Sermon: Beginning to See
Our problem is not that we see too much, but too little.
We hear today about Christ healing a blind man and restoring his sight, and we recall that when Christ heals in the Gospel He is not only healing a physical infirmity but a spiritual one as well. His healings always involve the forgiveness of sins.
If we think about sinning with our eyes, we probably think of those times when we see too much. And certainly, there are many things of which do see too much. We see too much of other people’s bodies, we see too much of other people’s private lives on social media, and we see too much violence in our movies, shows, or video games. Yes, we definitely have a problem with seeing too much.
But perhaps we are tempted to see too much, or to show too much, because we actually see too little. Our blindness is a spiritual blindness that is the consequence of eyes that see too much in the physical world because they actually see too little.
On retreat last week, I went to confession with one of the monks of the monastery. I was amazed at how applicable his advice was to my life – how his words pierced my soul and spoke right to what I was experiencing on the retreat and what I had experienced recently in my priestly ministry. This priest has never been a parish priest, but has spent almost 50 of his 70 or so years of life in the monastery. But a lack of worldly experience did not prevent him for speaking into – or really, shining light into – my worldly realities. A life immersed in spiritual reality gave him the wisdom to share a deeper and brighter light that illuminated the darkness of sin in my life.
Many would say that this monk, separated from the world in the darkness of the monastery, is blind. “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God,” (1 Cor 3:19), and the folly of the world is often God’s wisdom and light. When the blind man Bartimaeus cried out to Christ, he was told to be silent and to leave Him alone. Those who did so revealed themselves to be truly blind. So often we are blind to the sufferings of others.
These past two weekends we have been hosting our Christ Renews His Parish weekends. One person who attended this retreat several years ago told me how it opened her eyes to the suffering that exists in people’s lives. She never would have guessed at the depths of heartache that so many people carry until they shared their stories with one another. That is an experience I can certainly verify as a priest. I never fail to be amazed at the heroism of everyday life shown by so many who remain faithful while carrying such heavy burdens.
The structures of modern life keep us blind to suffering as well. They blind us to the suffering and isolation of those in long term care facilities or nursing homes, who can be so easily forgotten. They blind us to the sufferings of the poor. It used to be that people from different socioeconomic classes lived side by side in neighborhoods that included a variety of income levels and housing of various types. Many historic neighborhoods had lawyers, doctors, and bankers living next to teachers, cops, and factory workers. And a couple blocks over the situation could be radically different, which meant that rich and poor crossed paths at many of the same institutions such as churches, libraries, and schools. Now, thanks to the growth of the suburbs and restrictive zoning policies, our neighborhoods are more segregated than they were before the civil rights movement. Maybe we are still generous to the poor, but this physical separation leads us to think of them as charity cases rather than brothers and sisters in need of love, true charity, not just financial assistance.
Worse yet, those with sufficient economic means don’t even need to leave their houses. We can “work remote” and get our groceries delivered from the supermarket of our choice. Luxury items from around the world are now available at the click of a button. And when we do venture out into the real world, we don’t actually have to engage with it in any meaningful way because we are blinded by a glowing screen or deafened by the little black or white blobs in our ears. There are so many new things for us to see, but we are more blind than ever.
What can we do about this blindness? Certainly, there are things of which we should see less. At the top of the list is the indecency that is so easily distributed through personal electronic devices, material to which the average age of first exposure is eight years old. These images and videos do not blind us because they show too much – they blind because they show too little. They show only a small part of the love that God intends for men and women to enjoy, a part that is emptied of its meaning and becomes mere gratification when it is not at the service of a life-long commitment to a total, complementary, and fruitful gift of oneself to another person.
Being absorbed in indecency and the passions of lust is a sure way to make one spiritually blind. This passion easily overruns our lives and occupies spiritual energies. Men and women are made first and foremost for love – this is our highest and primordial calling. And love finds its fulfillment in union. But when false loves and false unions overcrowd our minds, the passion and longing of the human soul is used up on something that can never satisfy. Instead of looking outward, these sins blind the human person by focusing us back on ourselves.
What about those structural problems that promote blindness? Surely none of us can solve them on his own. But we can choose to resist, to live not by lies, to bring God’s grace into the life of another person through our love. This is the way of Jesus Christ, who stopped to heal Bartimaeus even as his followers insisted that it was a waste of time. He had important things to do – He is on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and die for us. But He stopped to encounter this one man who called out to Him.
We can do likewise. We can be the one person at the store without a phone or ear buds. We can be the one person who thinks that being kind and courteous is more important than saving five seconds rushing through the aisle. We can be the one who welcomes the new employee at work without jealously wondering how much of a sign-on bonus she got or whether he is now making more than me. We can be more than economic actors and see the fear of being new and respond with compassion because the human person was made for more than a merely economic life.
We should also not underestimate our own ability to enact change, especially on a local level. Christians with a secular vocation (which includes the vast majority of us) cannot merely retreat from the world, but are called to work in a variety of ways to make this world a place where it is easier to become a saint. Christians should put those to whom we are often blinded at the top of the list of our priorities when engaging in political and social life.
What can we do, though, about out blindness to the spiritual sufferings of others? We are unlikely to see these sufferings until we are willing to share some of our own. This requires courage and trust, and is not something we should do indiscriminately. But unless we are willing to be vulnerable, we are unlikely to establish the bonds of trust that can lead to the kind of Christian friendships in which Christ helps us to carry each other’s burdens – or really, the kinds of friendships in which Christ carries our burdens through the love of our brothers and sisters. The world “vulnerable” literally means “being able to be wounded.” It is a risk, but a risk without which real love and friendship are not possible. Bartimaeus was healed because He was willing to expose his own woundedness without shame, and his healing doubtlessly inspired others to be similarly vulnerable as well.
None of this will be possible without a regular, disciplined, and sincere life of prayer. That monk’s insights into my life did not come from merely sitting in the church for several hours a day. The hard wooden benches and cold cement floors were not what did it. Focus, training, practice, and love lead to a life of prayer that opens our eyes to deeper realities.
We likely don’t pray very often to see suffering. But we should. “Show me, Lord, the sufferings of your Son Jesus in the world around me. Help me to respond with Your compassion to those I encounter.”
We heard today that our high priest “is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring.” Not only does He encourage us to seek out those who are in need of love, but He has sought us out as well. He wants us to have the courage of Bartimaeus to cry out in the crowd, to be not intimidated by those who tell us to hush and not bother the Master. Suffering can be transformed into something greater, as we heard last Sunday, if we lend our own flesh to Christ. In encountering the suffering of our world, we have the concrete opportunity to lend our flesh to Christ through those who are particularly loved by Him in their poverty and suffering. If we are willing to do so, we may find that we receive back a life that has been healed of its spiritual blindness as well.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI
Image: The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho, Nicholas Poussin, 1650, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris.