Who is the man born blind? Who do you think he is? How do you picture him? When Jesus went looking for him (John 9:35), after he had been thrown out, who did he ask for? Did he have a name?
John leaves him anonymous. He may be Bartimaeus but if it is John has stripped him of his name. Anyway, Bartimaeus is another man who is blind in Mark’s gospel – it’s the other one (also nameless) that Jesus uses spit on to help him see (Mark 8:22-26).
Even if it is Bartimaeus the meaning is unclear, for if Bartimaeus is an Aramaic name his name means “unclean”, but if it is a Greek name his name means “honoured”. He certainly isn’t unclean in the eyes of Jesus and John. In fact he is a man whose blindness is accompanied by other gifts – a kind of biblical sage who is such a contrast to the able-bodied disciples.
Is he then, the model disciple?
We guess the identity of the “beloved disciple”. There are theories – could be John, Peter, Lazarus – but there’s no settled answer.
It might be that John has deliberately anonymised both of them, the man born blind and the beloved disciple.
Who is the beloved disciple? My suggestion is that the beloved disciple is whoever has his or her head on the bosom of Jesus (John 13:23), so that he/she can hear the whispered will of God, so that he/she can feel how the heart of Jesus ticks.
And similarly I wonder, is the man born blind the one who comes to see? – was blind, but now s/he sees – not through their own efforts, experience, wisdom or learning but through the gift and creation of God.
I don’t know whether you ever call rain “spit”. Our dog always pokes her nose out of the door warily to check whether it is spitting. Even if it is just spitting she turns tail and heads back in.
The rain is the spit on the earth, and the making of mud. It was from the mud that the Lord God formed humanity to become a living being (Genesis 2:7) and it was with the mud and a rub of the eyes by the lord both of light and darkness that the man born blind could see (John 9:6).
But is this just about the one man born blind? Is it about all those who “come to see”? And is the man born blind a new Adam? Is the man born blind the beloved disciple?
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
With a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to such much small change
in her hand.
Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004)
This poem describes a fairly typical experience. The reader stands in the shoes of someone accosted in the street by a beggar desperate for money for something to eat. The reader knows what it’s like, to be stuck to “like a burr”. What we often forget, because we want to look past them as if they weren’t there, is that, for the desperate too, it’s part of their everyday, to latch on to others in the hope of charity. The tendency for the accosted is to shake off the attention. The norm for the beggar is to be shaken off.
But, in this poem, there is a notable turn towards compassion. The speaker looks “clear through the bullet holes she has for her eyes”. “You” look through and past her, but as you do so what you look at begins to shatter, and it’s only the “shatterproof crone who stands alone”. Is it then that the bullet hole eyes take on their significance? Is it at this point you recognise her wounds, the battles she may have fought and lost? Is it at this point that you realise what has become of her, and what has become of you in the hands of poverty – that “you are reduced to so much small change in her hand”?
There is such pathos in that last line. There is such small change in small change for a life that should be demanding huge change.
This book is a lovely telling of a woman overcoming her sense of resentment and betrayal through hearing the story of her lost father. The story-telling helps Julia and the reader see life in a different way, as Tin Win (with the help of Mi Mi and U May) makes sense of his blindness through his sense of hearing.
Mi Mi can’t walk, Tin Win can’t see – together they make the perfect couple (is it an unconscious retelling of the Genesis creation story against the background of a Burmese village?)
It is a book about seeing. U May (blind Buddhist monk), speaking to Tin Win: “It’s true, I lost my eyesight many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind … the true essence of things is invisible to the eyes. Our sensory organs love to lead us astray, and eyes are the most deceptive of all. We rely too heavily upon them. We believe that we see the world around us, and yet it is only the surface that we perceive. We must learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help in that regard. They distract us. We love to be dazzled.”
“A person who relies too heavily on his eyes neglects the other senses – and I mean more than his hearing or sense of smell. I’m talking about the organ within us for which we have no name, let us call it the compass of the heart… A person without eyes must be aware. It sounds easier than it is. You must attend to every movement and every breath. As soon as I become careless or let my mind wander, my senses lead me astray. They play tricks on me like ill-mannered children looking for attention.”
It is a book that collapses distance and challenges the perceptions of the all-seeing, all-dancing world. “There were things a person who walked through the world on two sound feet simply couldn’t understand. They believed that people saw with their eyes. That footsteps overcame distances.”
It is a book about fear (or rather, the absence of fear). Rage muddles the senses. U May, speaking to Tin Win: “Eyes and ears are not the problem, Tin Win. It is rage that blinds and deafens us. Or fear. Envy, mistrust. The world contracts, gets all out of joint when you are angry or afraid.”
It is a book about the power that is stronger than fear and rage, which brings with it the art of hearing heartbeats.
Julia’s father tells her the tale of the prince and princess from two neighbouring and enemy kingdoms. They die on the same day. The prince dies in the mouth of a croc. The princess dies of a broken heart.
“The two kings decided independently not to bury their children but to burn them on the river bank. As chance would have it, the ceremonies fell on the same day, at the same hour. The kings cursed and threatened one another, each blaming the other for the death of his child.
“It was not long before the flames were roaring and the two corpses ablaze. All at once the fires began to smoulder. It was a windless day, and two great, mighty columns of smoke climbed straight to heaven. And suddenly it grew quite still. The fires ceased their crackling, burning on without a sound. The river ceased its chortling and gurgling. Even the kings fell silent.
“Then the animals began to sing … and suddenly … the two columns of smoke drifted slowly towards each other. The louder and clearer the animals’ song, the closer the columns drew, until at last they embraced each other and became one, as only lovers can.”
We are told to learn from the ants. Proverbs 6:6 – “Go to the ant, you sluggard: consider its ways and be wise.”
It’s true. We can learn a lot about community and industry from ants. We can also learn that if they get lost they die. When ants get lost, they follow a simple rule. The rule is to follow the ant in front. But they don’t know that the ant in front of them is only following the ant in front of him. They finish up going round and round in circles, blindly following the one in front until …. They die.
There is a famous example of this deathmill from the Guyana jungle. The ants were just going round in circles – it was a trail of ants which just kept marching in a column 400 yards long (the length of a running track). It took them 2 days to complete a circuit. On and on till they died from exhaustion.
Consider its ways, and be wise. What do we learn from the ant? We learn the importance of thinking for ourselves. We learn the importance of seeing for ourselves.
“Seeing is believing.” That’s what we say, isn’t it?
“We have seen the Lord” is what the disciples say in today’s gospel reading. “We believe”. “We have seen the Lord” is what the disciples say to Thomas, who wasn’t there to see and believe. He is the odd one out.
He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and missed seeing Jesus.
Seeing is believing is the theme of John’s gospel. Time and again John refers to the disciples “coming to see”. The frequency increases as we move to the end of John’s gospel.
Mary Magdalen came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed,
Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there. They went into the tomb, and saw and believed.
Mary Magdalen told the disciples that she had seen the Lord.
Mary Magdalen, Peter, the beloved disciples come to see the Lord.
And then, that same evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples “see the Lord” – apart from Thomas. Where was he? What was he doing?
Seeing is believing.
But if seeing is believing, what about those who are not there to see, like Thomas?
And what about those who can’t see? What about those who not even Specsavers can save?
This was a problem for a friend of mine who became blind. He was troubled about all that the Gospels say about “seeing” and “believing”, and about “light” (good) and “darkness” (bad). How could he believe when he couldn’t see? How could he be saved when he had been cast into outer darkness?
Do you see his problem?
He worked it out in the end, eventually realising that there are other ways of seeing. He called it “whole body seeing” and wrote the story of his blindness and his later whole body seeing in a book called Touching the Rock.
This is how he discovered his “whole body seeing” (WBS for short). He was staying at Iona. He had been told about the altar there by people who had described it to him. Then he saw it for himself. This is what he wrote:
“After several nights, I discovered the main altar.
I had been told about this, and I easily recognised it from the description. It was a single block of marble.
Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other.
I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size.
The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out baldly, but I could not be bothered reading.
The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go?
I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible.
It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself upon to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older.
There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with a long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind.
Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extra ordinary.
Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.”
When I read that I just went WOW. He had seen things which would not have been noticed by the casual observer with her naked eye. With his whole body seeing he had found things there which I am sure he’d be telling others about over breakfast the next day. “Come and see” he’d have been telling everyone.
I mention this because I think there is something in today’s gospel about the importance of seeing things for ourselves. When we see things for ourselves we are not seeing through other people’s eyes. We are not conforming to their vision, and we are seeing things that nobody else sees.
This brings us to the beauty of Thomas who is the focus of our gospel reading.
Thomas is a disciple who captures our imagination, isn’t he? That’s shown in the number of Thomases there are. (How many here are called Thomas, or have a Thomas in their family?)
Two of our children have Thomas in their names, after their grandfather.
We often talk about “doubting Thomas” and then refer to him as typical of us, who are often “doubters” like him.
I’m not sure that this is helpful. Thomas is actually someone who sees and believes, but in a different way. Isn’t that a more helpful way to remember Thomas?
Thomas sees things differently. This is brought out in the gospel. He wants to see through his hands and fingers. He uses his body. He doesn’t just see with his eyes. He inspects. He uses his senses and his sense. He sees with feeling. He sees from the heart.
That is the way that Thomas comes to see.
He puts his hand into Jesus’ wounds. He reaches beyond first impressions. And then he sees. He feels the love in those scars and jumps to his joyful conclusion that he is seeing our Lord and our God. This is the staggering realisation which comes from seeing from the heart, which comes from seeing with feeling, which comes from his insistence that he should see things for himself.
Thomas is not the doubter. He is one who was willing to see.
Thomas is a twin. That is how he is introduced in the gospel. “Thomas the twin”. We don’t know whether Thomas had a twin brother or sister. IT’s more likely that “twin” was Thomas’s nickname because the meaning of the name Thomas is “twin”. But if Thomas had a twin, who might it be?
That might have been a question that entertained John’s community. “If Thomas is the twin, who is his twin brother or sister?”
They could have played with that question and wondered “is that me?”
We can play with the same question. If Thomas is like us in his doubting, can we be like him in his seeing and believing? How much like him can we be? Can we be his twin brother or sister in the way that we are so much like him in wanting to see Jesus from the heart?
Jesus made many “resurrection” appearances – or should I say that Jesus makes many “resurrection” appearances. John admits that there are so many ways that Jesus showed himself and supposed that “if every one of them were written down the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Jesus wants us to see him for ourselves. He wants us to be witnesses.
Mary Magdalen, Peter, the disciple (disciples?) Jesus loves/loved, Thomas and ourselves come to see in their different ways. Together we are a body of believers who through our whole body seeing see things differently.
It is in such company that Jesus shows himself so that we might see life differently – with compassion that is able to feel for scars and wounds, and with the hope that love is stronger than death.
It is in such company that Jesus shows himself to us so that we might follow him in a way of life that is life giving, instead of blindly following others till, like the ants, we drop from exhaustion.
David Hockney certainly provides the Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy of Arts. Increasingly he has rejected the viewfinder of the camera. The viewfinder of his most recent work is his own eyes and the imagination of his mind’s eye.
What Hockney sees is amazing the rest of us who haven’t practiced the art of seeing. The colours he sees in a field, a tree trunk or a forest floor are not far-fetched but are already hinted at in the subject. Many of the subjects are from his own homeland of East Yorkshire, including “the tunnel” near Kilham. The tunnel is an ordinary farm track with trees, hedgerow and tractor track, with the tunnel being formed by the trees that overarch the track.
It is a track which most of would take for granted, which we would pass by without noticing it. But Hockney treats us to his own views which he lays out on canvases that fill the room. Each view is different. He steps to one side and then another to give himself yet another point of view. He steps forward and he steps backwards. He sees it in the morning light and the evening light, when wet and when dry, in spring through to winter. He sees it in relaxed mood and when stressed and tired. There is the one scene, but so many views. There is one pair of eyes, but so many perspectives. There is the partiality of personal insight but still such wonder. Even Hockney “only sees dimly”, because that is the human condition (1 Cor 13).
There is only so much that can go into one exhibition room. The exhibition is a sell out, even though it is open till midnight on some evenings. The rooms are crowded with people who have come to see. We are given a bigger picture which we see with our own eyes. Excitedly, many take the time to try to share what they see but it is each to their own. There is the one scene, and through one pair of eyes so many views. There is one room and so many pairs of eyes, each drawing their own conclusions.
Realising the many perspectives gives us the bigger picture. Is this the prescription that helps us see better? It is, so long as we can reconcile our views. In any room full of people there is a whole variety of views. But no bigger picture emerges if those views can’t be reconciled to each other. If our views are diametrically opposed to each other we become uncomfortable and we don’t know where to look.