Last week, I had a friend staying from England. The weather was glorious, and we went for a walk in Mount Auburn Cemetery. As we walked up one of the small paths, we paused at the top and looked over towards the lake, and we were stopped in our tracks. There was the most beautiful sugar maple, ablaze in color – orange and yellow and gold. Each leaf was shimmering in the breeze, and dazzling in the near horizontal rays of the sun. The tree seemed to be on fire. We just stood there, fixed to the ground, and stared. Wow! We finally said. It’s like Moses before the burning bush. We felt we were on holy ground. I thought of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
It was an amazing experience – a real sense of God’s presence – a revelation, an epiphany. I expect you have had such experiences in your lives, when you saw God’s presence, perhaps in something astonishingly beautiful – or in something actually quite ordinary. The English mystic Julian of Norwich famously described her experience of gazing at a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, and seeing in it the whole mystery of God’s love for all of creation.
This kind of seeing could be called “spiritual in-sight” – the gift of being able to see an object or a person as God sees them: transfigured, and shot through with the divine.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favorite Christian poets and I read him a lot. His poetry is exactly about truly seeing what is there. He was heavily influenced by the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, and he believed that the glory of God is everywhere – creation is shot through with it – the world is charged with it. But most of the time we just don’t see it. We are blind to it. Yet every created thing, every person, bears what he called an “in-scape,” a kind of inner landscape, printed on us by God, a stamp of divinity. And Hopkins, in his lyrical, but often difficult poetry, describes those soaring moments when we suddenly do see – when God’s grandeur flames out, like shining from shook foil.
And this mystery of seeing and not seeing is central to the message of the Gospels. The opening chapter of the Gospel of John proclaims that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us…and we have seen his glory.”(Jn. 1:14) And yet throughout that gospel, John goes on to grapple with the mystery of spiritual blindness, of those who do not see his glory. How is it that for some people to see Jesus was to see the Father. And yet others, especially the religious leaders, could not see Jesus’ divine “in-scape,” but just saw the carpenter’s son, or worse, a dangerous trouble maker.
The Gospel of Mark reflects on spiritual sight and blindness by telling two stories of Jesus healing a blind man. The first one is in chapter 8. The disciples are with Jesus in a boat, and they completely misunderstand what Jesus is saying. They’re beginning to see, but it’s still not clear. Jesus finally says to them in exasperation, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see?”
And immediately afterwards they land at Bethsaida and a blind man is brought to him to heal. And there is this lovely story of Jesus laying hands on him and putting saliva on his eyes. “Can you see anything?” asks Jesus. “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” So Jesus has another go – and this time he sees perfectly! Mark, with consummate skill, places the story here to highlight how the disciples, like the blind man, come to spiritual sight in stages – it takes them a long time to see Jesus in his full glory.
And then comes the second story of Jesus healing a blind man. This is the story in today’s Gospel, Mark chapter 10. Jesus and his disciples are nearing the end of their fateful journey to Jerusalem. They come to Jericho, the last town before Jerusalem. It was seething with people on their way to the Passover celebrations. They make their way through the town, and just as they were leaving, sitting by the roadside was a blind beggar called Bartimaeus. He heard the tramp of feet and commotion and asked what was happening. They told him Jesus was passing by. And he at once cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” They tried to shut him up but he shouted all the more.
The great irony here is that although he was physically blind – he could see. He could see spiritually – “Jesus, Son of David” – he could see Jesus’ divine inscape. And Jesus came to him and healed him and praised him for his faith, for his spiritual insight.
So Bartimaeus gained his full sight, as they approached Jerusalem, and so too Jerusalem, with the cross and resurrection, would be the place where the disciples’ eyes would finally be fully opened – and they would at last see Jesus in all his divine glory.
Just like those disciples of Jesus, I believe God longs to open our eyes. We may each be able to recall particularly powerful moments when we saw in a powerful new way: perhaps as experiences of conversion, or a moment when a maple tree seemed to blaze with divine glory: moments of intensity – a revelation or an epiphany.
But I believe God wants us to practice truly seeing every day. We can, if we desire it, learn to see and expect to see the presence of God each day, even in the most ordinary
things. As we grow closer to God in prayer we begin to see as God sees. “In your light we see light.” (Ps. 36:9) Amazingly, what was just ordinary can be transfigured with God’s glory. The whole world is charged with the grandeur of God. If we ask God to open our eyes, that grandeur will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
There is a wonderful story told by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton about a profound experience he had of this very thing. Merton himself, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, was very heavily influenced by the theologian Duns Scotus, and too was open and receptive to the divine presence breaking out of the ordinary. He wrote about an extraordinary experience he once had on March 18, 1958. He was standing at a street corner in downtown Louisville. It was an ordinary day and ordinary people were going about their business. But as he looked at them they suddenly changed. He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved these people…. I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.” “To me.” he wrote, “they seemed to be walking around shining like the sun.” He went on to wonder what the world would be like if we could all see each other as we really are. He muses, “I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other!”(Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
So how might we grow in our capacity to really see the world and each other, as God sees us? How can we develop our inner eye? I realize that I often have my most powerful experiences of God, and of seeing God’s glory, when I am on retreat. And that’s, I think, because I am paying attention. There is a word in the Gospels of Matthew (Matt. 6:28) and
Luke (Lk. 12:24), which Jesus uses about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He says, ‘consider’ them. The word ‘consider’ is a really strong one. It means, don’t just glance at them, but look, deeply, attentively, thoughtfully. Consider them, and you will see.
I think in our day, the opposite to ‘consider’ might be to ‘surf,’ as in ‘surf the net!’ How long do you spend surfing the net? Browsing, scanning – staying on the surface? If you are spending too much time surfing – here’s a challenge. Find a time, every day, when you will ‘consider’ – when you will look deeply, attentively, thoughtfully at one thing. Don’t do anything else but that one thing. It may be looking intensely at the leaf of a tree, or a feather, or an icon, or one or two words from Scripture. Don’t move on. Stay with it. Look into it. Try to see – to see its inscape. You may find it very difficult at first. You may get very bored. But keep looking at it. It’s charged – charged with the grandeur of God.
Today, in this worship, we take very ordinary things – bread and wine – and we bless them, and recognize that they, too, in a very special way, are charged with the very body and blood of Christ. As you receive these sacraments pray that God will open your eyes to see that the whole of creation is a sacrament – that everything and everyone we meet is sacred and charged with God’s glory.
Lord, open my eyes that I may truly see
That the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.
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