When his children see / the work of my hands in his midst, / They shall keep my name holy; / they shall reverence the Holy One of Jacob, / and be in awe of the God of Israel. / Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, / and those who find fault shall receive instruction.
Isaiah 29: 23-24
As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out, “Son of David, have pity on us!” When he entered the house, the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they said to him. Then he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.”
Matthew 9: 27-29
This Friday of the first week of Advent is an invitation to reflect on the nature of spiritual blindness and of our need for healing if we are to live our lives to the full. Isaiah points to a time when we shall see the work of God’s hands in our midst. To recognize the hand of God at work evokes in us the reverence and awe that is our most distinctively human response to the wonder of creation. In the “light” of God’s work, we truly understand our place and we are disposed continually to being taught by God. The gospel reminds us of our need to plead in faith for sight. The blind men keep crying out and are not at all timid in their pleas and prayer. They also have absolute faith that Jesus can give them sight. As often in the gospel, we are reminded that a prerequisite for healing by Jesus is faith in him and trust in his power to heal and restore us.
The two blind men in today’s gospel have no difficulty in recognizing their affliction and how it affects their lives. The know they cannot see. What makes spiritual blindness so difficult is that we often don’t recognize it in ourselves. Most often it takes the form of convention, of cultural compatibility. Often we are most blind when we are most recognized and confirmed by the world around us, when we are, in a sense, “on top of the world.” We are on top because we are in awe, not of the work of God’s hands but in the work of our own. We may be very happy with ourselves and with what we have attained in life, of how others who are subservient to us perceive us, in respect or in fear. That happiness, however, is in contrast to the joy we feel when our soul is experiencing reverence and awe of God and of God’s creation.
Brother Ryken suffers an experience of being put in his place and brought low, It is exactly from this place that he turns toward God and falls in love with God, and so God’s service. To be brought low, in the way that Jan van Ruusbroec describes it, is to begin to see clearly. It is in the valley of humility that one can clearly see the light shining on the mountain. So, it is our pride and our arrogance that blinds us to the truth, to recognizing the work of God in everything. So, in the experience of being put in our place, of being brought low, we turn our gaze from ourselves to God, and in this we truly see things as they are. We are healed of our blindness.
Yet, even when we have suffered the grace, hard as the experience is for us, of being brought low and seeing anew from the true perspective, we inevitably in time will lose that sight. The pulls of what the gospel of John calls “the world” on us, those values that become so significant for us that are counter to the values of Jesus, tend to blind us over and over again to the light of the place of awe and reverence, of love and service.
The significance of faith in the miracles of Jesus is always a challenge for us. Personally, I find myself quivering a bit when I hear the question of Jesus directed to me. “Do you believe that I can do this?” If I’m reading the text merely cognitively, of course I immediately respond “Yes.” But if I am pondering the text in my heart and attending to the reverberations in my soul, I find the answer much more difficult. Do I really believe that Jesus can, or perhaps more wants to, heal my blindness? Do I recognize that he wants to overcome the distance that has grown between us and the loss of presence to each other that has become habitual? Perhaps even more painfully, do I want to close the distance and share presence with him? Do I value more than living in and for him my autonomy and independence, the satisfactions and gratifications I feel in pursuing my own way.
To live in faith is so much more than assenting to somewhat abstract and remote doctrines. It is the courage to live in the lack that constantly reminds us that we are made for more than what our vital impulses and functional ambitions are craving and pursuing. Many years ago a theology teacher quoted a theologian to the effect that no one could live the consecrated life without having at some point experienced being “grasped by God.” I think it is fair to say that this is true of all believers. We live our lives in the faith that is grounded in a truth that we have at least occasionally experienced, the truth expressed in the first letter of John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3: 2)
Knowing, not merely in our thoughts but fully in our person, that we are God’s children is our greatest joy, but if we remember it faithfully throughout the days of our lives, it is also a painful feeling of lack. Even as we pursue meaning on our own terms, there lives deep within the knowledge that we are living at a distance from the truth, the truth expressed in Psalm 18:2:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer.
My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
It is not by accident that the most effective way to market product is to imply that this particular product is the one thing that we lack, that it will give us the happiness and even joy that we seek. The children of this world know in a practical sense what the children of light too often forget: deep within us we are constantly restless. It is this restlessness that sources all of our compulsions: for good feeling, for wealth, for security, for power, for respect. And the more we compulsively seek these, the darker our blindness gets. For these lead us to repress this restlessness and the sense of lack and deprivation that are our way to sight, that require us to live in faith despite their power in our lives.
If we become satisfied with all of these substitutes for love, the more blind we become. What we do to avoid suffering our lives increasingly becomes not only our distancing from God but from ourselves. From this place, it is not only God that seems unreachable but our own selves. We begin to fear the experience of living in the truth, and so we well might not be able honestly to say to Jesus that we want him to heal us. The good news, however, is that life, “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” will inevitably put us in our place despite ourselves. Unless our capacity for denial reaches a pathological stage, what is false in us will in due time be made manifest, to others and ourselves.
This is a moment of what Ruusbroec calls “prevenient grace.” In the ordinary flow of our lives God is breaking in. At this moment if we, like Ryken, turn toward God, we may well find ourselves “crying out” like the blind men. This is a cry that comes from the depths of our heart and soul. It is the offer of the “life to the full” that Jesus promises, not one of poor substitutes for love, peace, and joy. Living in faith, then, requires that we live the rhythm of human life, of remembering and forgetting who we truly are, of distancing from self and God and then returning. A great paradox of human life, however, is that we distance the more we become “big people,” and we return when we are, once again, put in our place, when we are little children again. In Jesus’ time children were not yet seen as persons. When Jesus tells the disciples that we must be children to enter the kingdom, he is saying we must come back to him in all our littleness and insignificance. Everything we have built up to make ourselves someone, we must recognize as nothing.
We think we see when we are looking at all that we value, all that we have accumulated around us to make ourselves someone. But this is blindness. We only truly begin to be cured of our blindness when we, in Ryken’s terms, “turn toward God. As Psalm 123: 2 expresses it:
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
The official visitation should take place once a year so that with love faults may be gradually corrected and removed. For if the nuns do not understand that at the end of the year those who have committed them will be corrected and punished, year after year goes by and the religious observance becomes so lax that when one wants to provide a remedy it is impossible to do so. Although the fault lies with the prioress, and even though she is changed for another, the nuns grow accustomed to the relaxation in observance. In our human nature custom is a terrible thing, and little by little, through small things, irremediable harm is done to the order. The visitor who does not provide a remedy in time will have to give a terrible accounting to God.
St. Teresa of Avila, On Making the Visitation, #5