Many years ago, I read about a man named Pierre-Paul Thomas. His incredible story comes back to me every time I hear our gospel for this morning. Maybe that comes from my having only one good eye. More likely, it is a reminder to be honest with myself about all the times that I don’t see the world, and my place in it, with clarity. All the times I fail to see where God is leading me.
Pierre-Paul Thomas was born blind – indeed he was a lot like the blind man in our gospel story this morning.
He grew up in a family of nine brothers and sisters in a small town about 100 kilometres north of Montreal, in the 1940s. Mr. Thomas learned to see with his fingers. He repaired bikes, and worked in a bakery, kneading dough. But he lived in a grey world of shadows, walking with a white cane.
And then, a miracle. Though at first it didn’t seem that way. In 2011, when he was 66, Mr. Thomas fell down a flight of stairs, and fractured the bones of his face, including those around his eye sockets. In emergency. the doctors mended him as best they could. But a month later, he was in the office of Lucie Lessard, a well-respected plastic surgeon, who performed the next surgery. He still recalls her nonchalant question: “While we’re at it, do you want me to fix your eyes, too?”
It seems that all these years Mr. Thomas had suffered from a blindness that could have been fixed with an operation, but he had grown up before public health care, another side note to this tale. Dr. Lessard did her work – just as Jesus in the gospel did his - and Mr. Thomas emerged into a world he had never before experienced. His eyesight would never be perfect, but he could see so much more. Colours and clear shapes. The faces of his family.
One thing he noticed so clearly: nobody had ever described to him the little green buds that grow on the trees in the spring.
Can we even imagine that? Having been blind all our life and then suddenly being able to see? How must it have been for that man in the gospel, who so faithfully followed the directions of Jesus, who covered the man’s eye with mud mixed with saliva and then told him to wash in a pool of water. Still the man listened, whether it was because he believed or because he would have tried anything if it meant he might see. We do know, from our text, that he refused to be swayed from telling the truth of what had happened. Though berated by the Pharisees, he refused to be cowed into giving up the truth. For that, for seeing with his own eyes, he was driven out of the temple, a terrible punishment in that day. It was not as if you could wander down the street to another temple.
When Jesus says, “I have come to make the blind see and those who see blind,” the Pharisees believe in him enough to be worried. “Surely, you’re not saying we are blind?” And Jesus chastises them: for their failing is thinking that they see clearly, and not realizing that they are blind.
For how often do we hear this phrase: ‘Open your eyes!’? We use it to describe a naive person who is being taken in by someone else, or to expose the way we might see another person being manipulated, or when a lie is being too easily believed. But how often do we say it to ourselves? How often do we go to God and ask him, “Open my eyes, so that I may see clearly”? We may not, because we might be worried about what seeing too clearly inside ourselves will reveal – we prefer blindness to what is experienced by others.
But here is the thing about Mr. Thomas: he was extremely grateful for his gift of sight and the world he was now a part of. But even two years later, he was having a hard time shaking old habits, still feeling along the wall when he walked. It was hard to change, even when he could see clearly.
And that’s also a metaphor for us. In our blinded state, we fall into habits, we slip into old ways of being. We use certain fixed words to describe ourselves, and ones that pin down others as well. Words like selfish, critical, dishonest. We assume that how we see the world is the way it is, and the way it will be, or the way it has to be.
But Jesus calls us to open our eyes and look deeply at our lives. To see clearly how we are in relationship with others. See the places where we have made a colourful life grey, or allowed shadows where they don’t need to be. It begins with a simple request: God, help me see clearly. With God, we may open our eyes and see ourselves clearly: where a failure to forgive is twisting our insides, where anger is really jealousy, where judgment is really self-criticism. In those moments of eye-openness, when we are honest with ourselves first, we come to see more clearly the way that God intends us to see.
We cannot see the little green buds on the trees – the new beginning of each day, and each relationship – if our eyes remain closed. Amen.