And immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul.
1 Peter 2:11
In the conclusion of their commentary on the passage from Mark that we read today, Daniel J. Harrington, SJ and John R. Donohue, SJ write: “Bartimaeus has received the gift of sight and sets out on the way of Jesus: the way that leads to Jerusalem.” (The Gospel of Mark, p.320) Bartimaeus pleaded to Jesus for sight and when Jesus called him he “threw off his outer garment, sprang up, and came to Jesus” (v.50). To receive the call to come to Jesus and to see from that perspective leads one inevitably and inexorably to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.
The first letter of Peter reminds us that to maintain vision with the eye of our soul is not easy for us. Our soul, as Bartimaeus, longs to really see, to be healed of our blindness, yet in truth that longing contends with other desires that flourish in blindness to the deeper reality of life. An old proverb, traced to the 16th century and probably based on a passage from Jeremiah makes the point: “There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” Very often in life we actually choose not to see that which can seem too challenging and to difficult to bear.
The May 30 issue of The New Yorker features an essay by Joshua Rothman entitled “The Metamorphosis.” Rothman recounts in this essay the story of Thomas Thwaites who “first considered becoming an animal on a spring day in 2013.” At the time he was 33 years of age. On that spring day, Thwaites was walking along the Thames with Noggin, his niece’s Irish terrier, and he experienced envy for Noggin’s life.
He thought it must be wonderful to live in Noggin’s eternal present—to smell the grass, the wind, and the water without worrying about the future, the past, the meaning of life, or the inevitability of death. How much simpler to be an animal. (p. 70)
Thwaites. in good part to escape the worry and anxiety of human life, actually determines to transform himself into and to learn to live as a goat. The essay continues that, similarly, in the 1980’s another Englishman, Charles Foster, decided to transform himself into a fox. Of course, the very fact that both of these men later reflect on and write about this experience is proof that, for all their efforts, they never cease being human persons. As Rothman concludes,
There is an irony to these books: the more Thwaites and Foster try to change into animals, the more fully they become Thwaites and Foster. That’s not to say they never transform themselves. The human Umwelt is expansive and expandable, “Real, lasting change is possible,” Foster writes, “to our appetites, our fears, and our views,” and despite that change the self persists. This ability to endure through change is the miracle and mystery of selfhood. Rethinking who we are; dreaming up new ways of living; taking ourselves apart to build ourselves back up—for human beings these activities are natural. They are our never-ending hunt. (p.74)
The “miracle and mystery of selfhood” as a human being is our ability to endure through change. The human person is a self that endures through change in “our appetites, our fears, and our views.” Yet our appetites, fears, and views present themselves to us as unchangeable. They are the “worldly desires that wage war against the soul.” When we harden or reify given physical, emotional, rational states in us, we choose to be blind to the reality of change, of our own ongoing formation. We seek to avoid and even escape the heart of the human condition which is the knowledge we have of the contingency of all and the inevitability of change and death.
Having received his sight Bartimaeus casts off his cloak, his former life, and follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. It is the road to passion and death, but it is also the road to new life. As 1 Peter tells us, however, this is not a once and for all choice for us. Having set off on the road, the temptation to tire of the reality of change always haunts us. Although we might not quite have the ingenuity (or madness) of Thwaites and Foster, we will always manage to find ways to abandon our journey, momentarily or even longer. Many a day, or night, when I am tired, overwhelmed, fearful, or anxious, I allow myself to submit to the “worldly desires” that afford relief in the dulling of my consciousness and dissociation from the Real. I may not try to become a goat or a fox, but I do try to distance myself as best I can from my experience of being human and of being myself.
The experience of Thwaites and Foster, at least as interpreted by Joshua Rothman, contains good news for us, however. The more that they tried to change into animals, the more they became themselves. This too is often our way of formation. As we often succumb to our desire to be blind by submitting to “the worldly desires that wage war against the soul.” Yet these experiences, no less than those of Thwaites and Foster, have the power to teach us and to form us. If we are willing to confront our ourselves and our experiences of deserting the road to Jerusalem in all honesty and humility, these experiences will show us more and more who we are. Our failures, our destructive habits, our sins are also manifestations of our selves. Our means of escape from the fragility and pain of our lives can teach us hidden and unknown aspects of our selfhood.
It may well be true that the human way of following Jesus on the road is always a journey of trial and error, of fidelity and infidelity, of fear and courage, of blindness and sight, of sin and repentance. Life for us may well be a “never ending hunt” for our own selves, the self “that is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Perhaps a true aspect of what Paul Tillich called “the courage to be” is a willingness to “rethink who we are” based on what our actual ways of being and acting are trying to teach us.
All the myrrh that God gives us is rightly ordered, so that God might lead a person to great things through suffering. God has arranged it that all things vex humankind. God could just as well and just as easily have made bread grow instead of grain. But human beings must toil in all things. God has ordained and predetermined each and every thing in the eternal order. A painter, as he or she applies the blue and red colors, considers carefully how s/he should apply each brushstroke to the picture, how short, long, or broad—that it be just so and not otherwise if the painting is to take on the form from the master. But God is a thousand times more careful about how to apply the strokes of suffering and colors to create in a person the form that pleases God the best. One has only to give these gifts and myrrh their proper due.
Some people, however, are not satisfied with the myrrh God gives them. They want to pile more onto themselves, racking their brain and indulging in unsound thoughts. They have suffered a long time and plenty but don’t manage things rightly, and little grace results from their persistence. For they are carrying out their own designs, be it penances, fasting, prayer, or devotions. God always has to wait until they finish doing what they want before they come to rest. Nothing comes of this. God has decided to reward only God’s own works. In heaven, God only crowns God’s own work, not yours. Whatever in you is not God’s work has no value for God.
Joannes Tauler, The Sermons of Tauler, 16-20