I recently underwent a medical emergency that required an amputation of the remainder of my left foot and part of my leg. I am now a below-the-knee amputee. When I woke from the surgery I had terrible pain. I felt as if a knife was stabbing my left calf muscle. Yet, I no longer had that part of my body. This is what the medical field calls phantom limb pain. It is an experience I pray none of my readers ever have to go through. Thanks be to God, since the surgery I have not had that kind of pain again.
Pain can arise in a multitude of ways from our senses. Many different medical personal are working with me now to train my senses to help me overcome phantom limb pain. One thing that has helped me avoid that pain has been retraining the mind, as it were, to think differently about my sensations. I read about a technique called mirror therapy that piqued my interest. Mirror therapy uses mirrors as a way of impacting the mind to believe that the missing limb is still there. This therapy uses our sight in a different way to heal. Since learning about mirror therapy, my mind is also thinking about our human ability to see things.
Tempted through Sight: Our Blind Condition
The Christian tradition warns us about the dangers of sight. We can become blind in a variety of ways, both physically and morally; however, Christ took on our flesh so we could see God. By looking at the Person of Christ, our hearts become healed so we can begin to see like Christ. To understand and appreciate this new sight, in and from Christ, we must first journey through the way we became blind. By understanding our ailment we can begin to appreciate and accept the medicine offered to us.
Genesis 3:5-7 is a moment in the narrative of the Fall that calls us to ponder the gift of sight. After the primary exchange between Eve and the serpent, the serpent invokes the eye as a way to ensnare Eve. The serpent says “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). The serpent twists a truth spoken from God to bring about the Fall. Seeing with the eyes makes the ability of knowing and differentiating with the mind possible. The twist comes from the dismissal of trust. The serpent accuses God of withholding sight. In that accusation the temptation for Adam and Eve to grant themselves sight is known. After these words, Eve no longer exchanges words with the serpent but begins to gaze upon the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As the story goes, her sight turns into a choice, and she reaches out her hand to pluck the fruit. Is it any surprise that, after Adam and Eve take of the forbidden fruit, which causes their sight to become twisted, their next encounter with God revolves around a different human sense? Our parents went from seeing God to hearing him.
Being Blind: The Biblical fallout
Am I really writing about physical sight? No. I am writing about our spiritual capacity to see. The Fall, which still is an affliction of our humanity, has brought about a spiritual blindness in the human race. After the Fall, the truth is revealed to us that a parent cannot give what he or she does not have. The spiritual sight that our parents had in Eden was forfeited, thus making it impossible for that gift of God to be shared in the coming generations. Also, this blindness revolves around the ability to sense God in the world. As a side note, later figures like St. John of the Cross speak about spiritual blindness related to God in the heart as a way of acting in true faith.
Now, returning to spiritual and physical blindness, in the biblical milieu, there is a relationship between the two. A person’s physical blindness in the Bible can be a sign of his spiritual blindness. Let me offer three biblical examples to help us understand this relationship between physical and spiritual blindness: Issac, Eli, and Saul (Paul).
Isaac: Looking Away From God’s Will
Issac became blind in his old age. However, his blindness seemingly unfolded from a life that was not in line with the will of God, a reality made known to us by his physical blindness later in life. What do I mean? In Genesis 25, Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, gives birth to Esau and Jacob. Before their birth, she has the feeling that they are fighting in her womb. After this sense of conflict, God reveals to her that the older will serve the younger (v. 23). Jacob was born second making him the younger twin, the one to be blessed by God. Isaac during his life acts in a way that favors Esau and not Jacob. His favoring of Esau goes even to the point of giving everything in the form of a blessing to him. The blindness of Isaac is a warning to the reader about the perils of a life lived against the will of God.
Eli: The Corruption of Spiritual Blindness
The temple priest, Eli, in the First Book of Samuel, sets up the story of who Samuel is meant to be. There is a movement between the time of the judges and the last judge, Samuel, who will usher in the time of the kings of Israel. At the beginning of First Samuel we are told Eli is a priest, but his behavior tells us he is a priest who does not see in a spiritual way. His first action is to mistake Hannah, the mother of Samuel, as a drunk, instead of a woman at prayer. His inability to see her praying tells us his sight is not fully in line with the Will of God. Even though he gives sound guidance to the young Samuel on how to respond to God, Eli’s own sons show us the ramifications of their father’s spiritual blindness. Eli’s sons become wicked men, men of greed and immorality with no fear of the Lord (1 Samuel 2). Spiritual blindness does not remain a neutral aspect of a person; it impacts his relationships. The wicked sons of Eli are the fruit that he gave to the world, an offering that ultimately caused the loss of the Ark of the Covenant for the People of Israel (1 Samuel 4-7).
Saul: Blind Zeal
The connection between physical blindness and spiritual blindness is not lost in the biblical transition between the two testaments. Saul, also known later as Paul, in his journey to Damascus shows us this relationship in the clearest of ways. His journey between blindness and sight has such an impact on him it shapes how he proclaims the Gospel. The Church to this day honors the conversion of St. Paul with a Feast on January 25. What gives rise to the blindness of Paul is his imprudent and prideful zeal for the Lord. Paul is on fire for the Lord, but he executes it in a way that causes division and pain for his own people. He sees the new followers of Christ as sinners, who turned away from God and became idolaters. Christ words to Saul are these: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). We see Christ identifying himself with the people Saul wishes to kill. Nowhere in the text are we told that Saul sees Christ. Saul is only given a light. Yet, before Saul is struck blind he hears Christ. Saul’s spiritual blindness impedes his ability to see God, but like Adam and Eve, God still speaks to Saul.
Conclusion: Seeing like Christ
This article is being published during the season of Easter. While Lent is a season of preparation for reception of grace, Easter is a season of embracing and unfolding that grace. These two seasons show us a communal movement within the Church. A movement from a time of spiritual blindness – the example being the reception of catechumens who are not yet enlightened – to a time when they can now see with the eyes of Christ. That gift of sight given to them at Baptism unfolds during Easter by the guiding hand of the Church. This unfolding is known as mystagogy, or a moment of interpretation of the mystery that was received. Just as Paul needed guidance from Ananias for the new life in Christ, so do those who are newly baptized.
It is one thing to be baptized; it is another thing to embrace that gift. The new life that Baptism offers affects not only the baptized person but all those around him. These new waters, in a way, bestow that sight that Adam and Eve had before the fall. This sight is the means by which we are brought into the everlasting joy of God. This joy is shown to us at the end of the book of Revelation when we read “… they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4). God desires for us to see Him, so we can know and love Him. God’s desire makes known the joy of the eternal love. A love that is inexhaustible. To be loved and to give love for eternity, a life inaugurated and consecrated at the moment of Baptism, is a life we begin here and now. The eternal sight is meant for us if we are just willing to see as our Lord sees, so we can live as our Lord lived. What a splendid thing our God has done for us by saving us from a life locked in spiritual blindness!
I knew well that I had a soul; but I understood not the dignity of this soul, nor knew who lodged within it, because my eyes being blinded by the vanities of this life, I was prevented from seeing Him. I think, had I then known, as I do at present, that in this little palace of my soul so great a King is lodged, I would not have left him alone so often, but sometimes at least I should have stayed with Him, and have been more careful to prepare a clean lodging for Him. ~ St. Teresa of Avila (The Way of Perfection, Ch. 28.)