October 22, 2023 Essay: “I See People Looking Like Trees and Walking”

Oct 13, 2023

In Mark’s Gospel there is a story of an encounter between Jesus and a blind man. The blind man’s friends brought him to Jesus and simply asked Jesus that he touch their friend. Jesus led the man outside, spat on the ground, and wiped his muddied spittle on the eyes of the blind man. He then asked him, “Do you see anything?”  The blind man answered, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” After wiping the eyes of the blind man a second time, his sight was restored and, in the words of the evangelist, “he saw everything distinctly” Mark 8:22-26.

Sitting at my computer to write this essay, this scriptural passage came to mind as I prepared for cataract surgery. Of course, it is nothing as serious or dramatic as the cure of the blind man, and God willing, the use of the surgeon’s spittle will not be used during the surgery, but it does remind me of the precious gift of sight and the importance of faith in seeing things distinctly. My vision may have been blurred physically, but how has my vision been blurred in other ways? Do I ever see people looking like trees? Perhaps it depends on where I choose to fix my gaze.

At times, our vision is blurred for any one of a myriad of reasons. If you depend on eyeglasses and put them aside, even for a moment, you know what it is like. What was so familiar becomes a shadow of itself. When firmly perched once again on the bridge of the nose, a whole new world opens. The familiar becomes mixed with the possibility of discovering what may have been missed before.  Similarly for those whose cataracts have “ripened,” like mine, what was lost in soupy silhouette will be brought into sharper focus through the replacement of an old lens with a new one.

When we look at the world or ourselves, what do we focus on? The narrower the focus, the greater the likelihood we will fail to see what is on the periphery. What lens do we use when we look either outward or inward? Our biases can stealthily infiltrate our vision, catapulting us into making a quick judgment as a matter of convenience or habit. In other words, we see people or ourselves looking like trees, stick figures walking in a murky world of shadows. At times, gaining clarity of vision may require surgery, replacing the lens through which we encounter the world.

Pope Francis has called to the Vatican delegates from around the world, now meeting at the Synod on Synodality, to take a closer look at the church today, to widen their focus so that it includes those who have been marginalized both by society and the church. He invited members of the laity, priests, members of religious orders, and representatives of other faith traditions, to join the bishops of the church and participate in the month-long sessions of the Synod on Synodality. In preparation for the Synod there were local diocesan meetings throughout the world. These meetings were listening sessions intended to inform the ongoing discernment process. To those who participated at the local level and at the Synod itself, and, in fact, to all Catholics, the Pope offers a new lens to replace the lenses of the past that have mired the church in scandal and abject clericalism. It is a lens of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. This is indeed the lens through which the Pope has approached the world throughout his papacy.

More than a miracle story, the blind man’s encounter with Jesus invites us to examine what we see in the ordinary routine of our lives. A patina of faith will only cloud our field of vision. We will focus only on the things that we want to see. The periphery will be filled with people looking like trees and walking in the background of our own narrow world of self-interest. Like the second wiping of the blind man’s eyes, when we allow ourselves to be touched by the healing presence of Jesus in our lives, we will have the ability to look deeper and see things distinctly without the impairment of the faulty lenses of ego, prejudice, and judgment.  Our world will be encountered anew.

With God’s help, we, like the friends of the blind man, will lead others to be touched by the love and healing presence of Jesus. We will walk side by side with other people of faith to proclaim with joy the kingdom of God.

— Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J., Pastor