Journey thru John, Chapter 9: On Being Blind

Jesus Opens the Eyes of a Man Born Blind (Duccio di Buoninsegna, between 1307 and 1311)

I am sure the pattern is consistent by now, but just in case, be aware for a moment how the reflection on each chapter begins with suggestions about how to immerse yourself in the scene.  Recall that this immersion is meant as an aid to your ability to pray over the material in the chapter.

Chapter Nine is, in its entirety, about blindness.  The goal of immersion is to enter closely into the scene so that you can “see” the events and take part in them.  Juxtapose that against the teaching on blindness.  Seeing is not just a physical action, but a spiritual one as well.  In the act of immersion, these two aspects of seeing are combined.  Using imagination, we attempt to actually “see” the physical action in the gospel scene.  In prayer, we are attempting to “see” the point of the teaching that Jesus is attempting to convey so that we might apply it to our everyday lives as Franciscans.

Is it important to grasp Jesus’ meaning here?  Do you need to be able to “see” with your spirit in order to fully enter the scene?  What blindness do you carry with you on a day to day basis and how does that hamper your ability to enter the scene and learn what Jesus wants to teach you?

Given the opportunity, would you go one step further with your immersion?  Is there someone you know well enough that you would ask them to spit in some dirt and rub mud in your eyes that you might “see” better?

Would you let a stranger do it?

Will you let Jesus do it?

If you’re willing, challenge yourself to enter the scene in such a deep and meaningful way that you experience Jesus rubbing mud in your eyes.

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John Chapter 9, Verses 39-41:

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”  Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What?  Are we blind too?”  Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin:  but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

It is important to read this scripture carefully.  When we think about Jesus curing the blind anywhere in the Gospels, we tend to focus on the surface, on the immediate outcome.  We want our eyes and spirits opened as well.  We want to see what Jesus wants us to see.  We want to be healed by Him.  It seems straightforward.

In these verses, however, that forthrightness is challenged.  Jesus says He has come into the world so that “those who see will become blind.”  For some of us, He is proposing the opposite of what we would seem to want.  What does that mean?  If I can already see, why would I want to be blind?  I do not need to be cured, right?  To make me blind would seem to be contrary to what Jesus came to do?

Then a moment later Jesus says, “now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”  Here then, is an answer to the contradiction.  He is revealing to us that our sight is often faulty.  He is asking that we embrace the possibility that while we think we can see, maybe we should think again.  He is asking us to do a careful self-examination and to be internally truthful about what we find.  Are we honestly able to see what He wants us to see, or is our assumption of sight a symptom of a more profound blindness? 

Jesus wants us to understand that spiritual blindness is a state that has to be purposefully embraced before it can be cured.  He can be the healing agent, but He cannot effect the cure without our cooperation and participation.  We must humbly and honestly seek the cure for it to take hold.  If I am not willing to admit that I am blind, if instead I follow the ongoing example of the Pharisees throughout the Gospels and assert my own vision and will as determinative, then I wind up never realizing (never seeing?) that I have left the path to salvation. 

The key to the cure is not the willingness of Jesus.  He is always willing, always waiting, always available to provide the cure.  But the cure can only take place if I am willing.  Will I cooperate by embracing humility and acknowledging my need?  I cannot cure myself.  I can only be cured if I embrace the truth that I must completely rely on Jesus for the healing to take place.  The act of humility that embraces the truth of my need is the transition point between blindness and sight.  

I think I can see but am blind.  I become humble enough to acknowledge the incorrectness of my ways and to accept that without Jesus, it is impossible to be anything but blind.  This then provides the opening for Jesus to work the healing and turn my blindness to sight.

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If you want your eyes opened to the starting point, I would invite you to begin by re-reading the Prologue to the Rule.  As a reminder, these are the actual words of Francis, written as an Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.  Francis thoroughly defines blindness in Chapter Two, Concerning Those Who Do Not Do Penance:

But all those men and women who are not doing penance………These are blind, because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ:  they do not have spiritual wisdom because they do not have the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father………See, you who are blind, deceived by your enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, for it is pleasant to the body to commit sin and it is bitter to make it serve God.

Take note of the word “world” again in its negative connotation.  It does not seem to want to go away.  Here we find the “world” to be a major cause of spiritual blindness.

Bonaventure, in the Sermon on the Feast of the Transferal, echoes the theme of “worldly” blindness while confirming poverty as the antidote, the pathway to spiritual sight.

………when a person is tied to temporal possessions which waste away and are dark and tainted, he cannot perceive the brilliance of divine light.  That was the kind of advice Saint Francis gave to his brothers, having in mind the words of the Psalm: “fire has fallen on them,” that is, the fire of avarice and possession.  The fire of avarice and possessiveness causes blindness, whereas the fire of poverty gives brightness and solace.

I would encourage you to read and contemplate the entire Exhortation again if you have not done so lately.  It is quite clear that Francis sees the need to obtain a cure for our blindness as paramount.  If we do not, here is what he believes to be waiting for us:

The worms eat up body and so they (those who do not do penance) have lost body and soul during this short earthly life and will go into the inferno where they will suffer torture without end.

There is a decision that has to be made and, if these are the consequences, it would be unwise to put it off.  Eternity hinges on the answers.

Do I think I can see, or not?  Am I blind, or not?  Do I need the healing of Jesus, or not?

Am I committed to penance and poverty, or not? 

Do the words of Francis and Bonaventure describe a part of me still desperately in need of conversion?  Will I do my part to enable healing from Jesus by acknowledging my attachments to the world and thus the need for conversion toward and through penance?  Can I willingly welcome the separation from the “world” that leads to healing and sight and ultimately salvation? 

It’s worth praying over.  It demands a thorough self-examination through a clear lens of self judgement.  I cannot afford to deceive myself, to believe I have sight when no sight is present.

I must ask Jesus to help me judge myself correctly.  I must ask Jesus to help me see who I really am.  I must ask Jesus to help me understand just how much I need Him, how dependent on Him I truly am.  

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So, now that I have scared myself (and you?) sufficiently about the hazards of remaining blind, perhaps it might be a good idea to inject some hope into the process.

The records of the miracles of Francis are full of instances where he healed blindness.  As I read through them, however, I found one that was particularly intriguing.  This comes from Chapter 14 of The Treatise on the Miracles of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano:

In Zancato, a village near Anagni, a knight named Gerardo had entirely lost his sight.  It happened that two Lesser Brothers arriving from abroad sought out his home for hospitality.  The whole household received them with honor and treated them with every kindness.  The brothers gave no notice of the blindness of their host.  After their stay, the two brothers journeyed to the brothers’ place six miles away and stayed there eight days. 

One night blessed Francis appeared to one of the brothers in a dream with the command:  “Get up, hurry with your companion to the home of your host.  He honored me through you and on account of me was so graciously kind!  Show your thanks for your delightful reception and repay honor to the honorable!  For this man is sightless and blind, and that is what he deserves for the sins he has not yet confessed.  The shadows of eternal death await him, and unending torture is his lot.  He is bound to this by the misdeeds he has not let go.” 

When the father had gone, the son got up stunned and hurried with his companion to carry out the command.  Both of the brothers returned to the host together, and the one related what he had seen all in order.  The man was quite astonished as he confirmed the truth of all he heard.  He broke out in tears, freely made his confession and promised amendment.  As soon as the inner man was thus renewed, he recovered the outer light of his eyesight.  The greatness of this miracle spread everywhere and encouraged all who heard of it to extend the gift of hospitality.

The story is compelling because it addresses more than just a physical healing.  The healing is spiritual as well.  It also includes a self-examination that leads to penance.  The depth of the story, the duality of the healing, the embrace of conversion, all combine to echo the gospel and give a true life example of the power that is present in the teaching of Jesus about blindness.   

For the blind man in the gospel, Jesus provided physical healing and the man in turn worships Him as a result of revelation brought on by sight.  That worship is a sign of spiritual healing.  The healing enabled the man to see Jesus with his spirit, to recognize Him as the Son of Man. 

Likewise, this particular miracle by Francis has both components even if they are reversed in order.  Gerardo is healed spiritually and then experiences physical healing as well.

It’s also intriguing because it speaks directly to the instruction by Jesus to the Pharisees (who represent us) to acknowledge blindness so that they might see.  When the Brothers tell Gerardo their reason for returning, he looks inside himself and his blindness about his own sin is revealed.  His acceptance of that blindness leads to the cure, which then leads to him avoiding the fate that Francis warns about in the Prologue/Exhortation.  If and when we sincerely embrace penance as Gerardo did, it will lead to our eyes being opened and our blindness turning to sight.  Only then can we be saved from the dire consequences that Francis cautions about. 

And as friends of Francis, as people who honor Francis as Gerardo did, we have the hope that if we stray too far from the path Francis will attempt to intervene on our behalf just as he did for Gerardo.

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In fact, the Franciscan tradition holds a much greater vision of hope, a vision of blindness being healed on a global basis by the power of the Franciscan religion.  For those of you who have been on pilgrimage to Assisi, perhaps this is an image you can internalize in a way others can’t.  (Being in the scene is not just for the gospels!)  If you are planning on making that pilgrimage, make a special note to yourself to take a reminder of this image with you to reference on the day you visit the Portiuncula.  Maybe you will experience something akin to what happened to this fortunate follower of Francis. 

This vision can be found in the writings of both Celano and Bonaventure but the version I am giving you comes from Chapter 13 of The Legend of the Three Companions.  This is the most complete recounting and also the likely source for the other two.

A vision one of the brothers had, while in the world, contributed much to the commendation and love of this place.   Blessed Francis loved this brother with unique affection as long as he was with him, by showing him extraordinary affection.  This man, wanting to serve God – as he later did so faithfully in religion – saw in a vision that all the people of the world were blind and were kneeling in a circle around the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula with their hands joined and their faces raised to heaven.  In a loud and sobbing voice, they were begging the Lord in his mercy to give them sight.  While they were praying, it seemed that a great light came from heaven and, resting on them, enlightened all of them with its wholesome radiance.

On awakening, the man resolved to serve God more faithfully, and, shortly thereafter, leaving the world with its seductions, he entered religion where he persevered in the service of God with humility and dedication.

The entire blind world gathered around the home of St. Francis in an act of universal penance.  Upon petitioning for the Lord’s mercy, enlightenment is granted to all. 

If the story of Gerardo the Knight was hopeful, how much more hopeful is this vision?  As Franciscans, we have always known that “our religion holds the cure for all the world’s ills.”  We often say such things tongue in cheek, but perhaps we should take them more seriously.  This vision would seem to suggest that what we believe about penance and poverty could miraculously affect the entire world. 

What would it take to get the world to listen? 

I don’t know for sure, but I do know that if I am honest with myself, if I hope to provide a cure for even one other person, I must first be sure to take the cure myself.  I must first embrace my own blindness and I must do so not once, but on a continual basis, always with my heart set on poverty, penance and ongoing conversion. 

Then, maybe, others will see in me the healing mercy of God and be moved to seek it for themselves as this vision of hope portends. 

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Francis, in an even further expression of wisdom and hope, tells us that we actually have reminders of this great light from heaven, this wholesome radiance, this cure for blindness, available to us on an everyday basis if we just pay attention to Creation around us.  In paragraph 83 of The Assisi Compilation, Francis links The Canticle of Brother Sun (The Canticle of the Creatures) to the curing of blindness:

He used to say:  “At dawn, when the sun rises, everyone should praise God, who created it, because through it the eyes are lighted by day.  And, in the evening, when it becomes night, everyone should praise God for another creature, Brother Fire, because through it the eyes are lighted at night.

He said, “For we are like blind people, and the Lord lights up our eyes through these two creatures.  Because of this, we must always praise the glorious Creator for these and for His other creatures which we use every day.”

I spend a lot of time encouraging you to enter scenes in the gospels.

It’s about time I encouraged you to be present to the actual scene you live in as well.  Be aware of the goodness of the Creation that surrounds you at every moment of every day.  Stop right now and take a few moments to acknowledge the Creation that you reside in.  Night or day, acknowledge the light around you and thank God for it.  Thank Him for imbuing Creation with His Presence and Power and learn something about light and blindness from His Creation right now, at this very moment. 

Jesus in this gospel is asking you to embrace blindness that you might see, repent and seek God’s mercy in order to be saved for all of eternity.

How amazing and unbelievable is it that Creation itself surrounds you with a reminder to do so?  The very light which we see by, be it sunlight, fire, or even the electrical light that we take for granted that Francis never knew, is a gift from God.  Even on the darkest night, when the slightest sliver of moon is hidden by a cloud covered sky, the stars always shine with enough light for us to see.  Creation itself is an antidote to the blindness that Jesus is speaking about in this gospel if we can just remain present enough to recognize it.  It’s a gift that can be used at any and every moment of our waking lives to remind us to embrace the healing sight that Jesus offers not just in these verses, but as the sum total of everything in His gospels. 

Every teaching in the gospels is a call to healing, a call to sight, a call to salvation.  On top of that, Creation itself echoes the call of the gospels, revealing the goodness and desire and love of God for you and me in its every aspect if we simply stop long enough to appreciate it.  It is all ours for the taking if we can simply humble ourselves enough to embrace the call by rejecting the world and embracing the light of Creation and the gospels.  Francis knew this.  He internalized it better than anyone else other than Jesus ever has.  It’s what allowed him to conceive The Canticle of the Creatures.  It’s why he was who he was. 

It’s why eight hundred years after his death we make a profession to follow his charism.  We want what he knew.

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It seems so easy, but it’s not.  The world does everything it can to maintain its hold on us, to distract us from emulating Francis and thereby Jesus.

Sometimes, when my prayer gets dark and difficult and unproductive, when the light seems the dimmest, when I am full of questions and I can’t find the answers and every thought is a distraction from the “world,” I find that there is only one thing to do, one way of praying, that works and brings me back to the place in my core where Jesus dwells.

Technically I suppose it falls under the heading of a prayer of petition, but I think it might be more accurately described as a prayer of pleading meant to give every need to Jesus for His action. 

It goes something like this:

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus enlighten me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus consume me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus guide me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus transform me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus convert me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus dwell in me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus pray for me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus strengthen me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus heal me.

I encourage you to pray long and deep over these ideas of blindness, sight and healing.  Use the method of prayer that works for you.

But if normal methods fail you, if you can’t put the distractions aside, if you are not confident that you are genuinely reaching the truth, I would encourage you to try this style of prayer.

There are hundreds of words that will fit at the end.  Once you declare your love and your need, take your time to search for the words that express your true desire, your true doubts, your true whatever and insert them at the end.  If you go sincerely in search of those words, the Spirit will provide them to you.  You will find yourself in prayer and discovery at the same time.

And when you find that point, when you find the words that truly express your need, you will have also found the true nature of your blindness, the true path to your sight.  By using those words to ask for Jesus’ help, you will be giving your blindness over to Him.

And He will, upon receiving it, provide the healing that turns sight to blindness and blindness to sight.

He will heal you just as he healed the man in this Chapter of John.

And you will then be free to worship and love Him gladly, just as that man did.

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