Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah God proclaims salvation for the remnant of Israel. They will be saved and returned home. Those who left in tears will be comforted. Mark’s Gospel describes the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. When he learned that Jesus was passing by he begged Jesus to have pity on him. When Jesus asked what he wanted Bartimaeus asked to be able to see. Jesus restored his sight and said “your faith has saved you.”
At first glance (no pun intended) today’s Gospel appears straightforward. A blind man learns that Jesus is near and asks for a return to his sight. Jesus, recognizing his faith, granted his wish.
But I believe that blindness is a complex issue. I think there are times when we employ what I call “willfull blindness,” that is, we aren’t blind so much as we refuse to look. If seeing something calls us to an action that we don’t wish to do we can pretend not to see it.
I still chuckle when I think about this, but when I was in my late 20s I began to wonder if God was calling me to the priesthood. This frightened me because I had a bad experience of seminary in my early 20s and hoped I had left those days in the rear view mirror and had absolutely no desire to return for another round. When I spoke with my friend Sue about this she suggested I pray about it saying: “That’s a safe thing to do.” Panicked, I told her that praying was incredibly dangerous because if I did that and learned I was called to the priesthood I’d have do it. Of course Sue knew exactly what she was doing, and I prayed, and I became a priest. But I spent several weeks pretending that I wasn’t being called.
Today we see this willfull blindness all around us. People who don’t want to think about the possibility that ordinary people can, through inaction, allow mass murder deny the Holocaust. Others who fear for their job security deny climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. Well meaning relatives pretend they didn’t see the seeds of violence present in someone they love after learning that person committed a terrible crime.
Alas, the cure for this willfull blindness eludes us. Fear and denial often trump common sense and courage. And we celebrate those times when we move beyond that fear and denial and cast our eyes on what needs to be seen.
But I see another type of blindness, a type even more insidious. We are often blind when aren’t even aware of the existence of sight. I think we are often familiar with the story of Helen Keller. Her birth was normal but when she was two years old she suffered a sever fever and lost both her sight and her hearing. And while we can’t know if she had any memory of sight or hearing we can at least suggest she didn’t.
So did she know she was blind and deaf? And if she didn’t, how do we explain it to her? How do we teach her that everyone around her takes for granted senses that she doesn’t know she doesn’t have? And if we did wouldn’t it be cruel to tell her what she doesn’t have?
As it turns out her learning about her blindness and deafness gave her the insight to become the springboard for an incredible life. She advocated for those like her she helped found the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and taught thousands like her that they could still make a difference despite their limitations.
She did all she did because of those who had the courage to tell her about her blindness, particularly her teacher Anne Sullivan, who also suffered from poor eyesight and eventually became blind herself.
During my years as a hospice chaplain I’ve been blessed by meeting thousands of people in thousands of situations. Several years ago I met a man who was dying of cancer who told me he belonged to the Gideons International. If you’ve ever spent the night in a hotel you are familiar with this group. They donate Bibles to hotels and ask that they place these Bibles in each hotel room. The Gideons recognize that some people find themselves alone and desperate in hotel rooms.
They look to people who died in hotel rooms: some from drug overdoses, some from suicide, and some from just plain desperation. They place Bibles in the hopes that a desperate person will open a drawer and reach for a Bible instead of something destructive. On the inside front cover they suggest Bible passages in case the reader is lonely, desperate, frightened or suicidal.
I enjoyed my time with my Gideon patient and we talked at great length about those who suffered from a blindness they neither sought nor deserved. At the end of each visit he asked me to pray and I happily complied. One morning I prayed not only for “those who seek God with a honest and sincere heart”, but also for those who don’t seek God that they be given the gift of hunger that they may come to seek God.
My patient immediately asked about my prayer. I can’t claim that my prayer came from my cleverness or insight but instead from God. We talked about our responsibility as Christians not only to reach out to those who grasped for us, but also for those who didn’t.
I love Baratimaeus for his faith and his desire to approach Jesus. But I love Jesus for not only healing those who ask for healing but also for those whose blindness, pain, fear, and denial block their ability to understand their blindness.
We’ll likely never fully be able to move beyond willfull blindness in ourselves and others. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. Blindness, regardless of how much we desire it, keeps us from seeing what God calls us to.
And yes, I’m grateful for the advice that Sue gave me. I chose the dangerous path of prayer and it made all the difference.