[Listen to audio] Grace has a way of creeping up on us.Before we realize it, Jesus has been at work shaping us into his very own Body. We’re just not able to see ourselves as he does yet.
For instance, I had a major surgery when I was in my early twenties. The surgeon prescribed months of post-op rehab. As soon as possible, I showed up at the therapist’s office.
The woman who greeted me there eyed me warily and, with a chill in her voice, told me I would have to wait while she reviewed my file. Whatever it was I had been expecting from a therapist, this wasn’t it. I realized that she was a speech therapist, not a psychological counselor. But I wasn’t prepared for the Big Nurse routine.
The spare waiting room lacked any decorations and its furnishings included half a dozen plain wooden chairs. For a miserably long half hour my rear end grew increasingly numb and I struggled with the impulse to walk out.
Just as I had formulated the perfect parting remark and decided to leave, the therapist emerged from her office with a softened expression and warmly invited me in. We sat across a small table from each other with a cassette player between us. Several big buttons formed the front of the device. One for play. Another for record. Rewind. Fast Forward. Stop.
She said, “You’ve been speaking without a soft palate for over twenty years. You’ve just had a major surgery to correct a speech impediment. Your pharyngeal flap will make it possible for you to make sounds that were physically impossible for you, like “s”. But you’ll have to do exactly what I tell you to do.”
This was pretty much what I had expected to hear. Life as I had always known it was a struggle to make myself understood. After all, I was born without the soft part of the roof of my mouth.
As a toddler, I had received the first surgery designed to begin the repair of my birth defect. But the second surgery had never happened. I couldn’t say “s” and badly garbled the letter “j.” My speech was distressingly nasal.
My therapist continued, “You haven’t heard yourself since the surgery, have you?”
She reached for the cassette player. My heart froze. Speaking to others—anticipating the rejection and the ridicule and the assumptions about my low intelligence—was hard enough. Hearing a recording of my own nasal, garbled speech was torture.
“I can’t do that,” I told her. “I can’t bear to hear myself like that.”
She said evenly, “If you want to get better, you have to do this.”
She said, “Just talk to me for a minute,” and hit the record button.
For a couple of minutes I protested into the machine. She punched the stop button and said, “That’s enough. Now listen carefully to this and we’ll talk about it.”
A voice I had never heard spoke to me from that little machine. It’s the voice that I’ve come to recognize as my own.
“You don’t need speech therapy,” she said. “When you first came in, I assumed that you had a mental problem. We get that here sometimes. People go to the wrong office. So I figured I had to get rid of you. But when I read your file, I realized that you just weren’t able to hear your new voice yet.”
I just wasn’t able to hear my new voice yet.
Even when we get a new life, it takes some time to know and accept who we’ve been made into.
A surgeon’s skill had given me an entirely new life. A pharyngeal flap closed the airway from my voice box through my nose, mimicking what a normal palate does inside the mouth of most people. That’s how we make sounds like “s” and “j.” A scalpel in the hands of a professional had given me the mechanism for normal speech.
By what seems like a miracle, I used that new mechanism correctly with no instruction. Once the trauma from the surgery had subsided, my speech sounded like that of any normal Southern guy.
I just wasn’t able to hear it. In other words, knowing myself as a person with normal speech was going to take some time.
To put this another way, even after you’ve been healed, it can take a while to recognize and to accept yourself as a healed person.
In my case, I had over two decades of living as an outsider. The surgical procedure had done nothing to remove my habits of defensiveness, fear, and loneliness. I still perceived myself as deformed and off-putting.
I have to admit, when I read a story like Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, my own experience with healing influences my understanding of what’s going on. (Luke 17:11-19)
Jesus heals ten lepers. Only one comes back to say thank you. Some teachers and preachers assume that the other nine lepers felt no gratitude. They went about their merry way without acknowledging Jesus’ mercy.
It may be that those nine lepers were a bunch of ingrates. But it could also be that they had grown so accustomed to feeling repulsive and to being shunned by their community that they continued viewing themselves as lepers. They just couldn’t see their own smooth, healthy skin.
The risen Jesus gives all of us a new life. In Baptism he weaves us into his very own Body. The bread and the wine of Holy Eucharist gradually deepens our participation in his divine life. Jesus is changing us. Giving us a new life. But we just aren’t able to see ourselves as he does yet.
We see this same pattern in Jesus’ own life. After emerging from the tomb, the risen Jesus walked the earth for forty days. According to Ronald Rolheiser, even Jesus had to get used to being a new creation.
Grace creeps up on us. It does its work on us before we even realize it. Our self-perception—and our perception of other people—lags behind the reality that Jesus is bringing about.
Some of us will keep berating ourselves as jerks long after we’ve been forgiven. Even when our old wounds are nearly healed, we might struggle with kicking the habit of resentment. Some of us have been treated as outsiders for so long, we have trouble recognizing ourselves as the beloved children of God.
But over time—through the power of the Sacraments, in the love of the community, in service to the poor and the marginalized—we begin to recognize and accept ourselves as the Body of Christ.
I would like to think that, in their own time, each of those nine lepers caught up with Jesus somewhere or other. They began to see themselves as he does. And that is when the real miracle happened for them. It’s the real miracle that happens for us.
We no longer see others though the lens of our old wounds and prejudices and fears. We begin to see others—especially strangers and foreigners—as Jesus does.