It’s interesting to juxtapose the request the disciples pose to Jesus in Mark 10:35, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” with the request of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The request of James and John arises out of a sense of entitlement or meritocracy. They had given up everything to follow Jesus; they are looking to be rewarded for their sacrifice.
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, throws himself on Jesus’ mercy. He calls out for help. But in doing this he violates a well established social/religious law and convention. Those around him attempt to quiet him, but he shouts all the more. They could not restrict his voice.
If we want to see, there will be times when we have to raise our voice against and above the crowd. We will have to stand against social and religious conventions and voices that try to shut us up. If Bartimaeus had listened to the crowd and followed the course of conventional wisdom, if he had settled for the status quo, he would still be blind.
Philip Gulley, in his book The Evolution of Faith, tells about a family who belonged to a Christian denomination that emphasizes the practice of confirmation. At the age of twelve, their son was enrolled in confirmation classes, the culmination of which involved standing in front of the entire congregation on a Sunday morning answering questions asked by the pastor. The boy had been led to memorize very specific answers to the questions, supplied by his confirmation teacher.
When the Sunday arrived for his confirmation, he informed his teacher that he had some doubts about some of the answers he was expected to provide. What do you think his teacher told him? He told him to stick to the script.
The boy felt very uncomfortable affirming something he didn’t believe, but was unsure what to do. He took his place in line, marched into the sanctuary with the other children, and stood before the congregation. The priest began his questioning, working his way down the row of children, each of whom gave the predictable, memorized response.
When he came to the boy and asked him the same question; the boy paused, then said, “Well, I’ll tell you how I see it.” He then proceeded to tell the pastor and the congregation, in his own words, what he believed.
This was a first for the priest, who hesitated for a moment, started to challenge the boy and then thought better of it, simply moving on to the other children. Every time it was the boy’s turn, everyone there could sense that the pastor wanted to skip him but knew he couldn’t. And every time the boy said, “Well, here’s how I see it” and shared his own faith.
If we want to see, we will have to find the courage to stand up to the thought police and start thinking for ourselves. Are we willing to move beyond our comfort zone and our fears? A lot of religion is rooted in our fears: Fear of being wrong, fear of what others will think if we question or voice our disagreement, fear of being rejected, of not being in the “in” group, the fear of being condemned by a God we have not really experienced and do not really know. At the edges of medieval maps was frequently penciled the warning: “Here be dragons.” Are we willing to face our dragons? If not, we will never move beyond the status quo and the conventional wisdom of our secular and religious culture.
In addition to our fears, another barrier to spiritual seeing is the presumption that we already see. Those of us steeped in religious symbols and traditions can be the most blind, especially when we mistake the symbol for the substance or confuse form with reality. We can become inoculated from the real thing. Our God talk can function like a shield keeping us from penetrating the Divine Reality. Instead of opening our spiritual eyes and leading us into relationship with God, our God talk may turn God into an idol quietly resting in our sacred temple.
Also, our preoccupations with our false attachments and our ego-needs can keep us from seeing. We must get our ego out of the way and move beyond the little self—its fears, insecurities, anxieties, frustrations, its need to be seen and to be in control. We have to move beyond our preoccupation with exchange value and market value, and focus rather on our inherent value as children of God.
If we want to see, we have to come to God the way Bartimaeus did. We are all beggars. We are all poor. We are all blind. It takes some humility and honesty to face and acknowledge our blindness.
When we come to God out of our poverty, when we let down our defenses and open our souls to God, then that which is Really Real becomes more clear. Truth shows itself. Seeing requires a certain amount of honesty and humility about the human condition.
Jesus uses several mixture images like the story of the wheat and the tares to convey spiritual truth. What we have typically done is made the wheat our group, our faith, our tradition, while labeling as “tares” those who are not in our group or faith tradition. We are the saved, they are the lost.
The truth is that we are all a mixture of wheat and tares, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Healthy faith/spirituality enables us to hold these two opposites together in one field of life.
At the heart of spiritual illumination is desire. Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus, “Rabbi, I want to see.” We have to face the question seriously and honestly, “Do we want to see?” Are we willing to let go of our fears, presumptions, and preoccupations? Are we willing to change? Seeing means bearing more responsibility and shouldering a greater burden for others. Many of us might prefer to remain blind.
The conclusion to the story is insightful. Mark says that Bartimaeus received his sight and then followed Jesus on “the way” (10:52). The way is the way of discipleship, it is the way of the cross, the way of love and service for others. Faith is primarily a way of life. Discipleship to Jesus and spiritual illumination go hand-in-hand.
We tend to think that a new way of seeing precedes a new way of living, but maybe the opposite is true. Richard Rohr likes to say that we don’t think our way into new ways of living, we live our way into new ways of thinking. I tend to think that it works both ways. Sometimes the seeing comes before the living and sometimes the living precedes the seeing. But both are essential.
The reason spiritual disciplines and practices are so important is because they serve to keep us awake and alert, so that we can stop sleepwalking and break free from the spiritual hypnosis our culture puts us under. Then we can see what is true and real, which always leads us into more loving relationships. Spiritual disciplines teach us how to love. We are seeing clearly when we love well.
Transformative faith/spirituality/religion is always about love. When we commit ourselves to love others, when we engage in acts of forgiveness, compassion, and social justice, our vision is enlarged. Loving others in concrete, tangible ways goes a long way in dispelling our fears, presumptions, and preoccupations that keep us from seeing. Love increases our capacity to see.