From Darkness to the Light. The Sunday of the Blind Man22 February 2021
Salvation is not the fulfilment of the law. Even miracles cannot guarantee that we shall see the Day of the Lord. It is not miracles that save us. what saves us is our personal relationship with Christ. The multitude thronged Christ and many sought to touch Him, because there came virtue out of Him and healed them all. Yet only some would receive healing and even less would hear from the Lord, ‘Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace’ (Luke 18:42). The salvation about which He speaks here is not just bodily healing. Salvation is this faith that brings us to a living communion with the One in Whom believe. In our Holy Church we are given many ways to touch the Lord, but we must SEEK to touch Him, as the crowds were seeking to touch Him in the Gospel. May God preserve us and give us not to leave this world without having found a life-giving contact with the Lord, for it is tragic if we let this contact with God fade away either by negligence or by the arrogance of our mind, or by many mistakes.
The first necessary factor which makes this contact possible is the mercy of God. As we see in the Gospel, if Christ had not descended from the mountain, the crowds could not have found Him, nor touched Him (cf. Luke 6:17). That descent was only a symbol of His greater descent from the bosom of the Father to this world.
Another factor which can play a decisive role in our contact with God is the way in which we approach the Lord and the Gospel gives us examples in the grateful leper, the blind man, the Canaanite woman, who approached the Lord with humble faith, ‘in hope against hope’. We find an excellent example in the woman with the issue of blood who touched only the hem of His garment, but with such a humble spirit, and she found healing through contact with His divine power.
Salvation is a living communion with a living Person, Christ, and this communion comes as a light that reveals to us two things. First of all, it reveals His love, which is absolute, infinite and immaculate. On the other hand, it reveals to us the distorted image we have put on after our fall. We need both aspects in order to find contact with the Lord, as we perceive in the blind man. We need both DESPAIR (for the law of sin within us) which is always accompanied by ardent DESIRE (for the law of the Lord’s grace). If we have only despair, we are cut from God and we perish. We need that despair which will beget prayer in our heart as a strong cry to God with many tears. We need that which Saint Sophrony the Athonite calls ‘charismatic despair’ which begets prayer with ‘strong crying and tears’ in our heart.
Our living relationship with Christ is a relationship of love, and love can never be satisfied in this world. The closer the saints would come to God, the more they would condemn themselves. This is a property of divine love: he that possesses it longs to suffer for the Beloved. Another delicate aspect, is that we should not seek contact with Christ in order to receive something. We must seek HIM, as a person. Of course, in this contact the Lord often grants healing and other gifts to man, but we are not seeking for the gift, we are seeking for the Giver of the gift. He says, ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for the work of God’ which is ‘that ye believe on him whom he hath sent’ (John 6:27-29). This is the work of God through which all our other works are blessed.
We see in the Gospel that Christ treats man with great honour: He does not only grant healing to him, but also lifts him up to the level of His divine will and makes him His fellow minister in His vineyard. Through the miracles that He performs, Christ works on the hearts of His disciples at the same time. The blind man also becomes a co-worker of Christ in the work He had come to perform. When he asked the crowds who is coming, ‘they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by’ (Luke 18:37), and instead of crying ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, he cried, ‘Jesus, Thou son of David, have mercy on me’ (Luke 18:38): he gave witness of his faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the heir of the throne of David. The healing of the blind man is the last miracle the Lord performs before He enters Jerusalem, and he becomes a co-worker with Christ in that he strengthens the faith of the disciples, before they approach His Passion when all will be shaken.
The blind man was a poor beggar sitting by the wayside, the perfect representative of all mankind: poor and ill and in darkness, an outcast from this world. That is why he could find a contact with Christ Who made Himself an outcast in order to save us. He turns to Christ with one phrase, with one ‘arrow prayer’: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.’ He concentrated in it all his pain, all the rejection from his fellow Jews, but also all his hope. However, although he cried out in this way, God allowed the people to rebuke him and try to stop him, yet ‘he cried so much the more’ (Luke 18:39). Thus we are taught not to become faint hearted in our effort to turn to God, but to humbly persevere in prayer, just like in the parable of the unjust judge and the widow. When Christ stopped and asked him, ‘What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?’ the blind man did not waste time with words. Many words in prayer are the sign of a psychological person. He said simply, ‘Lord, that I may receive my sight.’ As we have a natural birth and a natural sight, there is also a spiritual birth in man and a spiritual sight, wherewith we are illumined by Christ Who is the light of the world. The blind man received a double healing both in his body and even more in his soul. We see that from the way he responds to the gift: immediately he followed Christ glorifying God. The phrase with which the blind man beseeches the Lord later developed into what we know as the Jesus Prayer, through which one of the greatest miracles in all creation is performed: the union of the heart of man with the Spirit of Christ.
Question: Today we heard the Apostle say that he is chief among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Does humility bring spiritual vision or is it the spiritual vision that brings humility?
Answer: It works both ways. There is a ‘circumvolution’ of humility and spiritual vision. The more humbly we approach the Lord like the blind man, the more we receive spiritual enlightenment. Christ is the Eternal Light, ‘which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9). It is the same with the heart of man: if we approach Him humbly, His light will penetrate our heart and in this light our spiritual vision will be more clear to see His holiness, His justice, His immaculate love, and on the other hand, our injustice, our betrayal. If we transform this twofold vision into energy for prayer, it can give us great humility. Saint Sophrony discerns between ascetical and charismatic humility. All the effort we do to put the blame on ourselves for all things is ascetical humility, whereas charismatic humility is possessed by those who contemplate the Face of God and enter into His light. This is the faith of contemplation: they no longer believe, but know Him in Whom they believe, and such faith imparts to them the state of charismatic humility, the humility of Christ.
Question: You said we must put all your energy into a prayer of one phrase. I just wonder, why do we have so lengthy services like Compline, Vespers, the Liturgy?
Answer: We need to pray with the prayers of the Church at length because we need to learn the language of God. In school, we do not begin mathematics by studying integration, but we start with many years of simple mathematics, equations, derivatives. Likewise, we need to dedicate time to all the prayers of the Church to assimilate the language with which our Fathers speak to God. Even to the Jesus Prayer one needs to devote time. Quantity brings quality, say the Fathers. We need to say the prayer many times and for a long time, not just some days. God gives prayer to him who prays. Then, man can reach the state of knocking on the door of God’s mercy with a word like a strong cry. Today’s Gospel describes an event that took place in Jericho, where of old Jesus the son of Nun sounded the trumpets and the walls of the city fell (see Josh. 6:3-20). The same happens with the heart of man. The Name of Christ is stronger than the trumpets of the Old Testament and it brings down these walls around the heart.
Question: How to reach humility and believe that all others are better than us when with our human eyes we see the opposite?
Answer: We need to be blind. Somebody asked once Elder Charalambos at Dionysiou on Mount Athos: ‘How can I acquire blind obedience?’ And this holy Elder said in his simplicity: ‘In order to do blind obedience you need to become blind.’ That means that we must not put our confidence in what we see. The Scripture says that, ‘The Lord gives wisdom to the blind’ (Ps. 145:8 LXX). If we keep looking around all the time, we put a wall in front of ourselves and we will not progress, because we will compare ourselves with our fellow men and we will either be puffed up thinking we are better, or, if they are better, we may become jealous or despair.
What more can we ever expect than cleaving to the Lord, when He says to us as He said to Peter: ‘Follow thou me’ (John 21:22), or as He said to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, ‘All that I have is thine’ (Luke 15:31)?
Question: If salvation is a process, why do some saints say that salvation is an act of which the soul is aware when it happens?
Answer: Salvation is not something vague, it is this communion with God that man can feel even in his very body. It does not come without giving witness of its presence. It is not an abstract theory, or a blind, cold faith. It must also be activated in our heart, the very body of our body, because it is a living relationship with a living Person, with Christ.
Question: We Orthodox are sometimes accused that we believe in magical powers when we venerate the icons and holy relics. Is there any link between the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the powers we believe in when we venerate the icons?
Answer: We do not kiss a piece of wood in a pagan way: the veneration of the icon ascends to the Person depicted in the icon. Through His descent and ascent, Christ filled all things with His divine energy, and all creation is sanctified. The holy relics are the remains of those who were vessels of the Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit that sanctified even their bones. In the Orthodox Church we do not worship God by meditating, but with our eyes, with our mouth, with our mind, heart and body.
Question: You said we need both despair and desire. How can we find the desire to pray?
Answer: The desire to pray is kindled in man even when he humbles his spirit before the Lord and even when he feels rejected, he does not become fainthearted, but cries all the more like the blind man, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy upon me.’ We may be knocking on the door of God’s mercy with some hidden pride in us and in order to purify us, He often puts us to the test and does not respond. Abba Paissios the Great prayed with many tears for his monk who had abandoned the monastic habit. God put him to the test, saying as if He resented his prayer: ‘Paissios, why do you pray for this monk? Don’t you know he offended Me by going to the world to marry?’ Saint Paissios said, ‘Lord, I know You are merciful and love Your creature’ and then God answered, ‘Oh, Paissios, you have become like Me in your love.’ When God is silent, the thought may come to us that our prayer is in vain, but if at that point we turn to Him with a stronger cry, we experience this leap of faith in hope against hope. That is why Saint Silouan was singing a triumphant song after he received the word ’Keep thy mind in hell and despair not’. He found the key to restore his contact with Christ in whatever temptation or state he might find himself. The desire to pray is rekindled in us when, though we do not have prayer, we turn to God and present our state to Him, saying: ‘Lord, Thou seest, my heart is dry and dark, I am blind and paralysed by sin. Give me Thy life-giving touch that my heart may be quickened with Thy love again. Take my soul out of prison that I may confess Thy Name’ (Ps. 142:7).
Question: Is ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not’ only for giants like Saint Silouan, or is there anything we can also use for ourselves?
Answer: The criterion is freedom. We can safely accept whatever frees our heart. At times condemning ourselves to hell will be the only thing that can free our heart, while other times we cannot bear the furnace of this word, and then we start from the second part: not despairing, giving thanks to God, always adding ‘although I am totally unworthy’.
Question: Are there any methods to avoid being fainthearted?
Answer: We need to turn to God with prayer and ask Him to fortify the walls of Jerusalem, which is our heart (Ps. 51:18). This gives us the power not to become fainthearted, even if the mountains would shake and fall into the sea, as our Holy Fathers say. When man experiences the contact with the living God and the Spirit fortifies the walls of the heart, then he has the witness of the Spirit crying within, ‘Abba, Father’. Then he knows that he is not an orphan, but belongs to the heavenly Father and such knowledge casts away all fear. We all need to know that we must not seek for human support, for neither a man, nor an angel has saved us, but God Himself.
Question: How can we go astray if we only invoke the Name of our Lord in the Jesus Prayer? Why do we need a guide?
Answer: It is not the Name of God and prayer that makes us go astray, what can deceive us is the pride within us. We absolutely need a spiritual guide, first, because it is more humble. Seeking for confirmation from a guide has humility, and it immediately attracts the protection of God upon us. Whereas when, as Saint Silouan says, man thinks he can learn to pray by reading the Philokalia and does not seek for guidance, then the path to delusion is already open before his feet. It is also safer to seek for guidance from someone who has walked this path and will know to give us the right answer to every question. The Jesus Prayer brings many spiritual fruits. In the beginning, it opens up the eyes of our heart and we start to struggle with thoughts. This battle against thoughts is very complicated and fine, and it is impossible to get through it safely without a guide. Later, the Jesus Prayer brings forth even greater fruits. Yet, seeking for confirmation and guidance is a sign of spiritual health.
Question: Can we expect forgiveness after a life in which we have repeatedly committed the same sin, though we confess each time? How is our weakness reconciled with God?
Answer: Our great weakness is reconciled by God Himself, because our God is ‘long-suffering’ and ‘Lover of mankind’, and these are not just symbolic words. It is His nature. In the Desert Fathers, we read the story of a monk who would fall every day, and every day he would go back to church, fall down before the icon of Christ and ask forgiveness with bitter regret, but he meant it! One day the enemy shouted to the Lord, ‘How long will You bear this ridiculous sight, he comes here and lies to You, and then goes out and falls again.’ To which Christ answered: ‘Every day, when he leaves the church, you wait for him to make him fall again. Should I, Who have shed My blood for him, not wait for his return? And to show you My mercy, I will take his soul now, that he is repenting.’ And he took the soul of the monk at the moment of repentance and he was saved. Though we repeatedly commit the same sin, we must always return and confess with faith. We must look into our heart to see what the root of the problem is. I am sure that if we ask God to show us, the day will come when He will bring in front of our eyes the reason why our will becomes weak. In any case, if we separate ourselves from the communion of grace, which is the Church, we will surely perish.
Question: Can an ordinary person, a sinner, see the Light of God?
Answer: There are many ways and degrees in which His Light can approach man. The great Fathers saw the Light in abundance and entered into the Kingdom of God already from this life, but this presupposes total crucifixion, which not many can bear, and so very few in every generation receive this gift. However, Father Sophrony said that even the warmth you feel in the heart during prayer is activated by the Light of God. You do not see the Light, but you feel the heat of the Light of God. Yet, it is important to note that we should not be seeking for such things. The witness of our Holy Fathers is that God is Light and He is known in His Light, but when and how much this Light will touch our heart belongs to the Giver, not to us. We only seek for communion with the Person of Christ.