I once had the privilege of listening to a conversation among blind Christians who were discussing the healings Jesus performed for blind men. Some wanted to be those blind men. They said they would jump at the chance to see the world they had never seen.
Others disagreed. They would not ask for sight, or accept it if it were offered to them. They did not feel deprived because they could not see; they related to the world in ways that were full and good, not in spite of being blind, but because they were blind.
Still others weren’t sure how they felt about those healing miracles. Being able to see would be wonderful, but having to leave blind culture behind would not.
But there were two things they all agreed on:
First, they didn’t like that the healing of the blind is often preached as a metaphor for coming to insight out of ignorance, or crossing from moral darkness into the light of faith, as if to say that being blind is something God thinks is bad. In fact, one of them said he was permanently miffed at the prophets, the evangelists, and Jesus himself, whom he otherwise loved, for using the bestowal of sight to the blind as a way of talking about the kingdom of God, implying that it’s a place where there ought not be any blind people, or people with disabilities of any kind.
Now, I have had blind parishioners and students who used blindness as this kind of metaphor themselves. They were not the least bit put off by it; which leaves those of us who are sighted with a challenge when we try to be respectful both to the text and to metaphor and to real live people whose experience includes blindness, but who, like all human beings, do not agree with each other about what being respectful about all this means. But this group agreed that the stories were irritating to them.
The second thing they all agreed on was that they liked these stories anyway. The espcially loved the chutzpah of the blind man in one of the gospels, the one we call ‘the man born blind,’ who sticks it to the authorities after his sight is restored, taunting them for being so stupid when they were supposed to be so smart. And they loved the enthusiasm and determination of Bartimaeus, who was no wallflower, but hollered and hollered and ran to Jesus when Jesus called his name.
And the thing they loved most in this story was that Jesus touches the man and touches him a lot—taking his hand, guiding him away from the village, touching his eyes not once but twice, as a kind of booster shot, since the healing power didn’t completely succeed the first time.
They liked the way Jesus touched the man as if Jesus knew how critical touch is to a blind person, that it’s one of the main connectors between a blind person and her world. The tactile way. The human and bodily way. The sacramental way.
One of the most thoughtful people in the room was a fellow who had lost his sight as a young man. He told us that the first thing that happened to him after he started venturing into the world as a blind person was that people seemed afraid to be near him. They moved away, in part to give him space to maneuver with his red-tipped cane, he assumed, and for which he was grateful. But they always gave him a much wider berth than was actually necessary. And when people did touch him, to assist him across the street, for example, they seemed to push and steer him rather than guide. Their touch seemed nervous and unsure. Ordinary human touch had suddenly become complicated; he missed its ease and naturalness. He felt a loss of a small fraction of his humanity in this. He didn’t want to be healed in his eyes, but his diminished spirit could have used some care.
Perhaps you and I devoutly wish for healing from a disability, or from cancer, or from a mental illness. Perhaps we would love Jesus to march right up to us and cast out our demons, settle our stomachs, pacify our angry friends and relations, convert our politicians, and pay our bills. Or maybe we are at peace with our limitations, at peace with the way of life we have fashioned in spite of and because of our many challenges. Maybe we don’t want or need a change in the status quo so much as we long for more faithfulness, love, courage, and grace to live in and with and through it all. Each of us is different. Each of us frames the question of peace and wholeness and reconciliation differently. Our metaphors for what ails us and humanity everywhere may or may not include blindness.
But here’s one thing most of can agree on:
Our wonderful world is also a world of sorrow. Each of us bears some burden that is sometimes too heavy to carry alone. And being in this flesh, in a body that so keenly bears, feels, and expresses all our longing and pain, one of the ways we receive the well-being we crave is through the reverent touch of another. By not avoiding each other’s deepest need, but by touching it, and making it our own.