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Looking intently

Looking intently


by Charles LaFond

In Bethsaida, when the blind man is brought to Jesus, Jesus takes his hand because the blind man’s companions had begged Jesus to touch him. Jesus takes him into privacy outside the village (Mark 8:22-26) and places saliva on his eyes, lays hands on him and asks “Can you see anything” to which the man replies that he can but things are blurry “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”


Then Jesus tries again by touching his eyes and then the man “looks intently” and sight is restored.


These are the same words about intense looking- the same scenario – that happens two chapters later between Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler except backwards. In the scene of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10: 17-27) the rich man in his finery is talking to Jesus – a zealot, angry at power structures including rich people.  The rich man is innocent but his clothes make Jesus mad perhaps?  The rich man is trying to get wisdom about life and Jesus is the blind one.  Jesus is blind to the man’s suffering because all Jesus can see is the rich man’s wealth and what it symbolized  (people wore wealth in those days in the middle east.)  But suddenly “Jesus, looking straight at him, warmed to him.” The rich man’s persistence heals Jesus. The rich man seems to be pleading something like “stop looking at my wealth Jesus, and look at me! me! A man trying to live this life well. A man seeking your advice.!”


It takes two.  God works, and we work.  Jesus tried and tried to heal the blind man.  “Did that work?!…Did that?!?!? How about this.”  It reminds me of the scenes in Harry Potter when students keep trying potions and wand-waving, asking if the spell worked or not.  One can almost hear the desperation in Jesus, still not sure how and when his powers work and still very human, self-doubting (though not in John’s version) and trying, trying, trying to heal. And as Jesus tries, the blind man tries.  He looks and blindness has given way to partial sight but then he has to “look intently” – he has to try harder to be healed. Funny that.


I think we do too.  In the past few months I have been “blinded by rage.”  It is interesting, is it not, that we use that term “blind rage” and “blind anger?”


Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay wrote in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam:


“If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology –  hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries”


And I think that is what has happened to me these past few months and years.  My rage and anger made me blind to my actions, my words, and I have written about my anger without realizing how it could be hurtful.


I have compassion for myself.  There is trauma when living in a church with so much beauty, competence, mission-passion which is, like many gardens, also choking with weeds of incompetence, maneuvering and the institutional stresses of a culture whose changes are quietly beginning to starve the church of her long-used-to resources. This aging of our donor-base and the disinclination of younger generations to fall in line obediently giving and attending our churches is causing people to do and say the most extraordinary things.  Including me – this tired priest, doing his best in the “fields.”


What blinds us?  What rage, hurt, disappointment, regret, or despair blinds you, blinds me, to the effects of our words and actions?  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe there are terrible injustices and that anger can help us to express emotions when we are hurt and even, when carefully curated, heal us a bit.  But I am wondering if running 5 miles might not be better, sometimes, than mouthing off at the dinner table after a drink or yelling at a child for, well, being a child; or yanking on a dog’s leash when the sniffing the dog is doing is his job – and waiting patiently is mine.


When I first moved to Denver I had been through enough to cause anyone PTSD but Kai, my black lab seemed ok.  Calm.  Gentle.  A black lab in other words.  But one day, while walking a busy Denver park with Kai – who had been raised on a secluded farm in the woods of New Hampshire by a river for years with no access to other dogs, Kai was wildly wagging his tail and sniffing dog-butt when the other massive, white dog circled around and sunk his teeth dug deep into Kai’s haunches and drew blood without making even a sound.  I will never forget the look on Kai’s face.  He looked confused.


To this day, ever since, Kai, on encountering any dog along the street, plants and growls until it passes.  This makes me sad.  And I see that in myself too.  There was a before and there was an after for Kai.  And I am aware that there has been for me too. I think there is for many of us if we become mindful enough to see it.


But I believe that even though rage can blind us, we are accountable for what we do, even if we can’t see that we are doing it.  Many poor men are sitting in our prisons and are there not because they stole or killed or used drugs (though they did); but because of what happened to them when they were seven. Jesus wants to touch and heal the blind man.  Jesus, when he finally “looks straight at” the rich young ruler a couple chapters later, is healed of his blindness because the rich man persists – helps Jesus out of his blindness and helps Jesus to return from his rage to his good pastor-self.


Jesus is helping us with our blindness.  Well, me at least. I hope.  And if I work hard at lectio divina, I can feel those fingers on the eyeballs of my heart, feel them slip and slide on Jesus’ saliva, feel the saliva slip into the corners of my eyelids and into the wetness of my eyeball, co-mingling – Jesus’ juices and my juices – and I can hear Jesus asking, asking – asking “Now?  Now?  Now, Charles? Are you healing now?  Can you try harder Charles?  Look again.  Now can you see?”


I think I have often though Jesus should just swoop in and solve my problems but that seems not to be God’s way.  There is too much starvation, suicide, cancer, war and abuse to indicate that God works that way.  But these Gospels show us a human Jesus who heals a blind man and a human Jesus whom a rich man heals.


Kai-the-dog will, forever, I expect, start with offense as defense.  It is the result of a deep bite.  And perhaps we humans do that too.  But I wonder about an upcoming Lent.  I wonder if we may seek less to give things up, less to fast and moan and hide chocolate and roll around in ashes and burlap begging for forgiveness; and instead look for things in life which seem like fingers on our eyes, slimy with healing spit.


The Rev Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon Steward of St John’s Cathedral in Denver, CO


image: icon of Jesus and the rich young man by Katherine Sanders


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