My friend Sue Schmidt has alerted me to a wonderful website, Journey with Jesus, which often finds poetry appropriate to the weekly gospel readings. Today it offers up a penetrating David Whyte poem to accompany the story of Jesus and the blind man (John 9:1-41). I’ll share it in a moment but, after noting the Biblical passage, I want to first take a side trip into an Islamic story by Salman Rushdie.
The story of the blind man is fascinating because of the back and forth between the man and some Pharisees after the healing:
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
They don’t like the implications of the miracle, so after the man says, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing,” they reply,
You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
“The Prophet’s Hair” by Rushdie is a comic but ultimately compelling account of how an outbreak of faith creates chaos in the normal functioning of the world. A hair of the Prophet Mohammed is stolen and then begins changing the lives of those who come into close proximity with it, beginning with a tight-fisted money lender who starts insisting that his family follow strict Sharia law. The story, which is well worth reading, can be found here.
The miracle that is relevant to today’s Gospel reading occurs at the end of the story in the household of a thief who has stolen the hair and is then killed by the police:
But before its [the hair’s] story can properly be concluded, it is necessary to record that when the four sons of the dead Sheikh awoke on that morning of his death, having unwittingly spent a few minutes under the same roof as the holy hair, they found that a miracle had occurred, that they were all sound of limb and strong of wind, as whole as they might have been if their father had not thought to smash their legs in the first hours of their lives. They were, all four of them, very properly furious, because this miracle had reduced their earning powers by 75 per cent, at the most conservative estimate: so they were ruined men.
We all become so accustomed to our crippled existences that we don’t know what to make of a sudden encounter with the divine. Rushdie’s satiric genius—which led (through Satanic Verses) to the fatwah that for year’s threatened his life—is to expose the contortions of “true believers” when they attempt to balance faith and life.
In the case of the blind man in the Book of John, we don’t hear what happens to the blind man following a subsequent encounter with Jesus. John, of course, is no satirist. Unlike Rushdie, he is too focused on the divine itself to explore in any depth the complications that arise when it enters the everyday world;
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
And now for David Whyte’s poem, which also focuses on how faith opens our eyes and gives us the solid ground that we may sense but don’t dare to believe in:
The Opening of Eyes
That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.
From Songs for Coming Home (Many Rivers Press, 1984).