We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
CHRIST EVENT: DARKNESS TO LIGHT, BLINDNESS TO SIGHT
The themes of blindness, loss of sight, and poor sight, are some of the most common themes which appear in Sacred Scripture. This suggests that the particular affliction – whether from birth or occurring in formerly sighted people – was not uncommon and provides a foundation of experience for our sacred authors. A quick scan in a biblical concordance reveals a wealth of passages in which the blind or blindness is mentioned, and that’s without looking for phrases which express loss of sight or similar experience.
Of course, we always need to nuance our references in an area such as this. The sighted population can make the mistake of presuming that non-sighted persons have less of an experience of the world than they, rather than acknowledging in the first instance that non-sighted or partially-sighted persons have a different experience of the world, an experience which is theirs – and that is not unusual to anyone’s experience of the world: we all receive and process what happens around us in a variety of ways, and all of them are, inevitably and finally, personal. In the same ways, our needs are felt and expressed in a personal manner, and this also goes for those who do not relate to the world principally by sight.
That said, and the necessary caution accepted, in Scripture the experience of blindness and how it is encountered and interpreted can take us by surprise, frequently because the empirical sense reality is often used as representative of a deeper, even mystical reality. There is a good deal of this working through the present lectio passage.
The blind man in this passage appears to be, at first, merely passive. There is an extraordinary sense that, with Jesus arriving in Bethsaida, those who see him grab this blind man and take him to Jesus – they drag him along to Jesus and beg him to touch him. One wonders – was the blind man asked about any of this? Is this an exercise in satisfying the curiosity of the crowd? This crowd of people who come to meet Jesus are much like those Pharisees whom we met just a few verses earlier and who asked for a sign – it appears, from one point of view, that this crowd wants a little magic, a bit of a show, to brighten their day.
This becomes somewhat more apparent when the Evangelist tells us that Jesus’ first response to this surprising welcome in Bethsaida is to take the blind man away, by himself, and outside the village. How extraordinary – he’s just arrived and now he’s leaving! Or is it more that the noise and bustle and demands, the harrying crowd baying for a miracle, is becoming even more distressing for this blind man, for whom the sense of hearing is one of his dominant ways of relating to the world about him. How overwhelming, confusing, frightening it must have been for him! And how incredibly sensitive Jesus is to his situation and distress!
Much is evidenced here about Jesus’ attitude and response. We cannot miss the intimacy of this encounter – he takes the man by the hand. This is at once a gesture of comfort and leading away. To take another by the hand is a sign of encouragement, accompaniment, and security – it is the touch which we associate with parents and children, children themselves as they walk together, lovers who cannot live without being hand in hand. And in Sacred Scripture the image of the hand is immediately linked to one of creation and being formed, especially when brought together with the image of the potter:
“What perversity this is! Is the potter no better than the clay? Can something that was made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’? Or a pot say of the potter, ‘He is a fool’?Isaiah 29:16
“And yet, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand”Isaiah 64:8
And this clay brings us right back to the Genesis myth of the creation of man in God’s image and likeness. There is a sense of moulding and shaping here, and not careless, but eminently careful. The potter wishes to produce something unique, unrepeatable, distinct. This potter is not concerned with mass-production, but rather with the one-of-a-kind. And there is immeasurable care taken by the potter – he is not content with shoddy attempts at working the clay, but again and again wishes to see the one-of become perfect, the perfect thing which he has in mind and which he wishes to create. This perhaps, while hinted at in the second Isaiah passage above, takes it full shape in the prophet Jeremiah, who is sent by the Lord to observe the goings-on in a potter’s shop:
“So I went down to the potter’s house; and he was there, working at the wheel. And whenever the vessel he was making came out wrong, as happens with the clay handled by potters, he would start afresh and work it into another vessel, as potters do. Then this word of the Lord was addressed to me: ‘House of Israel, can not I do to you what this potter does? – it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so you are in mine, House of Israel’”Jeremiah 18:1-12
The sense that the Lord God seeks to mould and create is clear here – and in this passage his idea of what he wishes to create invites a dynamism on the part of the created: join with my plan for you by your conversion of heart; be part of this moulding and making, which takes place in the palms of my hands.
In a sense, each healing miracle – indeed, it could properly be said, each miracle worked by Jesus – is a new creation, or a re-creation, the ongoing work of the potter’s hands. Little by little, with each intervention, God remakes in Christ what man has disfigured and unmade by disobedience, until, at the last, everything will be presented by Christ to the Father, made new.
This forms an important part of our own reflection on the Father’s work of creation in our own lives: he never ceases to be the potter, and remains always creative, but our clay dries out, as it were. We allow ourselves to become desiccated, the well of the Spirit running dry in our lives as we stop stooping to drink from the source of life, welling up, by the way, within us already. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to see in ourselves the possibility and reality of the Father’s ever-createdness at work: our own disappointments and moments of disconsolate regret can be enough to darken our minds. But the Father continues to bring his plan for me to completion and asks only that I consent to this. That is the beginning of the reworking of the clay of my life, in his creative hands.
What it would be to have something of Jesus’ sensitivity here towards this man! To know, without the man saying anything, that the whole situation is becoming too much and something needs to change! Our sense of how another is feeling, what they are experiencing in their lives and day, takes a switching on of another light bulb. To anticipate the needs of another person means first that we must set aside, or at least postpone the immediate satisfaction of our own needs. And here in this little story the Evangelist contrasts the demands of the crowd and the unexpressed need of this man. The first time we hear from him is his response to Jesus’ question, and what a question: Can you see anything? And, fascinating to say, he doesn’t reply with a standard yes or no but rather speaking about what he can see: a confused picture, a half picture, something approaching reality, but blurred and only hinting at the truth.
Perhaps this is why this miracle is rather unique – it’s not immediate, but rather gradual. It rather contradicts what we expect miracles to be – instantaneous. But isn’t the message here more important than the cure itself? The gradual change in how the man perceives the world around him is probably more realistic than many of the blink-of-an-eye cures. Perhaps it is the case all too often that we, for the most part, inhabit that half way house of seeing: we see this but it appears to be something else. And this, of course, is not merely a physical perception, but a moral one too.
And of course it’s left to the reader, or hearer, to realise for himself and herself – this man was not born blind, but rather blindness developed in his life at some point. How else would he know what people and trees looked like, in the first instance to be able to name them, and in the second instance to recognise that he is mistaking one for the other? And so also with us – even with those people, situations and problems with which we are all too familiar, blindness and shortsightedness can enter in. We become blind, sometimes even without knowing it, and gradually. Perhaps that’s why the journey back to plain and distinct sight can only ever be gradual as well.
There is a radical separation associated with this man and his cure. Jesus forbids him to go back to the village, the place in which he lived life blind, seeing only partially if at all, and led by a crowd which shouted, begged, moved about together, and seemed to have little in the way of a creative community life. It only shouted loudly for what it wanted – how true of the loud and angry mobs which demand everything and anything – as a right – today, and are content to drag along any example of humanity whom they can turn to their own purpose? Jesus gives us the opportunity to break definitively with this sort of mob behaviour.
The gradual process of the miracle’s work commands our attention and reflection. An immediate break with the way of life in which others lead us without our growing personally can sometimes require more time on our part, and so we need to be comfortable taking the time which we need. And, in a way, God recognises this patient recreation in this very story. Some miracles won’t happen in an instant. Some habits take time to break and replace. Some memories and experiences are so deeply ingrained that they will always leave a felt presence within us while their formative influence diminishes over time and through much suffering and purification.
Jesus’ quiet and patient role is one of enduring consolation here. Notice again how the Evangelist emphasises the laying on of hands, not once but as a repeated gesture. Jesus touches us not once but repeatedly to allow his grace to penetrate. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, as a central part of the celebration, the priest must lay his hands on the person to be anointed – no prayer accompanies this part of the rite, only the silence which acknowledges that God’s Holy Spirit is the one at work here and now, bringing the grace of Christ present and consoling. The profound silence which we miss – and banish – so frequently in our lives is the silence of God’s presence and invitation to us to know it, feel it, rejoice in it. And so it is here – the gradual healing which sees the blind man’s sight restored is the gradual opening of the eyes of the mind to the God working and present.
The break with a previous way of life is held out to us. Healing can often only take place when we have made a definitive decision to change the context in which we live. Here it is clearly the case that Jesus asks the man not to return to the village but to go home by a different route. It is obvious now to us, or should be, that the village is not the man’s home! What it was is immaterial – it was not the place in which he belonged and in which he could be truly and fully himself. Jesus invites us to come to know that we also inhabit places which inhibit. These places embrace a variety of environments: physical, geographical, relational, psychological, social, spiritual…. They are contexts which stunt rather than promote. For each of us the decision to break with these places is our own, but we have to receive the gift of true sight in order to recognise that they are inappropriate for us, and indeed, damaging.
These contexts will always have a certain ring of truth and reality – they will mimic a reality which we thought we knew; they will, in the man’s perception, seem to be one thing but really be another. The rather comical image which he uses to describe the blurred sight which he has – of people walking about but looking like trees – is immensely helpful to us. We think we know what the truth is around us, but are often deceived, or more often than not fail to see clearly. Clear sightedness comes hand in hand with a shift of lifestyle.
It might be very helpful at this stage to consider what we could call the pivotal blindness-sight story in Sacred Scripture: the experience which St Paul has on the road to Damascus. It is so important that it is referenced on four occasions in the New Testament – three times in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-19; 22:6-21; 26:12-18), and once more in the Letter to the Galatians (1:11-24). The loss of sight on Paul’s part – a confirming sign that he has been blind all along – also allows for a time of reflection on his part, prayer and fasting, and a new and unexpected sense of dependence: he must rely on his companions to bring him on into Damascus, and on a stranger to come and restore his sight. All of this condensed action and accompanying commentary serve to invite us, with Paul, to focus our gaze on the one who gives both light and sight. But it can be, as it was for Paul, traumatic when that transformation comes about.
As with many scriptural passages which deal with sight – both its being lost and its being gained – contrasts are central for the lectio prayer which we make. In this briefest of sight miracles, Jesus asks us to consider those contrasts in our own lives: darkness over against light; blindness over against sight; independence over against dependence; quick results over against patient waiting; going with the crowd over against being accompanied by Jesus; indecision over against clear discernment. Some parts of our lives and experience are almost always blurred and blind – the challenge and invitation is to move into the clear light of truth so that we can really take stock of where we are, and who we are.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-