From time to time I retreat at the Episcopal Monastery of the Holy Cross. It’s about 90 miles north of New York and sits perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. There’s a lot of quiet at Holy Cross, but too much quiet makes me kind of nervous, and so I like to mix my quietness with activity. Over the years I have participated in various guided retreats. I’ve studied things like the physicality of prayer and the feminine aspects of the divine. But my favorite retreat was the one I did about three years ago on writing an icon, which is how one refers to the process of painting one. You “write” an icon.
In addition to the history and theology of icons, I learned technique. I learned that icons are made up of layers and layers of thin, watery paint. One must be careful not to be too heavy handed. And because the layers are thin, it takes a long time to paint an icon and requires a great deal of patience – which is actually one of the points. And that repetitious action done over a long period of time is supposed to help to free your mind and make space for God.
Our instructor told us that each stroke of the brush could be offered up as a prayer, independent of words. And that focus (or lack thereof) changed the whole experience of prayer for me. Painting as prayer was not so much about my mind and forming concepts as it was about making an opening in me where transformation could occur. And once I was more open, I remember feeling rather overcome with gratitude for the gifts that surrounded me. As the monks chanted the Psalms in the chapel services each day, I was conscious of being part of the great sweep of Jewish and Christian history and devotion. In the great room, sitting quietly with the other pilgrims, I was conscious of the communion of saints that does not need words. Over delicious meals, I was conscious of taste and smell and feel, and of the food becoming fuel in my body. And all of that consciousness made me feel more fully alive than I had in some time. And I walked around for days full of gratitude
I wish I didn’t need a monastery and an icon writing class to be fully tuned into the incredible blessing of simply being alive. But the truth is that our lives are so full of busyness and franticness that we need something out of the ordinary to make us stop and open ourselves to gratitude.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be tried and executed unjustly. On his way, Luke says that Jesus passed through the region between Samaria and Galilee, which is strange because that wasn’t on his way to Jerusalem. On this circuitous route, Jesus entered a village where he encountered ten lepers. Apparently his reputation as a healer preceded him and so the lepers approached, careful to keep the distance as prescribed by the Law. And because they were still far away, they began to cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
And mercy is exactly what they needed. They lived lives of quiet desperation, sequestered on the outskirts of town. Everyone was afraid of catching what they had. Everyone despised them because everyone believed their illness to be a curse from God. So yes, what they needed was mercy.
Luke does not describe the moment of their dramatic healing. Instead, Luke says that Jesus simply told them to go show themselves to the priest to verify their healing. And Luke writes that as they went they were made clean. It was in their movement that they were transformed.
I imagine that when they realized that their diseased skin was now smooth and soft that they were overcome. And so adrenaline kicked in and they ran as fast as they could toward their restored lives. Once the priest checked them out, they could go back home for the first time in years. They could embrace their families and sit down to a meal and sleep next to a warm loved one. I would have run too. I would have never looked back. But one of the lepers did.
This one, when he realized that he was healed, stopped in his tracks and made a beeline to Jesus. Luke says that he praised God with a loud voice and prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And then Luke adds this explosive throwaway line: “And he was a Samaritan.”
And here the story becomes dangerous and subversive. In a modern retelling, Jesus might say that the one who returned was a Muslim cab driver or an undocumented restaurant worker or a persecuted transgender teen. Samaritans were despised because like Muslims and the undocumented and transgender folks, they were the wrong kind of people. But Luke makes this double outcast – a Samaritan and a leper – the hero.
Then Jesus says something rather odd. Maybe it was tongue in cheek; said with a twinkle in his eye: “Where are the other nine? Is it only this foreigner who has returned to give thanks and praise?” Then he looked at the man and said: “Get up sir. Go on about your life, sir. Your faith has made you well.”
And at this point, Jesus wasn’t talking about his healing from leprosy. In verse 15 when the tenth leper realized he was healed, the Greek word used there implies physical wellness. But after he returned to give thanks, Jesus uses a different word altogether. When Jesus says that the man’s faith has made him well, he uses the word “sozo” which implies wholeness, completion, salvation. It is not an exaggeration to say that his thanksgiving made him whole.
I walk through this life blind to most of its glories. I’m just too busy and distracted and angry and frustrated to really pay attention, let alone to be thankful. I am most naturally one of the other nine lepers. I receive blessing upon blessing, but just keep on about my business, never even slowing down. But what would my life be like; what would your life be like if we were more like number ten? What if we stopped and took the time to retrace our steps in such a way as to open ourselves to a transforming kind of gratitude?
I think that’s what happened to me as I painted my icon of the Angel Gabriel; and as I sat in the chapel and listened to the Psalms being chanted; and as I gazed at the sunrise over the Hudson. I had stopped in my tracks long enough to be quiet enough to actually be present in my own life. In those few days, I was present to the presence of God. And I was so thankful for everything. And I felt more whole than I had in years.
The Rev. Barbara Sholis writes of the moment she learned she had been diagnosed with cancer. She says she cried for days, but hid that pain from her congregation. Finally, she went to see her spiritual director who invited her to open herself to all the ways that she was not walking this path alone; to all the ways God was still present; to all the ways that she was still alive. And driving home from that appointment, she formed this prayer: “Seek God, see God, choose life.” And that focused, conscious choice for gratitude guided her throughout her journey of treatment and recovery. “Seek God, see God, choose life.”
And that is something we can all do. Thanks be to God. Amen.