"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 02, 2008

When the blind need to lead the blind

Today's Gospel reading—from the "ordinary" form of the Roman Rite, of course—has long been one of my favorites. A man blind from birth is healed by Jesus, and for the testimony he gave in answer to their questions about it, the officially pious eject him from the synagogue. I like to think that the guy's eventual fate as a disciple was something like the one expressed in my favorite all-time bit of movie dialogue:

Kirk to McCoy: "Well Bones, once again we've saved civilization as we know it."
McCoy to Kirk: "Yeah, and the best thing is they're not gonna prosecute."

If there's any justice, the man Jesus healed of congenital blindness wasn't prosecuted again for all the good he went on to do as a disciple.

Of course the Gospel passage itself drips with an irony long recognized. The man blind from birth does not at first know who "the Son of Man," the Messiah, is; in that sense, he is spiritually as well as physically blind. Yet he comes to "see" spiritually, by a faith elicited in turn by his being made able to see physically by Jesus; while the Pharisees, the educated and observant, don't see at all and in fact are made blinder still by their hardness of heart. Even as Jesus came to "open the eyes of the blind," he was to do so in such a way that those who "have eyes," and thus see, see not. All that is well understood; yet there are deeper lessons. I shall offer one I have been given to learn. But it will take a bit to work up to it.

It was assumed not only by the Pharisees but by Jesus' own disciples that the man's physical blindness was due to somebody's sin: his own or, perhaps, his parents'. The well-nigh universal assumption among the Jews at the time was that misfortunes such as birth defects, leprosy, even poverty had to be somebody's fault, so that the malady was just divine punishment. That's the flip side of the belief that caused the disciples to be astonished when Jesus told them how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Just as misfortune is a punishment for sin, good fortune is a reward for virtue. That was a very Old Testament view despite the alternative literature, such as Job and Ecclesiastes, that came to be canonized. Today we supposedly know better, at least if we are Christians. But do we?

How many of us ask ourselves "What have I done to deserve this?" when some major misfortune, or a steady series of misfortunes, strikes us! How many of us think well of ourselves when we have the things the world values! In this country especially, poverty is still thought of quite often as the due penalty for fecklessness, or some sort of spiritual weakness; those who become successful in the world's terms are assumed to have earned such good things by their merits. What makes such an attitude so seductive is that there is often an element of truth in it. When people are having a hard time, it is sometimes their own fault, at least in part; when people are enjoying the good things of life, it is sometimes because they have earned them, at least in part. That is a major reason why the prosperity gospel remains strong even among those who call themselves Christians; and in some of the more out-there New Age circles, there seems to be this idea that we somehow control whatever happens to us. But when being objective and honest, we recognize that much remains beyond our control. And many people are in lousy situations for which nobody in particular, beyond the effects of original sin, is to blame.

As Jesus' explanation of the man's blindness suggests, God's purpose in permitting such things is not to punish, but rather that his "mercy be shown forth." Ordinarily, that does not happen by miracles of healing. Padre Pio did once give sight to a blind girl born without pupils in her eyes, and there are other examples of things equally extraordinary in the history of the Church. But almost by definition, such events are extraordinary and thus rare. Ordinarily, God's mercy is supposed to be manifest by how we treat the unfortunate. That is how we are all called to bear Christ into the world. The mercy of God is shown by how we show his love to people regardless of how little they deserve it or how little we can get out of it. That is why those who find themselves summoned, by love or by work, to care for people who cannot care for themselves have such a great vocation. That is how people ordinarily "see" what God is. But even people with that vocation often overlook something that I too long overlooked: our first mercy must be to ourselves, by receiving God's mercy to ourselves.

Regardless of their formal religious belief or lack thereof, that is very difficult for a lot of people. As I get older, I become more and more convinced that "blame and shame" is the name of the game that most people are playing and/or defending themselves against. A lot of what's attended to in the workplace, for example, is sheer butt-covering: procedures whose purpose is not to produce anything but to ensure that the blame, if something goes wrong, falls—well, somewhere else. Since most of you have jobs, you needn't think long to see what I'm talking about. The same goes for domestic life. We all know families as well as workplaces where the first question asked when something goes wrong is not "What do we do about this?" but "Who did it?" But even if you are fortunate enough to have a job or family that isn't like that, it is often more difficult to forgive ourselves for wrongs we have done than to forgive others for how they have wronged us. I have heard more than one priest say that 90% of the problems that persist between people are due to unforgiveness. I think that's right—if one includes unforgiveness of oneself. So many people walk around burdened by guilt and self-condemnation, even those who profess belief in divine mercy. Sometimes the conscious reasons are quite specific; sometimes it's just a deep-rooted feeling of unworthiness, often caused by buried wounds from childhood or even infancy. But whatever the cause, a lot of people really do believe subconsciously something like: "There's no excuse for being who I am. I'm not worth much and probably deserve less." I speak what I know firsthand as well as what therapists and spiritual guides say about people.

The so-called "self-esteem" movement in education and parenting was meant to address that kind of problem. When it has any measurable effect at all, of course, such an approach tends to produce pampered narcissists ill-equipped to address real problems with courage and perseverance. What we need to do instead is recognize that our value comes from being conceived by the mind of God in boundless love. But that is not something humanity could have figured out for itself given enough time and research. Because of original sin, we start out blind to it and can only be assured of it by divine revelation. But many who have heard the Gospel are still blind to it. To be able to receive it, and the mercy on offer with it, we must admit our blindness to who we really are and humbly beg to be granted a personal encounter with Love Himself. Only those who admit they do not see Reality themselves can have that encounter. If they have it and respond accordingly, then those who think they see will be convicted of their own blindness. The blind who are brought to see must lead the blind who think they see. That is true evangelization.
blog comments powered by Disqus