While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, the Lord told Moses, “I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.”
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand/ you shall indeed look but never see./ Gross is the heart of this people,/ they will hardly hear with their ears,/ they have closed their eyes,/ lest they see with their eyes/ and hear with their ears/ and understand with their hearts and be converted/ and I heal them.’”
The disciples’ question of Jesus concerning why he speaks in parables evokes from him a profound epistemological response. His words lead us to reflect on what and how we see, hear, and understand and what is required of us if we are to see reality more clearly and respond to it more authentically.
In the United States the citizenry is currently living in a very polarized time. The polarization is fed by a cynical and manipulative fostering of the sense that there is no actual reality to be seen and understood. There is nothing beyond what each person or collective identity purports to see and to understand. What one chooses to see and hear is his or her reality, and what another suggests might be the truth of what one is missing is merely an “alternative reality or fact.” In the gospel today, Jesus points out to us that what we are suffering from socially is indeed a spiritual problem.
Jesus quotes Isaiah’s description of a people who “look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” He contrasts this with his disciples whose eyes do see and whose ears do hear. The significance of this for us lies in the truth that we are both, at times we look and don’t see and at others we do see, at least to a greater degree. At times we hear but do not listen or understand and at times our ears actually do hear what is being said. The human tension and spiritual dynamism which we live is constituted by this fact: that we often look and don’t see and hear but don’t listen and understand. The whole work of spiritualization and deeper humanization is a work of purifying our sight and fine tuning our hearing. It is a growth in our capacity to see things as they are and to understand what we hear.
In the gospel, Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says that the people don’t see and don’t really hear “lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them.” That is, we see only partially because to see more and hear more of what truly is would require change and conversion in us. We filter reality in service to our own self-illusions.
The process of conflict resolution between or among people primarily consists in attempting to open them to seeing and hearing more of reality than they had previously been able to see, hear, and admit. We all know the experience of conflict with another and the assurance we have that what we know is the truth and that they are mistaken. We readily see how the other’s sense of reality is partial, but it is difficult to admit this in ourselves. The reason it is difficult, says Jesus quoting Isaiah, is that to do so places us in a position of requiring constant change and conversion.
To see and to listen and understand, in the sense that Isaiah and Jesus speak of them, requires us to live in faith, hope, and love. It means being put in our place, a place that knows our own blindness and deafness. In Exodus we read how God comes to the people “in a dense cloud.” Honestly and humbly living our human condition means that we are always facing a truth, a reality that is a surplus of meaning. Given the limitations of our rational and functional capacities, we have no way of managing that reality. Before a surplus of meaning all we can do is submit in awe. This is an affront to our desire for autonomy and control, and so we unconsciously “take in” only the aspects of the truth, of reality that we can manage. This reaction is spontaneous in us and beyond our control. It is required for us if we are to continue to function and manage our lives, both personal and social.
This is why we are always in need of conversion. Even as we do the best we can to understand and to be open it is always partial. This is why what the spiritual tradition calls humility is so central to our human and spiritual development and formation. We need to trust and to act on what we see and hear, but at the same time we need to have a stance which recognizes that our best is always incomplete, partial, and, at times, very mistaken. Conflict with another begins to find resolution when each party recognizes that the other sees an aspect of the reality that he or she is missing. It is usually not a case of one being totally right and the other wrong, rather it is a case of humbly realizing the limits of one’s own understanding and vision.
The great obstacle to hearing the word and recognizing the truth is arrogance. One aspect of arrogance is to live and move in the world in such a way that we are constantly looking to it for the confirmation and ratification of our own point of view. We have arrogated truth to ourselves, and we will only attend and respond to those persons and situations that ratify our perspective. This is the very opposite of the humility to which we are called. Theodore James Ryken writes of how at the age of 19 he had an experience by which he was “put in his place.” The result of this, he says, was that he turned toward God, fell in love, and placed himself in God’s service. In the words of Isaiah as quoted by Jesus, Ryken allows himself to be converted and healed. This happens at the moment he is humbled, put in his place.
In a secular, capitalistic culture, it is arrogance, not humility, that is valued. We profoundly misunderstand in thinking that arrogance is strength and humility is weakness. The truth of the matter is precisely the opposite. Our arrogance arises out of our inability to live with reality, to face a world that is so much bigger than we are, and to accept our very small and humble place within it. Humility requires the strength to be only what we are and to be constantly converted toward a deeper recognition and appropriation of the truth. It means engaging what is so much beyond us with all we have, yet recognizing the true dimensions of our small contribution.
Humility does not mean that we live without conviction and are unable to act. Rather it means that all we do and say is done in openness to what we do not know. Our service is a service to a mystery (Mystery) that is so much more than we can hear or understand. We do what we can realizing it is essentially partial and incomplete. Thus, we act in such a way that we serve what we recognize and we try to do no harm to the reality that we cannot see or understand. When I reflect on those experiences in life of which I am most ashamed, of those times that my responses to my students and others were hurtful to them, I realize that this happened because I was certain that I knew what what was right and what they needed. I responded to an aspect of who they were and what they needed, but I forgot that there was so much more to them than what I could see or understand.
Jesus, by means of Isaiah, reminds us today that to really see and to really hear will always be a call to conversion, to change, and to be put in our place. This place always at first seems a diminishment to us. And yet, it is from that very place that we begin to see and to understand the world much more clearly, because our self-illusions no longer stand between ourselves and the truth of things.
So labour and toil as much as you can and know how to acquire for yourself the true knowledge and experience of yourself as the wretch that you are. And then I think that soon after you will have a true knowledge and experience of God as he is: not as he is in himself, for no one can experience that except God himself, nor as you shall experience God in blessedness, both body and soul together, but in as much as this is possible, and as it is his good pleasure to be known and experienced by a humble soul living in this mortal body.
The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter IV