In a 1944 radio series called “Books that Have Influenced Me,” author E.M. Forster made the comment that the only books which influence us are those for which we are actually ready, those “which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”(1)
I am most comfortable reading with a pen in my hand. The quality is not unique. Navigating through the pages with circles and highlights is for some of us a way of remembering where we have been and charting wisdom for where we hope to go. And yet, how often I have returned to a book previously read only to wonder curiously why I drew so much attention to underlining paragraph three and seemed to completely overlook sentence seven. As we experience more of life, more of self, world and neighbor, we learn to see things differently.
In an account of a miracle unlike any other found in any of the gospel accounts, Mark describes Jesus healing a blind man in stages. Touching the man’s eyes once, Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?”
“I see people,” the man replies. “They look like trees walking around.”
Then putting his hands on the man once more, Jesus restores the blind man’s sight.(2) And the man walks away seeing clearly.
A two-staged miracle seems very much like a contradiction in terms. But here, in this particular place in the book of Mark, the story is charged with symbolism. Following an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees (who are looking for Jesus to give them a miraculous sign), and an exchange between Jesus and the disciples (who have been in the presence of such miracles and yet keep failing to see), Jesus seems to tell all of them that seeing takes time. Moreover, as Jesus returns his hands to the blind man’s eyes so that he might see more than walking trees, he demonstrates an interesting hope. Namely, this man who claims to be God is persevering with those who truly long to see it.
Adding even more to this provoking theme of sight, Mark places his account of the transfiguration of Jesus near these events as well. As Peter, James, and John climb a mountain with their teacher, they are suddenly terrified as Elijah and Moses appear before them. The clothes of Jesus become dazzling white and just then a cloud appears and envelopes them, and a voice thunders from the heavens, saying: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly once again, as they look around, they see no one but Jesus.
Mark here imparts a profound mystery: Seeing clearly can be just as disturbing as not seeing at all. Whether in blindness or in partial sight, overwhelmed by reality or consumed by darkness, seeing is described, I think accurately, as a business beyond us. But here hopefully, Mark imparts, the one willing to be helped is helped.
As Emily Dickinson once penned:
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–
A wise old man with a most encouraging gleam of hope in his blind eyes once told me that though he had sat in church all of his life, it was well into his 46th year when Jesus became in his eyes one who is really loved. The truth dazzled gradually, until it was given its proper place.
What if in the task of seeing we are truly not alone? What if no eye has really seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived what God has prepared for those who would love him—Father, Son, and Spirit? Though partial sight is itself a gift, the God who comes near intends more. “Do you see anything?” The miracle may well come in stages.
(1) E.M. Forster, The Creator as Critic: And Other Writings by E.M. Forster, Jeffrey Heath, Ed., (Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2008), 364.
(2) See Mark 8:24.