Spiritual Blindness

Most of us suffer from it most of the time, and those who claim that they don’t are probably deceiving themselves. Spiritual blindness is a fact of life. It makes me think of Coleridge’s ‘owlet atheism . . . hooting at the glorious sun in heaven’ and crying out, ‘where is it?’ We fail to see what is right in front of our noses: the beauty and holiness of God. We capture glimpses of it, or think we do, when we encounter a beautiful building or painting, or are moved by beautiful words or music. But capturing glimpses of it in failure, in ugliness or whatever is contrary to our wishes or ideas, that is more difficult.

Today’s Mass readings, from Isaiah 29 and Matthew 9. 27–31 are about being cured of blindness. What we may fail to take on board is that being cured of blindness doesn’t change the world, only our perception of it. We may recoil from what we think of as being somehow ‘contrary to God’ (by which we usually mean our ideas of God) but that is to perpetuate a kind of blindness, a refusal to see things as they truly are. It is especially dangerous when it concerns the way in which we see other people, because we can choose to see a distorted and distorting version of them. There is a part of the eye called the fovea where we see clearly, without any distortion. That is how God sees us and how, this Advent, we are invited to see him and all that he has created.

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St Nicholas, Nelson Mandela and Us

The feast of St Nicholas of Myra is a day when we are encouraged to emulate his almsgiving (he allegedly provided dowries for poor girls unable otherwise to marry), pray for seafarers, eat toffee, and if we live in mainland Europe, give gifts to children. It is not advisable to emulate his punching heretics on the nose or any of the more aggressive virtues he seems to have practised. They were not what made him a saint. Indeed, his tendency to lash out at others was something he had to struggle with as un-Christlike, un-saintly; and it is a measure of his true holiness that eventually he managed to overcome such weaknesses.

I think it is much the same with Nelson Mandela. He was a truly great man, but I don’t think he was a secular saint as some are trying to make out.  I daresay there were actions that in his later years he regretted or came to view in a different light. I therefore pray for the repose of his soul as I pray for the souls of all the departed, especially during these days when his body is being prepared for burial and his family and friends are mourning the loss of someone they knew and loved in a way that outsiders never really can.

Where does that leave us on this Friday in Advent, when Isaiah assures us that the coming day of the Lord will mean that

the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons.

I think Isaiah’s words remind us that the Advent call to live with integrity, to pursue justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t an abstraction. St Nicholas tried to live a godly life and, by all accounts, succeeded. Mandela walked out of 27 years of prison saying that unless he left behind the hatred and bitterness he would be imprisoned still. His subsequent actions showed that he understood forgiveness much better than many of us who have not had that experience. Maybe our lives are more ordinary than those of St Nicholas or Nelson Mandela, but we can all of us try to avoid gossip, scoffing at others and those mean-spirited words and deeds that mark us out as unforgiving, unloving people. We can sweeten the lives of others, not by doling out toffee, but by being the kind of people it is good to know. The world is better for having had its saints like Nicholas and its great men like Mandela. Let us pray it may be better for having us, too.

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