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The Bent Woman

[Beliefnet, June 2003]

The topic "Jesus and Women" calls forth such a varied cast of characters that it’s hard to focus on just one of them. At the forefront is his mother, of course, followed swiftly by the many young, vigorous women who served or questioned him, who were healed or protected by him. Far in the back of the crowd there is a nameless woman who is easy to miss. She is bent double with pain.

Jesus heals her, but she doesn’t get to be the center of attention long. It’s the Sabbath, and the ruler of the synagogue is indignant. A theological dispute ensues, and Jesus states emphatically that the Sabbath is a good day to do God’s work. (Luke 13:10-17). His reply "put all his adversaries to shame."

This turns out to be mainly a story about how we should handle the Sabbath. The woman doesn’t even get to be the point of her own story.

Older women are invisible. Younger women get a lot of attention, and little girls are cute, and girl babies get fussed and dressed and pampered. But one day a woman realizes that people don’t look at her the way they used to; they often don’t look at her at all. This is in some ways freeing. I once heard of a mystery story in which the murderer turns out to be an older woman; she got away with it merely by being an older woman. Everybody ignores them. As we gray we fade. Becoming invisible has its perks, but it’s also a surprise, after passing through all those earlier phases of adorability.

When they don’t ignore you is when you’re in the way. A woman bent double is an impediment. A woman who shuffles and takes a long time to get through the door, when people behind her are already mentally in the frozen food aisle, is the object of muttered irritation. People act as if she’s creaking along in her unsightly way just to annoy them. The aches of old age are embarrassing signs of inadequacy; arthritis is old people’s acne.

What isn’t visible from the outside is that this creakiness is due to pain. The unnamed woman was in such pain that she couldn’t straighten up. Pain is a lonely thing; no one else can feel it with you, and even if they want to empathize they can’t hold it in mind very long. Someone else’s pain is so theoretical.

"In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a trip to Europe," wrote Flannery O’Connor, who died of the crippling disease systemic lupus before her fortieth birthday. She went on, "It’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow."

I think about this nameless bent woman because she is in pain, and she is alone, and she is so easy to miss. She has been suffering in this way for eighteen years, Jesus says. I wonder if that is where I’m going. None of us know what the future holds, except that we will all get older, which can’t be fun. The insult to that injury is that we may also be bent into clumsy, awkward forms by pain. I notice my own aches accumulating, getting worse and not better over the years, getting worse faster than my friends’. If I stand still too long, I rust. I feel like the Tin Woodsman. I can’t touch the floor unless I have a long time to study the project. There are good days and bad days of course, and the pains leap around mischievously. Earlier today it was my left hand: another county heard from.

Sometimes it’s kind of scary. I wonder about where this might be going. It’s possible to be bent double for eighteen years. Pain is miserable, but relentless pain is even worse; it’s exhausting and feels like persecution. It renders you unsightly and clumsy, and irritates the young, vigorous people around you. Debilitating pain accelerates in every way a sense of isolation. It is the place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.

And Jesus broke through that isolation, even on the Sabbath day. Even in that far country he can come to us; he is already there. He knows what suffering is like. "When Jesus saw her he called to her and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.’" The old woman was not invisible to him. He cared about her. "He laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight." He could see her crippled posture as evidence of pain, not mere awkwardness. After eighteen years, someone had set her free. "And she praised God," St. Luke tells us. She was known, she was healed, and she was not alone.

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