We are right

There’s an old tale about two rabbis.

Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. “Yes,” said Rabbi Elimelekh, “in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things anymore.”

Our eyes get weaker with age, but the rabbis were talking about a different kind of change, changes in the way we look at things, changes throughout the seasons of our life in how we perceive the world. The story leaves open whose vision of reality is closer to the truth: the one who sees the angels of evening and morning, or the one who doesn’t see such things anymore.

When we are little, we begin to know the world with immediacy, intimacy, and wonder, by simply participating in the miracle of every moment, and the older we get and the more we know about the world, the more difficult it becomes to keep that earlier, and often happier way of knowing. How we know has much to do with how we see, and vice versa.

Annie Dillard wrote a meditation about seeing in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.[1]

Even when we look at the same things, we don’t see the same things. Dillard was delighted to find a book about early eye surgery.

When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth [and they wrote down fascinating case studies]

… Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing.

… The mental effort involved [in learning to see] proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.

… Of a twenty-one-year-old [woman], the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.”

… A twenty-two-[year-]old [woman] was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”[2]

Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked about the cause of his blindness, if and how it was connected to sin. He pushed their categories aside; looking for an explanation and possibly even blame apparently is not what is at stake in this encounter. God’s works must be revealed; the light of the world must shine.

After such lofty talk you’d expect some dramatic action paired with mighty words of power – but instead we read,

Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”

Dust and spit – it doesn’t get any earthier and less spectacular than that.

The man went and washed and came back able to see. Only now Jesus was gone. What do you think: was he happy about his ability to see? Or was he secretly hoping to have his former, more manageable world back? He hadn’t asked for his eyes to be opened, and things didn’t really go well for him. Many of you remember how the story continues.

From the man’s perspective, the whole world had been changed in his encounter with Jesus. But the neighborhood where he used to have a place and a role didn’t know what to do with him anymore. When he came back nobody shouted, “Look at him: he can see; let’s have a party!” Instead, the neighbors talked amongst themselves, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” They remembered a man who was barely visible, a man who walked hesitantly. They remembered a man whose identity was defined by his place on the margins of the community and by his dependence. And now they were looking at a man walking upright, quite visible and independent, a man repeatedly asserting his identity against their attempts to explain him away, “Oh, that’s not him, he just looks like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

You know the thought must have crossed his mind, “If I just close my eyes and sit down, the questions will end and I will be at home again.” But he didn’t, and the questions didn’t end.

“How were your eyes opened?”

“The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Where is the man you say has done this? Why is he not with you? Why are you not with him? Where is he?

“I do not know.”

The questioning continued when the neighbors took the man to the religious leaders, expecting those in authority to make sense of the disruption and to reassure them that all was still how it used to be, and was supposed to be, and would continue to be. When people encounter the power and presence of God, they look at the world in new and different ways, they know God in new and different ways, they understand themselves in new and different ways, and all that newness and difference causes anxiety because suddenly the familiar balance has been upset.

The newness and difference that Jesus brings into the world is a new way of seeing and knowing and being. Jesus says, “Come and see,” inviting us to trust that God is the author of the newness of life we will find in his company. He says, “Go, wash,” and when you wipe the water from your face you will see what those who are too certain of their own categories cannot see.

The way the story continues is both beautiful and tragic. The man who once was blind becomes a teacher to the experts, only they refuse to be taught. They ask questions. How did you receive your sight? What do you say about the man who did this? Were you really blind? “We know that this man is a sinner,” the leaders affirm with rock-solid conviction. And the man they are questioning responds, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

The religious authorities are so certain that they know, that they cannot be open to what is taking place right before their eyes. They are sure that they know what there is to know and how one is to know it; they are unwilling to risk opening up their familiar patterns of thought and perception to the experience of Jesus.

The scene ends tragically. The religious leaders drive the man out. At the beginning of the chapter, the man was on the outside because of his blindness. Now he is on the outside, because those who sit in authority have no room for an experience that doesn’t mesh with their views of God and the world.

The tragedy reaches deeper yet. At the end of the chapter, Jesus returns and finds the man outside the community to which he used to belong. With Jesus representing the presence and power of God in the world, those who pushed him out, now find themselves on the outside; their own judgment has turned against themselves.

Yehuda Amichai, a 20th-century Israeli writer wrote a poem, titled The Place Where We Are Right:[3]

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

I can’t help but think of the place of Jesus’ crucifixion as the place where we are right, a place hard and trampled like a yard because of too much certainty and too little room for trust,  a place with little room for a God who invites us to come and see and become familiar with God’s ways of knowing.

From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow, and no love digs deeper than the love of God, breaking the hardened soil for new growth, new life, new creation.

In the end, I hope, we will all stand in the garden, greatly astonished like children, seeing the glory of God in all things.

[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985) 18

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985) 25-29

[3] http://daysofawe.net/shebotzodkim.htm For more information about this writer, and a small selection of his poems, go to http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/yehuda-amichai