Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Eyes of the Blind Shall See

This Sunday the Byzantine Liturgy celebrates the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 of the Gospel of John. We see in the Gospel that, while the blind man was instantly cured of his physical blindness by the word of the Lord and by washing in the pool of Siloam, his spiritual enlightenment went through several stages. He first recognized Jesus as a healer, then a prophet, then the Son of God, whom he worshiped. There are several levels of blindness that we too have to overcome before we are fully enlightened. I can see at least four, and those are what we’ll look at today. I will call them the enlightenments of faith, morals, self-awareness, and spiritual or mystical awareness. Enlightenment as to faith and morals is somewhat akin to the blind man’s washing in the pool and receiving his sight. When we are baptized, we receive, among other things, the theological virtue of faith. It may be in seed form, but that seed is indispensable if there is to be an eventual flowering of faith and bearing fruit in a life pleasing to God. The capacity to believe in God and to develop a sound moral sense are part of our initial enlightenment. These ought to be cultivated by our parents, teachers, etc. It is possible, however, that we can be corrupted after this initial enlightenment; our faith can weaken if it is not instructed and fed; our consciences can be dulled by our lazy and spineless acceptance of the ways of the world. But I will assume that you who are reading this have sufficient faith and moral sense to enable you to live according to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.

A much more difficult enlightenment to attain is that of self-awareness. By that I mean seeing ourselves as we really are, without the blinders of pride and self-deception, and hence knowing how to rightly relate to God and to other people. Most people, in practice, estimate themselves rather too highly and judge others rather too critically. I once asked a group of people, as an exercise in self-awareness and self-improvement, to make a list of their own faults and of possible ways of correcting them. There was quite a spectrum of results. On one end were those who made an honest and conscientious self-assessment. In the middle were those who did list their faults, but grudgingly and with some resentment. At the other end was one who also made a list of faults—but they were the faults of others, not his own! This is really the worst kind of blindness, for it is not a mere inability to see, but a refusal even to look; not just a defect but a harmful choice—a refusal to look honestly at one's own faults, responding instead with indignation and pointing out others’ faults, to deflect the light of truth away from one's own darkness.

When Alex Jones, the Pentecostal minister who recently converted to Catholicism, had his first great personal encounter with God, he felt filled and surrounded with an indescribable presence and peace and certainty of the existence and loving-goodness of God. But immediately he became clearly and painfully aware of his own sins and his need for conversion and repentance. In the searching presence of God, all self-deception and dulled self-awareness must disappear. Only the truth remains. So let us realize that if we don’t have a humbling awareness of our sinfulness, and if we instead resent correction or begin to blame others, we are not in the presence of God, not in the Light; we are still blind people groping around in the darkness. To make matters worse, there are those who, while in darkness, pride themselves on their clear-sightedness.

These are like the Pharisees in the Gospel. When they heard Jesus speak about coming for judgment, to make the blind see and the seeing blind, they said: You’re not calling us blind, are you? His response is one we need to reflect on carefully: “If you were blind, would be no sin in that; but ‘we see,’ you say, and so your sin remains.” There is no sin in being physically blind, or even in ignorance, if one is willing to be instructed and to learn. But hardness of heart settles in the one whose pride and refusal to either learn from others or honestly look at himself keeps him in a state of spiritual blindness, which only a miracle can heal.

The last type of enlightenment I’ll mention here is that spiritual-mystical awareness that opens us up to the mysteries of God in and around us. We cannot produce this on our own; it is a gift, but we are required to labor in prayer and asceticism in order to create the necessary dispositions for receiving it. Only the pure of heart can see God and be brought into his intimacy. The church where we worship, for example, is full of angels and saints and of the presence of God Himself, who receives the prostrate adoration of the heavenly hosts, as they sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” St John Chrysostom says that the sanctuary is crammed with angels adoring as we offer the mystical sacrifice. He says one would have to be made of stone to feel like he is still on earth and not in heaven during those sacred moments. Now there was a man who had attained a high level of enlightenment. Yet here is a lesson for us all: he still had his blind spots; for example, he was a rather virulent anti-semite.

So even as we advance in spiritual life, even as our awareness of the presence of God grows, we need to pray that God will reveal to us our blind spots (since we’re lagging behind—He’s already revealed our blind spots to everyone who knows us!), so that we will grow in that enlightened self-awareness which enables us to overcome sin and bad habits, and which prepares us for a deeper mystical awareness of the things of God. And let us especially not fear or refuse to look at what has to be changed in ourselves—for the only blind person that can not be healed is the one who will not be healed, who will not wash in Siloam, will not do as the Lord commands, will not cry out: “Lord, I want to see!”