Eucharistic Discipleship: The Works of Mercy

I have been writing for several weeks know about our need for healing in relation to the theme of Eucharistic discipleship. So far I have touched on the resurrection of the body, the healing of sin, and the practice of virtue. This may seem counterintuitive because when we speak of healing what first comes to mind is healing from mental or physical illness.  Nevertheless, I have followed this order because while we most readily grasp the need for healing in relation to mental and physical illness, it is important to see illness within the broader picture of God’s plan.

Often today, illness, together with the pain and suffering attendant upon it is seen as the supreme evil. As a result many think that when a disease becomes incurable, then there is no point in living anymore. Indeed many of our social values and many of our public policies seem to presuppose that the flight from pain is of supreme importance in human life. This is just one more sign of the degree to which we have simply lost the big picture, the perspective on life that only God can give to us.

So where does illness, physical or mental fit into this picture? The first thing to realize is that the fact of physical and mental suffering is a consequence of sin, but it does not follow that what any one person suffers is a personal punishment on account of his sins. The rationale for the distribution of suffering in human life is a mystery impenetrable to the human mind and known only to God. Further, mental or physical illness need not separate a person from God at all, any more than the Cross separated Jesus from God. Indeed, mental and physical illness, when born in a spirit of faith, can help a person draw closer to God.

Sometimes a person first learns to turn to God only when God gets their attention, so to speak, by allowing them to suffer some grave injury or disease. Still, unless a person has already developed a life of faith and prayer, serious suffering can become a burden that is almost impossible to bear. One might say that it is important that a person learn to pray when he is well, because otherwise he might discover that when incapacitated by suffering, he no longer has the knowledge or strength to learn, much less do.

So while mental and physical illness can be an occasion for a person to draw close to God, illness can so incapacitate a person that they become incapable of consciously drawing near to a God whom they have never known before in any real way beyond going through the motions of religious practice. I put the emphasis on ‘consciously’ because the relation between God and the unconscious realms of the soul whose conscious life has become an unending, incapacitating, agony is a mystery hidden from our knowledge.

The capacity to draw near to God on a conscious level is inseparable from the interior freedom that enables us to make deliberate decisions. The more serious forms of mental illness bind a person’s interior freedom, rendering him incapable of deliberate decisions or of putting decisions into effect in any real way.

We can see this in addictions – which at times can be a sort of self-induced mental illness. The stereotypical alcoholic is driven by his desire to drink which deprives him of any sort of sound judgment; he might have enough recognition of his own problem to vow that he will quit drinking (tomorrow), but his words will be empty, he has no capacity to put them into effect.

Generally, in the more extreme situations, the only thing a person might be capable of doing is seeking help. In less extreme situations, a person’s freedom is wounded and limited, but there is a greater capacity both to seek help and to engage in some positive activities on one’s own.

It is important for people of faith to recognize that helping people in these situations often requires encouraging them to seek the professional help they need. At the same time, in the mental health profession, there are doctors and counselors who are very open to working in a positive respectful manner with people of faith and there are others who practically consider faith itself to be a form of mental illness, a delusion that needs to be cured.

One of the great evils of mental illness is the social isolation that often goes along with it and exacerbates the problem. The person who suffers from mental illness needs the support of family and friends.

Further, the eucharistic community that is true to itself (or better true to the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood) can do great good by welcoming the mentally ill person in its midst. Above all, if the mentally ill person is a Catholic and has sufficient capacity to receive communion, Jesus himself is capable of bringing about remarkable healing and consolation through his eucharistic presence. Nevertheless, we should never substitute faith for proper medical attention. The two should walk hand in hand.

I have focused on mental illness because it is more incapacitating, but the same principles apply to physical illness. Healing should not rely purely on faith, but on a faith lived out in collaboration with the medical profession and the support of family, friends, and parish church.






Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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