Vassily Surikov (1848-1916), Healing of the Man Born Blind by Jesus Christ (1888) in St. Petersburg, Russia at the Imperial Academy of Arts of the Russian Empire.
“Listening” by William Stafford
My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.
More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.
My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.
Notice that Jesus, with a remarkably stern look on His face, touches (or “sees”) the man born blind with His hands (His eyes are looking at us!). His right hand is gently onto the man’s face; His left hand touching the man’s left forearm. Can you imagine how “loudly” touch would sound to a person unable to see? What was the man learning about the kind of man Jesus was by what the man felt in the touch of Jesus’ hands on his face and arm?
What does that look on Jesus’ face mean? He appears far less excited about the power of sight than we, having sight, think that He should be. The man who in this painting is meeting Jesus for the first time (1As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.), whom Jesus had not begun physically to heal (vv6-7), has in this painting open but still sightless eyes. But he already looks … is it terrified? Look at that face! Look at the fear expressed in the shape of his fingers! Why fear?
You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts.
It’s not about who’s right; it’s about what’s right.
FIRST POINT – Perhaps we all know too well how to ask about a stranger whom we notice (especially a person whom we are comfortable keeping a stranger!) – 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) – rather than going forward and introducing ourselves to him or her. One of the most important things to notice in this famous text is what is not written in those opening verses; namely, the physical movement of Jesus – His walking forward, going the distance, to touch the man born blind. It appears to me that Jesus had already crossed that distance before He allowed any conversation (verses 3-5) about the unnamed man to continue, whom Jesus was now touching on his face and arm (see the painting). Jesus achieved real presence to the blind man through touch, through close physical proximity. He is “God with us … Emmanuel” (e.g. Matthew 1:22-23), and the first of His signs is proximity.
1 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
2 You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing; 
The text from John 4 gives us no reason why the blind man wanted to be healed as a motivation for Jesus’ healing action towards him. We ought to wonder why. Could it be that if we were given a reason, then we might overlook that which impelled the God-Man to erase the distance between Him and the man? Might we for the sake of weighing the reason why He did that (notice how Jesus’ disgruntled accusers in John 9 are stuck trying to figure out His reasons) miss what Blaise Pascal once trenchantly noticed about the human (and Divine) heart: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. (Pensées ) We will overlook the “reasons” of the soul of Christ if we do not spend time contemplating Jesus crossing over to touch him, standing close by him … and to wonder about that kind of Why.
SECOND POINT – We have all had the experience of hearing someone’s voice – on the radio, as a reader of an audio book, on the phone, or even just overhearing him or her speaking in another room, etc. We find ourselves imagining what that person looks like. It is interesting that we seem to need to settle this in our imagination: what a person looks like whom we have not yet seen. Why? And then how often does it happen that we are surprised at the contrast between what we guessed that he or she would look like and how he or she actually does look? Why does it matter to us what a person looks like? Could it not have been the case that the man born blind knew everything that he needed to know about the God-Man by what he heard when Jesus spoke, and by what Jesus’ hands upon his face and arm felt like? Did Jesus look like what He was supposed to look like to the man born blind, when he finally saw Jesus with his eyes now opened?
John 9: 35 When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, He found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered and said, “Who is He, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen Him and the one speaking with you is He.” 
Clearly, the whole story of John 9 has power in its telling from the fact that the unseeing man knew profoundly Who Jesus was, and could teach confidently about Him, by hearing Him, and feeling His touch, knowing Jesus with more and with greater comprehension than those Pharisees who had perfectly functional eyes since birth.
My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.
THIRD POINT – What is worth us noticing in this time of COVID 19 is that in this story (not this one only) it is Jesus Who sees us (the man born blind, if you will), not we who see or recognize Him. It is crucial that we notice that the beginning of the miracle of the healing of this particular man happened when Jesus saw him and then moved towards Him, crossing that distance, and Who then stood next to Him with His hands upon him.
1 John 2: 8 And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you,* for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining.g 9 Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother [Pharisees], is still in the darkness.h 10 Whoever loves his brother [Jesus] remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.i 
One of the most distinctive, defining elements of this experience of COVID 19 is the idea of “social distancing.” We know that we are not now allowed to cross the distance, physically, coming in close to other people. For us to ignore this would be for us to fail in charity, being “care-less” of our fellow citizens. But, confined to our houses for now, we do have the ability to learn again how really to see one another, and really to listen to each other. We might be startled, and even humbled, to notice how much we have not seen those who are closest to us, for years possibly, and how much we quit hearing their lives, having gotten out of the habit. Perhaps “social distancing” is a reminder of our blindness, if you will, and that we, like that man born blind, need to learn how to rely on our other senses (hearing, touch) to know freshly those whom we thought that we knew well.
SETTING A TASK FOR WEEK FOUR – Let us show respect for the profound insight of the man born blind, whose healing of his sight (able to see the God-Man for example) did nothing (as far as we know from the text) to deepen or to expand his knowledge of God. Let us then try, as a spiritual practice, each day to shut our eyes (to self-blind ourselves) for ten minutes (this will take some practice to sustain), sending our listening out towards those among whom we are sheltering-in-place. Receive what you hear … and wonder about what that means. A man without sight could see that God was in the world, when others with sight could not. I wonder what we might “see” with our ears alone.
 The Benezit Dictionary of Artists (Oxford Art Online) at “Surikov, Vassily Ivanovich” – “Born in Krasnoiarsk (Siberia), Vassily Ivanovich Surikov was descended from an old Cossack family that had arrived with Yermak Timofeevich’s conquest of Siberia in the 1580s. Locally he studied drawing under N. V. Grebnev until 1866. About 1868, he moved to St Petersburg and became the pupil of M. V. Diakov at the drawing school of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts before studying history painting at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, first as an auditor and then as a matriculated student from 1870 to 1875 with Bogdan Villevalde, among others, and finally with Pavel Chistiakov from 1873 to 1875…. Surikov remains one of the most celebrated Russian history painters of the late 19th century for his monumental scenes of 16th- and 17th-century Russia.”
 Wikipedia: “The Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, informally known as the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts, was founded in 1757 by the founder of the Imperial Moscow University, Ivan Shuvalov, under the name Academy of the Three Noblest Arts. Catherine the Great renamed it the Imperial Academy of Arts and commissioned a new building, completed 25 years later in 1789 by the Neva River. The academy promoted the neoclassical style and technique and sent its promising students to European capitals for further study. Training at the academy was virtually required for artists to make successful careers.”
 It may seem a curious choice that I begin exploring a Gospel story about a man born blind with a poem about “Listening”! But I do so (not only because it is fine poem by a regional poet, now in Heaven, whom I particularly esteem) lest we overlook the fact (1) that the blind man’s first contact with Jesus was through the sound of His voice talking to His disciples; and (2) that we can too quickly pity that man because born blind and overlook in our obtuseness that his other senses, especially his sense of hearing, may as a result have been developed to such a degree of power greater than ours that he, the blind man, might have reason to pity those who could see from birth – “More spoke to him from the soft, wild night / than came to our porch for us on the wind….”
 From William Stafford’s (1914-1993) early collection of poems, A Scripture of Leaves (1989), p. 34. About Stafford see: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-e-stafford.
 “Listening” seems to me to name our active “going out” with our sense of hearing; “hearing” seems to be what then results: we hear that for which we were listening. In other words, our listening is an expression of our intellectual intention: we are listening for something … in the expectation that we will hear it. And for this reason, we very often fail to hear something that we need to hear, because we are not listening for it.
 “called the listening out” – If we do not pay close enough attention, then we can fall into the conviction that our senses are passive receptors (we are taught that we have FIVE senses, but actually we have very many more), that they “receive” what is “out there”. What Stafford’s line reminds us is that true alertness is a “sending outward” of our senses, a “going out to find” something that might be out there to find. This becomes for us especially obvious when we are alone (in a forest, in a house, etc.) and have become afraid. We feel our senses activate, they “go out” from us, they “reach” toward whatever it is out there that might be dangerous to us. What Stafford says of his dad here is that his dad had a habit of “sending out” his senses, his hearing in particular, to “find” “the soft, wild night” and all that was alive in it.
 “More spoke to him” – Because their dad had trained himself really to listen to the world, what he heard was it speaking to him, as if a personal message spoken to him from Creation. It has been said about the gift of Creation that it is God’s first and enduring love-letter spoken to us … if we have trained ourselves to listen for Him there.
 “and his face go keen” – One quickly discovers that one’s power of sight is not going to be useful at finding what is out there in the dark. This raises the interesting question about how we learn to use our senses. In other words, we are not sufficiently knowledgeable about how to use our senses when we seek to deploy one of our senses, say our sight, when in a dark place. When it is dark, we should know to put our sight away and to let our other senses help us find what is out there in the dark. Think, for example, of how often when assessing the worth or interest of another person, we rely on what they look like (our sense of sight) rather than, say, on what they sound like (our sense of hearing). How very often we ignore or shun a person who does not present a pleasing pattern to our eyes, and therefore miss completely that that person may be finest quality, who it is so worth our while to meet and to befriend.
 When we train ourselves really to listen to the world (a forest, another person, etc.), we do experience the world as so much bigger than we thought it was – “More spoke to him…”. The world does not actually “flare, widen”. Rather it is we, who becoming fully alert to the world, “flare, widen”. The “bigger” (or more awake) we make ourselves through a trained habit of awareness, the “bigger” the world becomes, we “find” so much more of it than others who have not trained themselves to awaken to it – “into places where the rest of us had never been”. I remember reading once, I think it was in Ernest Becker’s, The Denial of Death, one of my ten favorite books of all, where he described psychosis as caused in a person massively alert to the world, yet who lacks any ability to “filter” what so massively and full of complexity pours into him or her from “out there”. He or she suffers a shattering of his or her psyche that is unable to process so much. “The world is too much with us”, as Wordsworth once wrote.
 Such a sweet observation of the way it is with kids, who do not really understand the power they see, say, that their father is able to exercise – his “listening” and how much he was able to “hear” out there. Because kids do not yet understand the power, and the habit that trains it, they conclude that it has something to do with the way their dad turns his head and sets his face. Of course, it has nothing at all to do with the tilt of the head! But we first learn (language and everything else) by imitating those whom we trust enough to imitate.
 I struggled to find the right adjective to describe His face in this painting; “stern” is too generalized. I am haunted by His look, not sure what He is feeling.
 There is something playful in this verse: that Jesus saw a man who had never, ever, seen anything or anyone. But further, because there was no way of knowing by looking at a blind person whether he or she had been blind from birth, we conclude that Jesus had knowledge of this person, perhaps because He had asked about him sometime before. That Jesus cared to ask about, to find out about someone whom most people ignored is typical of Him.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:1.
 The first touch of the God-Man that he had ever experienced appears to have had an “electric” effect in him, like an electric shock shooting through him. But then we also have had such experiences of a “touch” of God in us that has “shocked” us too. The Rosary calls such moments “Glorious” mysteries.
 Clemmie Churchill speaking to her husband Winston in the movie Darkest Hour (2017).
 Said by Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) to Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles) in the movie Wichita (1955).
 The Oxford English Dictionary at 14th century noun and adjective “stranger” – “Belonging to others; not of one’s own kin or family.” In this meaning we find our “excuse” to leave as a stranger to us someone we notice – he’s not my responsibility; he or she belongs to someone else, and so it is for those others to deal with this one. But another meaning given is: “Unknown, unfamiliar; not known, met with, or experienced before.” This definition captures the fear people often have of a stranger. I remember as children how our parents drilled into us: “Don’t talk to strangers!”
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:2.
 I am echoing here a line from the movie Field of Dreams (1989) “If you build it / they will come” … “Ease his pain” … Go the distance.”
 One of the hidden sufferings of a person labelled as of a group or type is that he or she knows that people want him or her to remain a type, and therefore to remain a stranger about whom they can ask insensitive questions: “His sin, or that of his parents, what do you think?”
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Is 9:1–2.
 Pascal, Blaise (1623-1662). Pensées (Penguin Classics) (p. 127). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Britannica Online notes: “Pascal finally decided to write his work of Christian apologetics, Apologie de la religion chrétienne, as a consequence of his meditations on miracles and other proofs of Christianity. The work remained unfinished at his death. Between the summers of 1657 and 1658, he put together most of the notes and fragments that editors have published under the inappropriate title Pensées (“Thoughts”).”
 It is the soul of the God-Man that is what Jesus’ detractors regularly miss – listen to their noisy, and nosey, presence in this magnificent story of John 9 – because their search for reasons (and control) render them unable to experience the soul of Christ – the “reasons of which reason knows nothing”. Concerning the soul: “Psychologist James Hillman describes it in far more eloquent terms in his provocative book of selected writings, A Blue Fire: ‘To understand soul, we cannot turn to science for a description. Its meaning is best given by its context . . . words long associated with the soul amplify it further: mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality, individuality, intentionality, essence, innermost purpose, emotion, quality, virtue, morality, sin wisdom, death, God.’”
[quoted in Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused, Chapter 1. Crown. Kindle
 How often, too often, we grant special wisdom to, or greater insight to, a person who is beautiful or handsome, simply because he or she is. But if we actually listen to such people, we quickly realize how sometimes they have little substance at all.
 Is it not the case that many of us have struggled with our faith, because we cannot see God, by which we mean that we cannot find anything or anyone in our experience that looks like what God is supposed to look like?
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 9:35–37.
 I am concerned about my use of such expressions used to describe our present national calamity – “the time of COVID 19” or “in the Age of COVID 19”, and other such expressions. It will always be a mistake to name a significant human experience with the name of the evil that spawned the calamity. Such names will keep us from noticing how much this calamity is forcing us to rely on one another, loosening our uncompromised and uncompromising walls of separation between us and those people we despise, disrespect, or even disdain. I find myself thinking of Jericho “when the walls came a-tumbling down” (Joshua 6). Let them fall!
* Which holds true in him and among you: literally, “a thing that holds true in him and in you.”
g Jn 13:34 / Jn 1:5; Rom 13:12.
 I do not mean here Pharisees as a type or group. Rather I mean that particular group of particular Pharisees who, that day, showed such cussed obtuseness towards the man born blind now miraculously able to see, and towards his parents, and of course toward Jesus Who dared to be the Light shining in the darkness – “and the darkness could not comprehend it.”
h Jn 8:12.
i Eccl 2:14; Jn 11:10.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Jn 2:8–10.
 “Social distancing” is almost an oxymoron (= OED “A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.”). “Social” from the Latin adjective socius -a -um meaning “sharing, joining in, partaking, united, associated, kindred, allied, fellow”. For this adjective to be associated in meaning with “distancing” from each other is oxymoronic. My point is that this puzzling habit to which we all as a nation have been commanded to practice forces us, if we let it, to find each other again … in ways that constant proximity to each other may have caused us, over time, to lose each other.
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