighty work, the Summa Theologiae, with a discussion of the nature and purpose of sacred teaching. By sacred teaching he means both God teaching us in revelation and our human exploration of that in theology. Aquinas says that this sacred teaching is necessary ad salutem humanam, a phrase that is often translated as ‘for human salvation,’ but might better be rendered ‘for human health.’
Sacred teaching is a healing art meant to bring about human health, human well-being in all its forms, in body and mind as well as in spirit. And like all good medicine it does not just treat the symptoms, but identifies and deals with the underlying causes.
In today’s gospel reading a paralytic is brought to Jesus for healing. The faith of those who bring him and their eagerness is manifest as they dig up the roof to get past the crowd who are blocking their way. But instead of restoring the man to bodily health Jesus does something that seems to us to be very odd. He tells the man that his sins are forgiven. Only a bit later on, as the scribes begin to accuse him of blasphemy, does Jesus command the man to get up and walk, giving him back the use of his limbs.
Jesus is the best of all doctors and he offers us the fullness of human healing and human health in all the actions and words of his life. And in forgiving the man’s sins he is doing what a good doctor does: he identifies the underlying cause behind the symptom of paralysis. The cause is human sin.
In the Bible there is often a tendency to see the physical misfortunes of a person as being the direct result of wrongs that person has done. Jesus does not confirm this idea as such, but he does point to the more fundamental truth lying behind it: that human life, as we experience it, is dislocated from God and as a result falls short of the human well-being that God wants for us. This dislocation is what we name as sin, whether or not any individual is personally blameworthy for it.
This is something we should take very seriously. The recognition that our human health can only be restored through the healing grace of Jesus Christ should fill us with the same eagerness that the paralytic’s helpers show. But for this to happen we have to know what human health is. And this something that God’s sacred teaching tells us. Human beings have human health insofar as they come to make real the great two-fold commandment of love of God and love of neighbour (Lk 10:25-28). Human well-being consists in our coming to experience the life and love of the Trinity, and which extends out to love of our fellow human beings, just the divine love extends out to all human beings in creation and redemption.
This healthiness is something we taste every now and again in prayer, when we experience and delight in the presence of God. It is something we experience when we genuinely want and act for someone else’s well-being, free from any selfish concern. Yet more usually the recognition that human health consists in love of God and love of neighbour brings frustration and pain as we realise how profoundly our human lives are dislocated from God and from what God intends for us.
When we do recognise what human health is and how far from it we are, then we experience the agony and the pain of separation. We recognise the sickness and the paralysis that characterise human life as we experience in the here and now. We recognise our inability by our own efforts to love God and love neighbour and malady that seems to infect our lives, inclining us always to forget God and to act for the harm of our neighbour.
The recognition that human health can only be restored by the healing grace of Jesus Christ drives the paralytic’s helpers to dig up the roof. And once we ourselves have the same recognition we begin to reach out for the healing available in Jesus Christ with the same eagerness and determination. When we come to know what human well-being means and when we come to recognise how profoundly we fall short of it, we begin to thirst for the healing grace that God offer us. We begin to utter with longing and hope the words of the responsorial psalm for today:
As for me I said, ‘Lord have mercy on me,
Heal my soul for I have sinned against you.’
If you uphold me I shall be unharmed
And set in your presence for evermore.