by Jessica Rose
“If you were blind you would not have sin, but now that you say ‘We see’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41). So speaks Jesus to the Pharisees after he has healed the man blind from birth. What an extraordinary reversal of the assumptions of those who witness the incident, who begin by asking, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In John’s Gospel, this is the last of Jesus’s healing miracles before he raises Lazarus from the dead and goes forward to his own passion and death. As the Passion draws closer, the stakes are raised. No one before, marvel the bystanders, has healed a man blind from birth. He was born blind that “the glory of the world might be revealed in him.” He who is the Light of the world, gives sight to those who do not see. He who is the Life of the world raises from the dead Lazarus who has lain in the tomb for four days.
The story of the man blind from birth has particular resonance for me because my uncle John, born in 1917, suffered the same affliction. The medical cause was a delivery with forceps which not only damaged his optic nerve but left him with learning difficulties and epilepsy. He lived to be eighty, and there was probably not a single day in the life of my mother, his younger sister, when she did not grieve over his condition. Though there was no miracle cure, there was a remarkable healing.
When John was 17, his rages became unmanageable for my grandmother, who had been widowed by a combination of alcoholism and lung disease several years earlier. From then on John lived in an institution, faithfully visited every week by the family for the next sixty years. I remember visiting this hospital as a child — a terrifying place, which my brother Chris has described graphically in a futuristic novel in which “substandard” members of society are banished to ghettos outside the city. It was full of people with all kinds of ugly and painful disabilities. It smelt. The life was harsh and regimented. Yet, from the 1960’s the hospital itself went through a kind of healing. Visiting hours were relaxed. We were allowed to take my uncle out for the afternoon without constant anxiety that we might not make it back by four. (Before then being even a few minutes late was a heinous crime.) The iron bedsteads and institutional furniture gave way to domestic surroundings. Wards slowly transformed into homely villas where patients had as much privacy as possible in their sleeping arrangements, ate at tables in a family atmosphere, and had freedom to wander the grounds or to make themselves at home in comfortably furnished sitting rooms. There was a farm, workshops, a chapel, and opportunities for art and music. Most extraordinary, my blind uncle took part in painting sessions, which he loved.
At the age of 50, John, who had always been assumed to be too damaged to be a full member of the church, was confirmed in the church and began receiving communion regularly. This clearly had deep significance for him. Although this was never fully articulated, it gave him a sense of deep union with Christ. His funeral in 1997 was a requiem Mass attended (though it was some distance from the hospital) by staff and patients who cared for him. It could be said that for all his blindness, John learned to see.
Presented thus, this is a hopeful story, in spite of its tragic beginnings. What is left out of this account is the effect of John’s disability on four generations: his parents’, his own, ours and my daughter’s.
My grandmother did not realize for a couple of weeks that her baby — her first — could not see. When she did, it was devastating, and when she was left twelve years later with three children and the legacy of a string of failed businesses, John’s disabilities added considerably to her burden. Being a tough, working-class woman, she rolled up her sleeves and set about supporting the family as best she could. I never persuaded her to talk at length about those years: she was too ashamed of the demeaning jobs she had done, and said I must never tell anyone. I shall not do so now, except to say that these were not in any way shameful jobs — simply hard labor of various kinds.
John’s own generation, his younger brother and sister, reacted in opposite ways. His brother coped by refusing to see what was unbearable. As a teenager he took many opportunities to aggravate and torment John. He eventually became a police inspector renowned for his brutality (the people of Notting Hill, London, celebrated his retirement with a street party, and not in his honor!) and broke all contact with the family for seventeen years after my grandmother’s death. His sister, my mother, on the other hand, looked all too closely, and suffered throughout her life from a deep guilt and depression because she could not make John’s life better. Tragically, she became blind to what was good in his life, being so overwhelmed by what was wrong with it, far more so than he was himself. It was constantly on her mind (as children, for example, when visiting the dentist, we were told to “offer up” the pain for Uncle John) and carried with it a huge sense of stigma.
John was a family secret, a person not talked about. Only a few people were allowed to know of his existence. It took my father a great effort to break the news to his parents, who as far as I know never met him. Even in 1984, when my father died, there was huge anxiety about whether John should come to the funeral. Thank God he did, with the help of staff from the hospital. Thereafter my father’s sister acted heroically and redemptively, providing practical help, and regularly inviting John and my mother to stay for a few days.
For my brother and myself, the memory of Wednesday afternoon visits died hard, as they had for our mother before us. There was a long journey involved in becoming aware of her guilt and its irrational nature, and, as adults, coming to know John as a gentle and lovable person. My brother, bearing some physical resemblance to him, bore the burden of being what “John might have been.” Fortunately, he got to know John in such a way that he knew him as the person he was. I was more avoidant, and it is only in retrospect that I have come to realize what he made of his life.
My daughter’s involvement, as far as I can tell, was at the level of being aware this was a sad situation. She did not know him well, but brought to their relationship a child’s acceptance of people as they are, and in so far as she was affected, it was by all that surrounded him, rather than by John himself.
“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The answer Christ gives us is “Neither.” And he follows up the healing of the man with a statement about seeing and judgement: “I came into this world for judgement, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
It is relatively easy to make sense of the first part of this statement. What I have been describing in John’s story is a steady improvement in the ability to see, individually and culturally. Society itself became more able to see persons rather than patients. At the family level, it became easier for each generation to manage the anger and grief brought about by his injuries: to see him with the eyes of the spirit, as he himself had learned to see.
Where there has been any major trauma, such as war or persecution, it is usually the second or third generation who are able to go back to the places where parents or grandparents were imprisoned or murdered, and to process some of the feelings that direct experience makes unmanageable. This is true of more everyday — if terrible — situations, too.
There is a story of a monk who was ill for eleven years. He eventually protested, wondering what he had done to deserve this since he was not such a bad person. He was visited by an angel who told him that he had to atone for sins in his family from four generations back.
Initially I found this a shocking story, but on reflection it began to make sense. Sin does not dissipate of its own accord. In a very real sense, as we make the mistakes of parents in each generation, “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.”
We can see atoning for the sins of previous generations legalistically: we suffer as a punishment for what our forebears have done. But we can also think of atonement as “at-one-ment”: finding the courage to face ourselves as our family histories have shaped us and taking this as an opportunity for healing.
We do not have to remain trapped in these histories. We can, slowly, painfully, learn to see, and through seeing provide release for those who have preceded us. Such a journey may take us to terrible places. Body and soul being intricately bound up as they are, we may find ourselves truly afflicted, physically as well as mentally and spiritually. Our only hope then, is to learn to see what is really at stake, to seek for ways in which personal tragedy, like the blindness of the man in John’s Gospel, can be turned to the glory of God.
What, then, of those who see who will become blind through judgement? Again, judgement is not simply a legalistic term. Judgement is no more or less than the truth, but in God’s reality it is truth experienced in the presence of his infinite love. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” This verse occurs in the psalms of the Ninth Hour, the office of mid-afternoon, the time of Christ’s death on the Cross, whose prayers and hymns are concerned with the crucifixion. The wisdom of the Church has associated the murder of God by his people with psalms of reconciliation. At the same time it challenges us: can we bear such a meeting of mercy and truth? Sometimes it is easier to become blind, either to truth or to mercy, because the combination can be overwhelming.
Throughout John 9 we see Jesus holding to the truth of what is going on, while those around him seek to distort it. For some this truth is a liberation into seeing; for others the challenge to their way of thinking is too much, and they choose a form of blindness instead. It was such blindness which led to the crucifixion. We live in a society which has a great commitment to uncovering personal story as a means of making sense of our lives. Through reflection on our experience we can gain insight — begin to see into what it is that makes us liable to respond in certain ways, and become freer from reactions which arise from pain and fear which in the past have been overwhelming.
There is a fine line, however, between using such understanding transformatively, and turning it into an excuse. Put crudely, it is the difference between “You remind me of my father (mother, brother, sister) who treated me badly, but since he/she is dead, unavailable, too frightening, I will avenge myself on you instead,” and “You remind me of my father, but I recognize you are a different person from him, acknowledge my tendency to treat you as though you are, say, cold and authoritarian, and try to respond to you as the person you are.”
It is the difference between a culture of blame (“My parents / school / circumstances were cruel to me so I will crucify them in whatever form I meet them in my life now”), and a culture of responsibility (“I realize I have been affected by my past, so must take extra care not to visit the pain and fear of it on those around me”).
It is the difference between self-justification and metanoia. Transforming one into the other does not come cheap, and cannot bypass the work of processing our own pain, fear, and especially, anger. Often the more clearly we see, the more angry we become, and this quite simply is a function of the pain we have experienced. As the Beatles put it: “You’re gonna carry that weight a long time.” We cannot carry it alone.
There is another way in which we can learn to see, which can be described in terms of English music some three hundred years before the Beatles. The music of, say, Purcell, stands at a point of transition. Until this time, melody was the primary focus; harmony, except of the very simplest kind, came about through the counterpoint of different melodies occurring alongside each other, and as a result we have juxtapositions of notes which would not pass muster in the harmonic structures of a century later. One such juxtaposition is called — felicitously for our purposes — the “false relation.” A false relation occurs when the paths of different melodies cause a minor and a major third to sound at the same moment. The effect on the ear is one of extraordinary tension, almost violence. In context, it can enhance the beauty of the piece. It comes about not because one melody is dominant over the other, but precisely because each is following the path that is its own. This is also true of the false relations we find in families, and as in the music, the effect the melodies have on each other is mutual. Any party to it has the opportunity not necessarily to change path, but to stay with the tension long enough for it to resolve into something new.
Every family has a fallen history; every parent fails his or her children in some way (the reaction of the parents of the healed blind man is all too human). It is only by working to place the truths we discover in the light of God’s mercy that we can begin the journey of transformation. At-one-ment may involve staying for a very long time with the jarring sound of the false relation, struggling to accept against everything we would prefer to believe, that each person involved is equally loved by God. In healing ourselves, we may begin to be able to stand back from trying to impose our own suffering between God and those whose lives have brought us to where we are.
“If you were blind, you would not have sin”: you cannot be responsible for what you cannot see, but seeing of itself is not enough. It is only the beginning of the struggle to live with both truth and mercy, met together.
Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. She also directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England. She is the author of Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, London.
Wood engraving by Eric Gill.