Jesus the existentialist or how to entertain yourself through Father Ray’s Homilies

This Sunday was a typical one. I entered church with our five children, knelt down and attempted to pray while the two youngest squabbled over who sat in what place on the pew. When the Mass began, I listened to the first reading and was struck by the ending line. The reading was from Job 7:1-7. It was all about the drudgery of life and the final line summed it up: “I shall not see happiness again.” Poor Job was depressed. Lost in thought from that point forward, I never heard the homily.

It was the little theme that screamed out to me as I listened to the subsequent readings. Paul, a bit of a Pollyanna, spoke of looking on the bright side of life. Monty Python music filled my head, quite by accident. Paul was the optimist of the theological bunch. Job was the realist. Both spoke of accepting the situation as it was. But where Job’s angst would have won the admiration of Nietzsche, Paul would have impressed Kierkegaard in his committed duty to his work preaching the Gospel, even while doing double-duty as a tent-maker in Corinth. His attitude of service made the difference. Even Viktor Frankl would support this (Frankl, 2006). Okay, so we now had both existential extremes in a single Sunday Mass. What about Jesus? Would the Gospel validate my position that existentialism was the theoretical philosophy that can be traced to Jesus?

I was humoring myself at this point in order to ignore the fight that was intensifying between the two youngest children. Clearly, Mass protocol was designed by a man who did not have children. I amused myself with the application of existential thought to the Gospel. What I did not realize was how much Rollo May would shine through in the story.

Simon Peter took Jesus to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. (That should score points with the wife and in-laws! Imagine bringing home a popular television personality and having every person in town showing up at your doorstep!) Could this represent motivation to be healed? I don’t know about Peter’s mother-in-law, but I would have wanted to, at least, get dressed and brush my hair. How many times does a client come to a therapist only half-knowing what they need, but knowing they hurt inside? Motivation for healing is a must, it would seem.

The Gospel fails to explain why Peter was so compelled to bring Jesus to his mother-in-law’s house. Why not his own mother’s house? Was Peter inclined to drag Jesus over to his in-law’s house because he knew is wife’s mother was ill? Perhaps his mother-in-law had heard Jesus speak and Peter knew this would please her, gaining brownie points. The Gospel does not elaborate. It also does not attribute Jesus to saying anything at all to Peter’s mother, although He almost always said something. In contrast, it does spell out Jesus’ actual physical movements upon entering the house. The focus was on His actions.

It stated, “Jesus approached her, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her.” (Mk 1:29-39) All I could think was that the Gospel writer had the equivalent of weapon focus effect, where his visual focus became a laser pointed at the hand of Jesus. Jesus approached, grasped her hand and helped her up. Why did these three things happen before the fever left her? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to heal her first, and then have her get up? I mean, she was sick and getting up would have been a struggle for a sick old woman. Why did she have to get up first?

It dawned on me that this was a clue to how clients heal themselves. The gospel writer focused on these very specific actions because human illness, especially when it involves mental distress of the soul, requires this process for proper healing. First, the approach is critical. Jesus said very little that day, (something I struggle to remember at the best of times.) Keep quiet. Let the client speak. Good to know.

The unbiased, uncritical approach to others is absolutely necessary for success. Every person perceives his or her experience uniquely. To assess this, one must approach a client by taking in all the information available to accurately identify the need. Doubtless, this is precisely what Jesus did. When he walked into Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, he would have noticed a lack of greeting from the lady of the home. It would have been customary to greet a stranger into one’s home. This would have been the first tip-off to Jesus that something was amiss with his hostess.

The Gospel story also specifies the apostles told Jesus of her illness. Jesus chose to approach her. This also struck me odd. People with fevers, especially in the pre-vaccine days, could have been highly contagious. It may be why she was not there to greet Jesus. The anxiety of passing an illness to Jesus may have consumed her as well. However, Jesus did not fear her. He was modeling for the apostles (and the healing professions) that anxiety should be turned to fear and addressed. Rollo May had a point (May, 1977). Perhaps the clue here for an existential therapist is to be unafraid. Why would a client trust us if we don’t trust ourselves?

It then speaks of Jesus grasping her hand. Why this? First, the human touch was necessary for Jesus to connect. If Peter’s mother-in-law was ill, she was probably feeling quite isolated and, perhaps, fearful of dying. Touch would have communicated reassurance. As Rollo May encouraged doing, turning anxiety to fear makes it objective and possible to confront (May, 1977). Jesus was applying this existential technique through touch by reassuring Peter’s mother in law that her anxiety about dying was a fear that was clearly not based in reality, as she was able to feel Him. If we can feel, we must still have a hope of healing. Even Job must have known this.

Clinicians do this every day when they empathize with the client, being a witness to their experiences and traumas. The relating of the experience or trauma is the reciprocal touch by the client. Additionally, by acting as witness to their trauma, the client sees they have no need to fear, just as Peter’s mother no longer needed to fear death because Jesus’ hand was holding her, much as a therapist holds a client while they reveal their fear and anxiety.

But the oddest part: Helping her get up. Peter’s mother-in-law was still running a fever. It is a struggle to get up when a person is sick. Yet, Jesus wanted her to get up before He healed her. Existentialists of every flavor understand the growth is found in the struggle. Was Jesus showing us this key component of the process? Did He want us to understand that the healing does not come externally from the therapist, but from within the client? Bohart and Tallman (1999) might be satisfied to hear this validation.

How many times do therapists and psychologists need to encourage, to inspire, or to validate the effort of the client to healing? They write down their notes but wonder if it was enough to help their client through the struggle, only to discover the client has made huge growth the next time they meet with him or her. Was it the therapist at all, or was it the client all along, self-healing?

It is not enough to merely be a witness to the client’s traumas or experiences. A humanistic-existentialist takes the extra effort to empathize with their experience and offer a thought the client may have not considered. Perhaps it is to remind them they were young when it happened, or that it wasn’t their fault. Maybe it is just to assure them the reaction they had to the experience was reasonable. Whatever it is, the therapist sometimes must bring the client up to the level where they can observe the experience in a new way, just as Jesus brought Peter’s mother-in-law up to observe her sickbed. It is only after this that the client actually heals herself. Recognizing the situation in a new light allows the process of healing to actually begin. Peter’s mother-in-law got up and waited on them. My existential bubble burst. Jesus may have been existential, but he still lived in a patriarchal world.

I thought about the whole scene. Job struggled with despair. He had just lost everything: His wealth, children, and health; nearly everything of value. Is this not the epitome of the human condition? Juxtaposed against the situation Paul was facing, it would seem Paul was right to look at the bright side of life, even when exhausted. Monty Python music cued in my head.

Paul, on the other hand, was walking an existential tightrope. On the one hand, he needed to encourage those in their journey with sensitivity and compassion but, on the other, instruct them as to the boundaries of behavior, which would be do the most good. Relating his experience to their past experience of slavery (Corinth was made up of slaves from several countries, freed and transplanted when Julius Caesar conquered the city,) was the easiest way to accomplish this objective. It was an eloquent way of counseling them without shaming them. No judgments, just encouragement. Paul responded in an attitude of service. It may explain why the gospel writer mentioned Peter’s mother-in-law waiting on them. Or, it could be a symbol of progression in her life; she was able to move forward, once healed.

My children roused me from my contemplation. It was time to stand. We, Catholics, love to inject exercise into the Mass. It keeps us from falling asleep. As my little ones battled over who could use the kneeler as a balance bar, I realized that the constant struggle between my two little ones was a metaphor for life. In the struggle, we learn our boundaries, our finiteness, and our place in the universe. While the priest rambled about a new parish hall he wants to build, the nugget of truth nestled in my brain and I thought about it. To move forward in life, sometimes we need a struggle to clarify our view. To serve others is the fruit of the struggle. We experience, we process it, we learn from it, and we share what we have learned with others in service. Yes, Jesus was an existential humanist who clearly believed that people heal themselves.

Now, if we could just find a way to make coffee at church taste a little more like coffee….

Bohart, A. C., & Tallman, K. (1999). How clients make therapy work: The process of active self-healing. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Beacon Press.

May, R. (1977). The meaning of anxiety. New York, NY: Norton.

— Maria Taheny

Read more stories by Maria Taheny

Keep up with our community – follow us on Facebook and Twitter