I Was Blind, But Now I See

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts,
 March 16, 2003

Isaiah 42:6, 7, 18-25 Israel blind and deaf

I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. . . .

"Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing."

It pleased the Lord for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious. But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, "Send them back."

Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come? Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.

John 9:13-25 I was blind, but now I see

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see."

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath."

But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided.

Finally they turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened."

The man replied, "He is a prophet."

The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man's parents. "Is this your son?" they asked. "Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?"

"We know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God," they said. "We know this man is a sinner."

He replied, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!"

Arcana Coelestia #4302.7 Blindness, good and bad

In a good sense, "the blind" refers to people who have no knowledge of the truth. But in the opposite sense it means people who are caught up in false ideas.

Arcana Coelestia #5037.2 Opening the blind eyes

"Opening eyes that are blind, freeing captives from prison, and releasing from the dungeon those who sit in darkness" refers to people who have no knowledge of what is good and true, and yet have a desire to know and be taught these things.

One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!" (John 9:25)

For the man born blind, a miracle had taken place that day. For the first time ever in his life, his world was not one of total blackness. Things he could only imagine before were now parading before his eyes in all their vivid shapes, colors, and details. Faces of friends he had known for years, but had never seen, were now a reality to him. His life was transformed from that very day, never to be the same again.

But what did the Pharisees care about that? The healing had been done on the Sabbath--and that was against the rules. Their blindness was far greater than that of the man who had been born blind. Their blindness was spiritual blindness. It was a blindness of mind and spirit to the glorious and powerfully healing truth of God. And so, instead of rejoicing with the man whose life had just risen from the ashes of his blindness, they questioned and cross-examined him, trying to get him to admit that the person who had healed him was a sinner, and thus someone to be shunned and avoided--and certainly not to be believed.

To the man whose blindness had been healed, this was all nonsense. He answered simply, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!" That was a fact that the Pharisees could not argue away, even with the fanciest of legal pleadings. The man had been healed of a lifelong blindness. Once the Pharisees had grown exasperated with him and thrown him out, Jesus found him again, and he became a believer. So a second miracle took place--one even greater than the first. Not only was this man healed of physical blindness, but he was healed of a far more profound spiritual blindness. Before, he had labored under the legalistic and burdensome teachings of the Pharisees. Now his eyes were opened to the healing and enlivening teachings of the Lord. Where everything had been dark to his mind before, now all was seen clearly in the light.

I can't help thinking of the parallel of Helen Keller. She was never healed of her physical blindness here on earth. But she was healed of her mental blindness by her teacher, Anne Sullivan. And then she was healed of her spiritual blindness through her encounter with the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, and her wholehearted acceptance of the new and deeper light that she found there. She tells the story herself in her moving spiritual autobiography, first published under the title My Religion, and more recently re-edited and published under the title Light in My Darkness.

Helen Keller considered her liberation from spiritual blindness to be the greatest miracle in her life. Though she never regained her eyesight and hearing to the day of her death, she lived a busy, productive, and useful life, full of the light of understanding and wisdom. While the light of this world remained blackness to her, the deeper light that comes from above and within surrounded her being with a special, powerful radiance.

We have now talked about someone born physically blind who gained both physical and spiritual eyesight. And we have talked about someone who had lost both eyesight and hearing, and never regained them while she lived on earth, yet was healed of her spiritual blindness. What about those of us whose physical senses are working quite well--or at least, well enough to live a relatively ordinary life in the world? It may be harder for us to feel the tremendous force of Jesus' opening the eyes of man born blind than it is for someone who has actually experienced blindness.

And yet, we each do have our own experience of moving from blindness to seeing. Unlike every other animal on the face of the earth, we humans are delivered into the world with almost no innate knowledge--almost no instinct. We are, in fact, born entirely ignorant and completely helpless. Few of us remember anything from those first months and years of our lives, because there wasn't much in the way of coherent thoughts for us to carry with us in memory. Any memory that we did have would consist of largely unorganized and rather fuzzy sense impressions. At that point, our minds simply haven't yet been organized to the point where we can distinguish and categorize things, and so file them away in our memory some orderly fashion for later recall. In other words, we are mentally blind.

Our process of moving from those early mental clouds of darkness into the light of knowledge and understanding is a long, drawn out one. Lower animals that are born with a full complement of instincts take at most a few years to reach physical maturity. By that time they have learned almost everything additional they will need for their entire life span. We, on the other hand, take sixteen to twenty years to reach full physical maturity. And though we have perhaps done our most concentrated learning in that time, in the best case it is still only the beginning of a lifetime process of learning and growing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In other words, our whole life is a process of moving from blindness to seeing.

This is the glory of being human. Lower animals are born with most of the knowledge they will need to live their lives, and never move beyond the nature into which they were born--at least, not without human intervention. Human beings, on the other hand, are born with almost no knowledge. That leaves the field open for limitless learning, and for growing far beyond the confines of our physical nature and biological urges. Instead of being a limitation, our mental darkness at birth is what makes it possible for us to grow into beings of light--or to use the more popular word, into angels.

Now, if this were a nice, smooth, incremental transition, how pleasant it would be! Each day we would learn a little more and grow a little more, and our whole life would be one long, gradual dawning of a new day, with all its beauty. But that is not how life works. In the world of nature, there are cycles of day and night, and larger cycles of the seasons--spring, summer, fall, winter, and back to spring again. Just so, our spiritual progression is not one long, gradual dawning from darkness to light, but a continual series of cycles in which we move from darkness to light in our understanding and our faith, and then back to darkness again before the next dawning of the day. And in our longer cycles, we move from warmth and closeness to one another and to the Lord, into periods of waning love and emotion, and through our winters of coldness and darkness of the soul, in which we feel cut off from one another, from life, from love, from God.

Even these cycles, though, are simply the normal and natural cycles through which we grow and live. Though we humans go through these cycles on a higher level than other animals, yet we share them in common with all animal--and plant--life. And because these cycles are normal and natural, they are also good. They are part of the regular cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that keeps both the world of nature and the world of the human spirit continually renewed and refreshed, and continually moving forward to new things.

The darkness that we go through in these cycles involves the kind of darkness, or blindness, that Swedenborg says is the good sense of blindness. It is good that we are born in complete ignorance, because this gives us the potential to grow into a much fuller level of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom than is possible for any of the lower animals. And it is good that we go through our periods of mental and spiritual dimness, because this opens our minds to receive new and deeper enlightenment from the Lord. In a good sense, we are blind when we become aware of our lack of understanding, and wish to be enlightened.

This is when the Lord can come to us and open our eyes. Isn't it curious that the Lord did not heal every blind person in Palestine? If we read the stories of those he did heal, we find that he could do miracles of healing only where he found faith, and a willingness to be healed. This morning we read only part of John chapter 9. If we were to read the whole chapter, we would find that this man born blind grew rapidly in his faith, and in his willingness to stand up for it even in the face of withering criticism and abuse from the religious authorities. Jesus saw this quality in him from the start, and knew that healing him of his physical blindness would be the means for a far greater healing of his spiritual blindness. The Lord's work on earth was not merely to bring about temporary, physical healing, but to bring about the spiritual, eternal healing of human beings. What does it matter if we are healed physically, and yet we are still blind in our soul?

The Pharisees, on the other hand, represented blindness in the opposite, negative sense. Their physical eyes were perfectly functional. But their spiritual eyes were stopped up, and they walked the earth in a blindness far more profound than the blindness of the man who was healed that day. They saw a wonderful, healing miracle--the freeing of a man bound in blindness since birth--yet all they could think about was the fact that the healing took place on the Sabbath. Instead of rejoicing with the healed man, they were driven by their jealousy and anger against the one who had done the healing because he showed greater wisdom and greater power with the people than they themselves possessed.

This is the blindness spoken of in our reading from Isaiah. The Lord had called the people of Israel in righteousness. He had taken hold of their hand and led them out of slavery. He had made a covenant with them that would be a light to the Gentiles--meaning the non-Jewish nations. This was not merely for their own benefit, but so that they would be a light to the world. They were to open eyes blinded by falsity and ignorance, free people from the prisons of slavery to their passions and prejudices, and release people from the dark dungeons of their servitude to material desires and the cravings of their ego.

This was what the ancient Israelites were supposed to do with the new light they had been given by the Lord. Instead, they became ingrown, proud, contemptuous of other nations, and used their greater light to look down on and condemn others rather than to raise them into a similar light. The people that the Lord had enlightened descended into the greatest blindness of all: the blindness of those who have the ability to see, but refuse to do so. And as our passage from Isaiah goes on to inform us, as a result, they were given over to the violence of war, to plunder and looting. Their own willful blindness brought upon them the consuming flame of hatred, jealousy, conflict, and eventually captivity and slavery to foreign powers.

Yet through all this, they still did not learn. "It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart." And so we find them in New Testament times steeped in just as much darkness as they had labored under when the last of their prophets had stopped prophesying four centuries earlier, because no one was listening anymore. Finally, the darkness had become so profound that even those who were blind but wanted to see could not find the light they sought. And then the Lord came, to shine a new light into the darkness of humanity--a light that could never be overcome.

Each one of us has our own blind spots, too. Looking back over our lives, we can see the times when we were blind, and then saw the light. We can see the times when we simply didn't understand, and we sought out knowledge, and gained new light that guided us on our next steps. And we can see the times that we could have seen and understood, but refused to do so, and reaped the bitter consequences of our willful blindness.

Are we blind now? Of course we are! Compared to the infinite light of the Lord, we are all wandering in darkness and obscurity. The question is not whether we are blind, but what kind of blindness. Is it a blindness that we cling to, unwilling to see the light because we would have to change our attitudes and our behavior? If so, we are in for some very hard experiences. But if we are ready to recognize our own blindness, and to humbly seek the Lord's help, then we, too, will be able to say, "I was blind, but now I see." Amen.



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Artwork: In His Constant Care
is courtesy of Greg Olsen and is
used with his permission.

Music: Heart to Heart
2003 Bruce DeBoer

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