Spiritual Spaces Part 3: Creating Space to Recognise Truth
In the third part of a series looking at spiritual spaces, The Rt Revd Rob Wickham explores the healing of a blind man, prompting us to reflect on how we make space to see more clearly in our own lives.
Having looked at kataphatic and apophatic spaces in my two previous features, I will now explore a Bible story so we can examine the spiritual spaces it contains. In John chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man uniquely, by rubbing mud in his eyes. If you read through the whole chapter, you will see Jesus creating a variety of both internal and external spaces. Jesus and his disciples have left the temple and meet the blind beggar, who is unwanted as much as Jesus by the authorities; they are in common.
Unwanted people tend to come together and cling to each other in the margins. As we might, the disciples start looking for answers. Why is he blind? Was it this person or his parents who sinned? It’s a straightforward cause-effect reflection, yet Jesus recognises how the blind man has been cast out of society and seeks relationship with him, instead of talking about him behind his back. The disciples were content to treat the blind man as unworthy of space, but Jesus gets personal with love and creates space for a miracle to take place.
Seeing more clearly
Jesus knows that the blind man can see more clearly than the disciples when face-to-face with a kindred spirit, with love. The blind man knows much about apophatic prayer, and is dazzled by a kataphatic image when he washes in the pool of Siloam and is healed. God chooses this moment to remind us that what we can see may not be the truth — and what we cannot see may reveal something of Jesus Christ. It is not always the wise and the strong who have all the answers. Weakness and disability can draw us further into God, especially when we consider love. Those who need help, like the blind man, cry out for a presence and friendship, perhaps seeing more clearly than I can, seeing internally.
As Jesus heals the blind man, he spits, makes clay, touches and speaks to the man. He communicates in ways that are understood: touch, the most crucial of all the senses and tenderness; a gift our world screams out for. A baby needs tenderness to learn how to love and trust. I hear safeguarding bells ringing, but I ask, do you use tenderness or fear to build trust with those around you?
Squashing space out of fear
It is not surprising that this man causes a stir as he is restored to society through his healing. Such a miracle needs to be verified by the religious authorities, but out come the rules and regulations again! Those who are blind fall back into their rule books for safety — after all, Jesus does not observe the sabbath. Here, space to recognise truth is squashed: “We cannot compute this new thing, so grab the parents — they will confess that this he was not really blind in the first place!”
The parents are afraid and at risk here. They recognise that the authorities have already made up their mind; that believing in Jesus would result in exclusion from the synagogue. Fear of their own exclusion overshadows their own joy for their son. Threats like this, of exclusion, can make us behave in all sorts of ways when fear is at work. So, they do not make space to recognise the truth for themselves and refer the Pharisees back to their son.
Plain and simple
Once again, the power of the blind man’s testimony becomes key. He states it plain and simple: he was blind and excluded, now he is restored and can see. Yet through his testimony that Jesus is Lord, this poor blind beggar who can now see is driven out because he refuses to change his position on Jesus’ identity.
This man healed of blindness is the first person to be rejected and persecuted because of Jesus. He bears witness to Jesus and he is the first martyr (the Greek word for martyr and witness is the same). Having found his sight, he could have been integrated into society and no longer be marginalised and seen as God’s punishment. But he told the truth; he made space for the truth. The Pharisees are blocked from seeing; they are limited by a narrow interpretation of the Word of God, refusing to experience and be open to reality. Internally blind, though externally, they see.
The contrast, says Jean Vanier in his commentary on John’s Gospel, is striking between those imprisoned in ideology and this man living in reality, saying simply how things are. The Pharisees close up more and more, becoming further blind. The healed man opens up to the truth and sees Jesus more clearly. His eyes are opened, as is his heart and his intelligence. “I am the Son of Man” says Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe” comes the response.
Jesus must have been deeply touched by this trusting beggar who was excluded from society and excluded again because he believed and trusted in Jesus. Maybe, because of his experience of exclusion, he was able to see Jesus for who he was.
But what of us, are we blind and refuse to see reality? How do we become more aware of the manifestations of God? We must surely listen to the marginalised and the poor; creating space for such stories to be told. In an apophatic style which stirs the soul, we must be open and honest about our brokenness.
More in this series: