Years ago my colleague Sue was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease progressed quickly, and before long she was getting around in one of those motorized handicapped scooters. I heard she would soon be forced to go on permanent disability because she was having increasing difficulty using a typewriter. (This was in the days before word processors and desktop computers, and she was editor of a company publication.) Then one morning as I was walking past the elevator on the floor where we both worked, the door opened and Sue stepped off. I said hello, then stopped and stared. Was this the same person who had gotten on the elevator in her handicapped scooter only the night before? Too startled for subtleties, I blurted out, “What happened to you?”
Sue was a bit unsteady on her feet but definitely walking, and she was only too happy to tell me exactly what had happened. Her mother had been nagging her for months to come with her to a weekly healing service presided over by a Catholic priest named Ralph DiOrio at a church in Worcester, Massachusetts. Sue had no confidence that a priest could do what medical science could not, but she eventually agreed to go, if only to get her mother off her back. The church was packed, and they wound up sitting in the balcony. Her first clue that something extraordinary was afoot occurred when Father DiOrio announced that a woman with multiple sclerosis was present and should come forward to be healed. Sue made her way down from the balcony in her handicapped scooter. Father DiOrio laid hands on her and prayed, then told her to get up out of her scooter. Sue did as she was told but was not impressed. She had still been able to walk but used the scooter because she tired quickly. However, that night she had a dream in which she was flying like Lois Lane in the Superman movie, only instead of Superman holding her hand, it was Jesus. He told her to let go, but she was afraid she would fall. He assured her she would not, so she let go and continued flying on her own. Sue took this as a sign she should leave her scooter at home when she returned to work the next morning, which was when I encountered her by the elevator.
Sue gained strength swiftly in the days and weeks that followed, and soon there were no traces of her former debility. The reactions of her co-workers were telling. Some regarded her recovery as a miracle, but others struggled to find another explanation. Perhaps there had been some sort of spontaneous remission, or her affliction had been psychosomatic. My boss muttered darkly that she could do herself serious harm walking around like that. Then, a few months later, Sue was offered a better job at another company, which meant that she would have to pass a physical in order to be hired. She told the doctor that she had once had MS but had been healed. After some tests, the doctor could find nothing wrong with her, and she landed the job.
In New Testament times – indeed through most of human history – a person with a serious malady either learned to live with the condition or, more often than not, ended up dying from it. Physicians were few and treatments largely ineffective. Small wonder then that when word got out about Jesus’ healing powers, he was mobbed wherever he went. Some two dozen stories of miraculous healings are related in the four gospels. They almost always involved people with chronic or otherwise incurable conditions, including those who were lame, blind, deaf, leprous or possessed by demons. Jesus frequently asked them whether they believed they could be made well or even whether they wanted to be healed – not an idle question for those who earned their living as beggars and would be deprived of their livelihood if they were deprived of their affliction.
The question of faith looms large in many of the stories. "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" he asks two blind men before restoring their sight. “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” he tells a woman with a hemorrhage who touched his garment, and he later says much the same thing to a blind beggar who is also healed. The father of a boy possessed by a demon is rebuked even for wondering whether there was anything Jesus could do for his son. “All things are possible to him who believes,” Jesus said sternly. "I believe,” cries the desperate father, “help my unbelief!" Apparently all things are not possible where there is unbelief, as Jesus himself discovered after he was unable to perform “mighty works” when he was back home among skeptical neighbors and kin.
What then are we to make of my colleague Sue, who had no faith in miracles and only attended Father DiOrio’s healing service to stop her mother’s nagging? Perhaps it was her mother’s faith that made her well – but wait, there is more to the story. After she left for her new job I did not see her again until some years later, when I happened to run into her at the mall. I was saddened to see she was once again getting around in a handicapped scooter. This time I restrained the impulse to blurt out, “What happened to you?” But, of course, I couldn’t help wondering. I remembered all my co-workers struggling for some rational explanation of Sue’s apparent healing. Now the shoe was on the other foot. We have to rule out lack of faith here, since that was no impediment to her being healed in the first place. Perhaps there had been a spontaneous remission after all, which happens in MS cases, although the timing was certainly unusual. And a spontaneous remission would not explain how she subsequently received a clean bill of health at her employment physical even after telling the doctor she had MS. Fundamentalists might conclude that Sue must have sinned – a standard explanation for affliction in Jesus’ day. By that standard, of course, no one would ever be healed of anything.
I have no explanation for why Sue suffered a relapse after she was apparently healed, much less why she got sick in the first place. We torture ourselves with explanations sometimes, still more with the lack of them. We make excuses with them or resort to them as a way of lying to ourselves. We use them to tidy up. We invoke them when confronted by some circumstance that defies our expectations. Too often our explanations are a palliative against the mystery of life as it actually unfolds.