Joseph P. Dutkowsky, MD
Dignity and Disability
What is a “Cure” in the Twenty First Century?
Let me first extend my thanks to Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis for his invitation to speak at this congress. It is truly an honor, privilege, and in no small way anxiety provoking for this surgeon to share a podium with such eminent scholars and scientists. In hopes that I might bring something distinctive to this conference, a surgeon does have a unique prospective on the words of the psalmist, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made. You knit me in my mother’s womb.”
My practice involves the care of people of all ages with childhood-onset disabilities. People with Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, and a myriad of genetic conditions are seen daily in my office and operating room. For years when asked why I chose this profession I had no good answer, until I came upon the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Did this man or his parents sin that he was born blind?” Jesus answered that the blindness was not the result of the man or his parents’ sin. The man was born blind, “so the glory of God might be revealed.” Every day in my work I find myself in the revealed glory of God. And, yes, I have the greatest job in the world.
As one approaches the beautiful sanctuary at Lourdes from the Esplanade, one soon encounters the magnificent mosaic depicting the Luminous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Truly luminous in many ways with the Pyrenees sun reflected off the mosaic tiles; to the left of the doors one finds The Savior’s baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin, John, The Baptist. Immediately above the doors, one discovers the marriage feast at Cana in which Mary spoke her last recorded words in The Gospels, “Do whatever He tells you.” To the right one can see the time in which God as man selects three of His disciples to witness The Word in His glory at The Transfiguration. High above the doors one sees the gift of the physical reality of unconditional love of God for His creation. The Body and Blood in the Eucharist given to be consumed enabling Jesus Christ to enter into man and woman, nourish us, and literally become part of mankind once again. At the top of the left stairs one sees the Master teaching his disciples. But above the right stairs is an image that a guide once told me doesn’t fit with the others.
There, a paralytic man is lowered by friends through a hole in the roof. No doubt this was the only way that this disabled man could ever get through the crowd who pushed in upon The Teacher. After their most dramatic encounter, the disabled man, at the command of Jesus, picks up his pallet and walks away. The guide who said this image did not fit with the others was mistaken. Pope John Paul II, a saint who graced our own time on this earth, a man who loved Lourdes and who gave us The Luminous Mysteries, in fact used this scriptural image to introduce the Third Luminous Mystery, “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.”
Is this not also the image of Lourdes? A place where individuals with a multitude of disabilities and maladies come daily in wheelchairs, carts, stretchers, and yes even pallets to be lowered through the roof of the spring water’s surface to encounter the divine in the baths. Through this experience, pilgrims seek and even risk an encounter with The Loving God which no eye, ear, or touch may sense. And yet, very, very few of those who come pick up their pallet and walk away. So what is wrong? Does it not work? Do they lack faith or is it the lack of faith of those who lower them into the water that leaves the disabilities unchanged? Upon reflection, maybe we would be wise in our modern culture to redefine the word “cure” so that we could present a contemporary rational medical basis for the happenings at The Shrine of Lourdes.
Or maybe we have to look at the Scriptures closer. Lowered through the roof on his pallet, the disabled man, paralytic, encounters the God-man, Jesus. What a moment! A man with a severe disability is thrust in direct temporal physical relationship with The Alpha and The Omega, The Creator and the source of all life. Perfect Love meets imperfection. And what does this paralytic man bring to his encounter with the Almighty God? He is immobile, he cannot care for himself, he is totally dependent on others for his basic human needs. No doubt those in the house were disgruntled as this paralytic man was edged into their space which had almost certainly been achieved through pushing and shoving. What right did he have barge in? What good was this paralytic man who was of no use to society? So what does Jesus do? He forgives the man his sins. To the people witnessing this event this was an act of blasphemy. In our time, it seems more like a black comedy. For all the times you have heard this story read in the Gospels, have you ever stopped to think what sins a paralytic man could possibly commit? But Jesus, with the unconditional wisdom of the Father extends the unconditional Love of The Holy Spirit and forgives the man his sins. This is the cure.
Is it not sin that separates man from God? In forgiving the paralytic man his sins, Jesus restores this man to full communion with God. The man becomes a whole creation in intimate relationship with his loving Creator regardless of his physical well being or malady. That is an immense encounter which cannot be overstated. With that almighty proof of divine love and power it is almost nothing for Jesus to order the man to take up his pallet and walk. It is only our limited comprehension that leads us to focus on the physical healing. It is much easier for us to contemplate the ground at our feet than to try to understand the entire cosmos.
Today, people come from across the world to The Shrine at Lourdes with every illness and disability imaginable. Too often they come stripped of their dignity by a narcissistic culture that seeks self pleasure at the expense of human compassion and justice. A culture that craves perfection and is willing to go to drastic physical and financial means to try to achieve it, only to sacrifice reality to a poor transient unsatisfying simulation. The malades are considered outcasts by contemporary society which constantly sends subtle and not so subtle messages that they are somewhat less human than those the culture admires and tries to imitate. The social order asks, “What do disabled people provide to society other than physical and financial burdens?” Human dignity slowly but surely wears away.
It is here, in Lourdes, that The Lady in White has asked humanity to bring all its pain, illness, and disability. It is here that she has called us to bath in and to drink the water of Massabielle. It is in this place where people learn that dignity is a gift from God to all His creation. One cannot manufacture or earn dignity anymore than one can will to make one’s heart beat, even once. Every human being has dignity because every human being has the gift of life and is a child of God. In The Grotto The Lady in White made eye contact with Bernadette granting her a dignity she did not typically receive in her culture. We recognize and respect that divine given dignity by ensuring that all people are, at the very least, clean, warm, fed, and out of pain. It is here that the malades, and those who minister to them, encounter and embrace that Truth. In this place is found tangible evidence that there is no separate Cross for people with disabilities. There is no separate Cross for the weak and downtrodden. And there is no separate Cross for the poor. Our Lady calls us to an encounter with Her Son in a loving embrace that restores wholeness and dignity regardless of one’s suffering and independent of any physical changes. For those of us who are temporarily able bodied, it is too easy for us to focus on the physical manifestations of healing neglecting the psychological, social, and spiritual realms. And, yes, sometimes God chooses to extend this restoration to physical healing as only He can decide and understand.
So the meaning of “cure” in the twenty first century is not at all different than the meaning of cure when St. Bernadette made her visits to the Grotto. Nor is it different than when a paralytic man was lowered through a hole in a roof in Palestine. To be cured is to be made whole, and the greatest manifestation of wholeness is to be in total union with the source of unending, immeasurable, unconditional Love, Jesus Christ.
In April of 2008, during his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI, spontaneously left his accommodation at St Joseph’s Seminary in New York City to greet the local residents. He met a group of young people with disabilities and addressed them as follows:
“Sometimes it is challenging to find a reason for what appears only as a difficulty to be overcome or even pain to be endured. Yet our faith helps us to break open the horizon beyond our own selves in order to see life as God does. God’s unconditional love, which bathes every human individual, points to a meaning and purpose for all human life. Through his Cross, Jesus in fact draws us into his saving love (cf. Jn 12:32) and in so doing shows us the way ahead - the way of hope which transfigures us all, so that we too, become bearers of that hope and charity for others.”
One cannot miss the words and imagery that synchronize with and illuminate the events that occur daily in This Shrine. For the pilgrims who travel to this village, both malades and those who care for them, truly, the Kingdom of God is at hand! That is the meaning of “cure” at Lourdes.
Sia Lodato Gesu Christo!
Joseph Paul Dutkowsky, MD, KM
June 9, 2012
Copywrite 2012, Joseph Paul Dutkowsky, MD