By The Rev. David Brinton
There is an almost eerie, solemn and even incantatory quality to this story of the man born blind, with its repetitions and the terse quality of the conversations, which are like interrogations, even a judicial trial. Indeed, I think trial transcripts show that almost hectoring quality of barristers endlessly repeating the same question worded a little differently each time until the truth is finally revealed.
At one level this probably reflects the situation in John’s community when the gospel was being set down: the terrible controversy in a synagogue of the time between Jews who accepted the messiahship of Jesus and those who didn’t. As we hear these gospels from John throughout Lent and into Easter in which a group he calls “the Jews” are consistently depicted as the enemy of the followers of Jesus, we always need to remember the context: we are listening in on a painful family dispute which ended, perhaps after an actual trial, in the expulsion of the jewish Christians from the synagogue. And so, the term “the jews” in John’s gospel refers to specific individuals, religious leaders at the time, not an entire religion for all time.
But at another level, the trial-like character of the story suggests that there is a truth, a mystery to be revealed through a gradual process of encounter at the end of which those with eyes finally opened are able to see, and paradoxically those who refuse to accept the truth, become more and more blind. The cure of the blind man takes place early in the story but only gradually does the spiritual gift given in the physical miracle take hold of the man. And so early on, in dialogue with his neighbours, he first attributes his sight to one who is merely a human healer, the man Jesus: “that man”, later, when first questioned by the religious leadership, he identifies him as a “prophet”, then at a subsequent interview with them he has now come to see that Jesus is “from God” and, finally, rejected by family and synagogue, he meets Jesus again and in another question and answer session which sounds a lot like a baptismal liturgy actually asks for the gift of faith. The real gift, it seems, is now given, or at least recognized, long after the initial cure: “Lord I believe” he says at the end of this long gospel, and he worships Jesus, like the woman at the well last week, like the newly baptized, like you and me, he worships in a new community of those who have been brought out of darkness into light and now live by faith, an enlightenment characterized not by certainty but by trust in the midst of uncertainty.
Like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, like Martha and Mary and Lazarus of Bethany, like the man born blind, and I assume like you and me the experience of most people is that faith does not come fully and immediately, all at once, and if at the time it felt like that, a done deal, we subsequently discover in the afterlife of our initial conversion that we are on a journey involving many detours before getting back onto the main route.
Perhaps you find fictional stories about Religious Life overly romanticized but a remarkable novel called Lying Awake by Mark Salzman is worth reading. It tells the story of a Carmelite nun living in an enclosed convent. Sr. John of the Cross has been given a spectacular gift of spiritual enlightenment. Her prayer life, once arid and ordinary, suddenly becomes full of light and life. She experiences intense visions that lead to deeper and deeper knowing. She writes about her experiences and the profits from her best-selling spiritual book make it possible for the convent to get a new roof.
But her visions are accompanied by fits and migraine headaches which deepen in intensity until her superiors insist that she seek medical advice. And then Sr. John is faced with a horrifying choice. She is told that not only her headaches but also her visions, are caused by a small tumour in the brain that has caused epilepsy. The treatment is relatively straightforward and she will likely be cured. But the cure will come at a high cost: the loss of her visions, the loss of her special gift of sight, the loss of her special light.
Once the diagnosis is made, the inner circle in the convent who know about it, do not insist that Sr John have the surgery. They leave it up to her to decide. And so she goes through her dark night of the soul. The struggle she goes through is one of discovering what true sight might really be, what true knowledge might really be. She has so loved and depended on her visions, her ecstasies, her special connection with God. And others have benefited, too, been inspired by her, their faith strengthened. And if her headaches and trances and faintings have disrupted the communal life of the convent, causing jealousies and misunderstandings, surely her special gift could still be accommodated. She could be given more time alone in her room, time off from community activities, for instance.
In the darkened convent chapel after nightfall, Sr. John listens to a verse from St. Paul’s letters read aloud to the sisters as they prepare to go to bed: “But those things I used to consider gain, I now regard as loss in the light of Christ.”
The other sisters go to bed, but Sr. John remains in the chapel determined to spend the night awake in attentive prayer until God gives her the answer. But she despairs as the hours go by and begins to nod off, her heart aching at the apparent silence of God. Just as she is falling asleep, the elderly nun Mother Mary Joseph slips into the chapel and taps Sr. John on the shoulder, and signs to her in the silence: “ I will watch for you…you REST”
And so, renewed by her companion’s presence, Sr. John is able to stay awake for another hour at the end of which she notices the old woman slipping out of the chapel. Soon though, she is back, but this time with all the sisters, who one by one and silently, each holding a lit candle, enter their stalls to sit with Sr. John until the end, whatever that might be and whenever it might come.
It is this moment that brings her answer, it is this moment in which God speaks: She rises, bows to the sisters as a signal that her vigil is over. Such overwhelming solidarity has shown her that her seizures could become a burden to her sisters. She would not impose that on them. She would give them up.
Sr. John has her surgery and loses her visions, her special knowledge, her special sight. But now, like the man born blind in today’s gospel, she really begins to see. The journey that had begun for her 20 years before with the prayer, “please God, let me know you , let me see you,” and which she thought had been answered in her special knowledge, her special relationship, is now bearing fruit in ways she could never have contemplated. She is called to live not by knowledge but by faith and she is afraid of what lies ahead: of the boredom, the drudgery, the unanswered questions: “Am I really a person who lives by faith?” she asks herself. “God can surely tell the difference between someone who walks in darkness and someone who walks with her eyes shut. Which am I?”
The prioress of the community sees new possibilities in Sr. John’s profound loss: She wants Sr. john to become novice mistress, the one who will help other women discern God’s will for their lives. “I don’t feel I know anything about God’s will,” Sr. John says to her. “Yet you’re still here, trying to do His will anyway” replies the prioress. “That’s the kind of understanding I meant. The doing kind, not the knowing kind.”
Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, the man born blind, this community, we are all tempted like Sr. John to believe in the promise of special knowledge, to the idea that we could be hand-picked for special favours. Any number of wonder-working pseudo-Christian preachers, therapists, mentors, astrologists, philosophers and new age gurus offer us the possibility of this kind of false sight. But then experience teaches us that we are still in the dark. The problem is elemental and universal. The gospel hints at this in the question regarding the source of the man’s blindness: is it due to his own fault or to that of his parents? What is the origin of this crack at the heart of things, this darkness which the man’s blindness represents? St Augustine said the man born blind represents all of humanity, all of us in every time and place, in need of God.
Lent is a time for us to reflect on that need, to deepen our awareness of it, and of the immensity of the gift given in Christ, who went down into the heart of darkness so that we might live in the light. As we move now into the second half of Lent, if we have not yet begun to reflect on these things, there is still time. There could be no better preparation for Easter, than to read these great stories of John chosen for the Sundays of Lent in year A: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus, and to place our own stories in theirs, to reflect on our own journeys of faith and doubt, of certainty and confusion, so that in a couple of weeks as we sit in the darkened chapel waiting for the light of Easter to fill it, and us, once again this year, and as we watch in solidarity with those about to receive the light of Christ in baptism all over the world, we can truly say from the bottom of our hearts, through all the shadows that remain in this life: “One thing I do know: once I was blind and now I see.”