What do we want? Not sentimentality. Not someone to feel sorry for us.
The cry of the ten lepers in the Gospel story (Lk17:11-19) is often our cry: Jesus, have pity on us! What do we want? Not sentimentality. Not someone to feel sorry for us. We want someone to make something out of our nothingness just as God created the entire universe out of nothing.
Because those ten lepers didn’t just suffer; they lived in affliction, which Simone Weil calls “the grand enigma of human life.” For “affliction hardens and discourages because, like a branding iron, it imprints the depths of the soul with contempt, disgust, and even repulsion of oneself. Little by little it injects the poison of inertia into the soul.” We know full well what she is talking about.
But the ten lepers didn’t give in to inertia. The miracle of those tortured souls is that they never stopped searching. Simone Weil says that “the afflicted have no need of anything else in this world except someone capable of paying attention to them.” And by some marvel of grace, the ten lepers were convinced that that Someone was real. “At a distance” — not just from Jesus, but from themselves — the lepers call out to a Presence. Their plea expresses a deepfelt conviction of St. Ignatius of Antioch: “In God’s mercy I need your love to make me worthy of the destiny that is mine.”
One of the lepers, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. “I belong to what makes me grateful” (L. Giussani). The leper comes back bursting with thanks because he has discovered that he is part of a belonging. That was his destiny! As wretched as his life of disease truly had been, he came to realize that he wanted Jesus more than he wanted healing. “Thanksgiving is real, interior knowledge” (Julian of Norwich).
And it was precisely his experience of agony that led the leper to such gratefulness. For the first meaning of agon is “assembly” — it is any contest or battle that brings people together in a struggle that leads to victory. The more thankful the leper is, the more his belonging to Jesus increases.
Conversely, as St. Bernard warns, there is “only one thing that can stop our progress after our conversion: our ingratitude.” For ingratitude “dries up the fountain of divine graces” (St. Frances Xavier Cabrini). A dear friend of mine, who lived in recovery after many miserable years of struggling with alcoholism, would always say, “Anything that we are not grateful for, we lose.”
Maybe the leper prayed in the words of St. Gregory of Narek: “It is by bonds of love that I am drawn. It is not for his gifts, but for the Giver that I yearn.”
This is why we come to Mass on Sunday. Amidst our agony, we come to plea for pity. We join with the assembly to experience together the communion by which we rise above every affliction. We belong to what makes us grateful: to the Body of Christ. Our worship is a work of thankfulness, that is, Eucharist.
Jesus closes the distance in our life so that, filled with his Presence, we can go out and pay attention to someone who is waiting for us in their affliction.