Healing Blindness and Seeing God
There are several healings of blind men in the Gospels, but today's is unique (Jn. 9:1-38). It is much more elaborate than the others, and the whole event and the accompanying dialogues are points of departure for theological reflection. We are offered here not simply the fact of a divine healing, but the deeper meaning of Jesus' giving sight to the blind.
For our point of departure, let us look at the first few verses. Jesus and his disciples came upon the blind man, and immediately the disciples began their own theological reflection: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" It was commonly assumed that physical infirmities were a punishment for sin, either one's own or that of one's ancestors. Jesus immediately challenged that assumption by saying: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him." The Lord does not deny in principle that there is no relation between sin and suffering--for this relation will certainly be manifested on Judgment Day!--but that in this case, the man was afflicted not because of sin but in order that God's glory and power would be revealed in him at the hands of Jesus. We cannot assume that a physical infirmity has a spiritual cause, but we cannot categorically deny it, either. We have to be in the grace of the Holy Spirit to know the difference.
The next question might be whether or not spiritual infirmities have a spiritual cause, and this must usually be answered in the affirmative. If we are spiritually blind - and this relates more directly to us than physical blindness - then, yes, most likely it is because of our sin that we are thus afflicted. So we ought to take a closer look, if the glory of God is to be manifested in us as well.
I read something recently that sheds some light on this issue, from the Dominican Father Simon Tugwell's book on the Beatitudes. The Beatitude in question is, of course, "Blessed are the pure of heart," because to be healed of spiritual blindness is to be given the capacity to see God. And to see God is the ultimate goal of our existence, yet we are called to discover his presence in this life as well, for if our souls are so blinded by selfishness and sin that we cannot recognize his presence in faith here and now, we will not be granted the eternal, unhindered vision of Him when all the veils are finally removed. To acquire a pure heart is to be healed from spiritual blindness.
Tugwell says that to have a pure heart is to have an interior life that is "unmuddied" by sin, which clouds our spiritual perception. He writes: "A very important factor here is what we may call Christian spontaneity. It does not, perhaps, in the last analysis, matter all that much what you do with forethought; what really matters, what is really revealing, is what you do without thinking... what you do when you do not have time to work out how to respond. It is this that will reveal what kind of person you are, and that is what is important. After all, the kingdom of heaven comes like a thief in the night (1Thess. 5:2), with a suddenness which will not allow us to work out how we are going to react."
This, I think, is an important point. Our spontaneous reactions to other persons and situations reveal to us, and to others, who we really are. If we spontaneously react to people and events with anger, fear, suspicion, hatred, defensiveness, unkindness, criticism, or merely irritation, then we are in fact angry, fearful, suspicious, hateful, defensive, unkind, critical, and irritable people. The evidence is uncontestable. This is the measure of our actual purity of heart (or rather, lack of it), even though we may be struggling to overcome these things. It is in fact the present state of affairs, even if we are working to correct it, and we ought to honestly and humbly admit it. This issue of Christian spontaneity is something like saying actions speak louder than words, but it is more to the point. It's more like saying unrehearsed actions and words speak louder than rehearsed ones. St Thomas Aquinas says that as long as we have wrong desires (that is, if our interior is not yet pure), even if we do not give in to them, we are not yet virtuous. We may be on the way to becoming virtuous, but we're not there yet. We may not find prayers in liturgical books that say, "O God, re-create my spontaneity!" But the reality to which this points is essential for our spiritual growth and hence the healing of our blindness.
Tugwell goes on to say: "We must unmuddy the very source of our reactions, so that our spontaneity itself is transformed. This can only come about through the Holy Spirit. He is given to us by God to be in us a source of living water, welling up from our own hearts... But purity of heart is not just a matter of our own interiority... If we have a clean heart, it is because God has given us a clean heart... It is God dwelling in us who gives us a true interiority that is genuinely ours, but is not simply our own... Western man...does not feel secure about his identity, and feels that as a grievance. In response to this, he generally tries to find ways of bolstering up his 'Ego', to reassure himself that he is something..." We ought rather embrace the "no longer I, but Christ," which is one of St Paul's most profound insights.
"If we can unmuddy the source of life in us, if we can allow God to re-create us from deep within, so that there is a pure life in us, Christ's life as well as our own, then this must inevitably affect the way that we are and the way that we see. There is an interaction between seeing and being. The kind of person you are affects the kind of world that you see... And conversely what you see affects what you are. If you see the world as a rather grim affair, you will become a grim person. If you see the world as a place where there are butterflies, you will probably be a rather more light-hearted kind of person. If our life is rooted in God, so that the wellspring of life in us is God, then we shall see as God sees... If we have a pure heart, a source of life welling up from the eternity of God, then what we shall see is God."
This is a very important teaching. Attaining purity of heart is the healing of our spiritual blindness. Purity is not merely a matter of trying to avoid impure thoughts or actions. It is a much more thoroughgoing inner transformation. It determines how we see the world and other people, and hence how we will spontaneously react to them. And if the life of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit really is the source and driving power of our whole inner life, then we will see as God sees, and our unrehearsed words and acts will reveal that we are in fact Christ-like people, both inside and out, and we will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in all our actions and relationships.
When Jesus healed the blind man, the first thing the man saw was the face of God, that is, the face of God incarnate in Christ. This is symbolic of the movement from darkness to light, from inner blindness to sight, from a muddy interior to purity of heart. The Gospel makes it clear, however, that it was not only a physical healing of blindness. For when the man saw Jesus the second time, he fell down and worshiped Him, recognizing, with his newfound spiritual vision, the presence of God in Jesus.
We must begin with the humble admission that we are still spiritually blind, still not pure of heart. Even a quick examination of our spontaneous reactions (whether external or internal) will give us plenty of evidence for that. The greatest error that could be made here is to claim that we can see when in fact we are still blind. Jesus made that clear to the Pharisees, who resented the fact that He implied they were still blind, when He said to them: "Now that you say, 'we see,' your guilt remains."
Let us also realize that, unlike the blind man in the Gospel, it is our sin that is the cause of our spiritual blindness, because only sin can destroy purity of heart. If we do not yet see everything as God sees it, if we do not yet recognize the presence of God everywhere, if we spontaneously react in unkind or self-centered ways, then we are still suffering from a sin-induced spiritual blindness, a lack of purity of heart.
So let us pray fervently - and not mechanically as we may do every day as we pray psalm 50(51) - "Create in me a pure heart, O God!" Let this be our constant entreaty to the Holy Spirit as we prepare for his coming at Pentecost. This matter is too important to be tossed in the mental dustbin with hundreds of other long-forgotten Sunday homilies. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to effect a radical change in our inner lives - we can't afford to remain how we are! It is crucial for our own salvation and our beneficial influence upon others that our inner life is free from all the darkness that is all too often revealed in our spontaneous reactions. The Lord can heal us, can enlighten us, but we must want it with all our hearts, and diligently strive to co-operate with his grace. For our goal is nothing less than complete purity of heart--nothing less than to see God.