From Sight to Insight. A Meditation on the "Sacrament" of Seeing

091314In the Gospel for the Thursday of this 6 week of Easter, there is a phrase that goes back and forth between Jesus and the apostles 3 times, the phrase says, “

A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later you will see me. (John 16:16)

That this phrase is repeated three times in the short course of eight verses, means it is significant for us, and we ought to ponder it. For, there is a kind of “sacrament”  to seeing. Yes, the Lord asks us to ponder what it means to see, and he calls us to move deeper, and to develop a kind of interiority that understands seeing beyond the demands of the flesh, and the merely physical act of seeing.

By “flesh” here, we mean flesh in the biblical sense, not as our physical bodies per se. The flesh, (sarx) is the biblical word for our sinful and fallen nature, a nature that is rebellious, and seeks everything only on its own terms. It is that part of us that is alienated from God, averse to the truth, it is that part of us that does not want to have a thing to do with God or the spiritual life.

As regards to seeing, the flesh demands to see only on his own terms. But the flesh will only regard the physical, and will not see, and thus denies, the metaphysical, the mysterious, the spiritual.

And therefore, the Lord summons us to something far deeper, saying, In a little while you will no longer see me. While some may wish to simply read this mechanistically as a reference to the fact that he would be three days in the tomb, as is always the case with John, and Scripture in general, we must look to deeper meanings, even if the text has an historical fulfillment. This text speaks not only to a situation 2000 years ago, but it also speaks to us.

And thus, the Lord teaches them and us, that we must become accustomed to seeing him no longer according to the flesh, merely, but we must learn to see him, mystically, in the sacraments, and in the deep moments of our prayer. We must also learn to see him in the face of the infant, the poor, our beloved family, even our enemies.

And so the Lord says, In a little while you will no longer see me, That is, you will no longer see me in the way you have been accustomed to see me, according merely to the flesh, according to my physical appearance in the physical world.

And then he says, a little later, you will see me. And here too, while this refers historically, to the resurrection, it must also speak to us. And both to the disciples, 2000 years ago, and to us, this text means more than the resurrection appearances. It means that, but it also means that we will learn to see him, in the Breaking of the Bread, we will learn to experience in the Eucharist, and mystically in our prayer, and throughout our day. Yes, our spirit must come alive with mystical vision, with the seeing beyond the flesh, and according to the spirit.

Again, we must be very sober, realizing that our flesh demands to see him on its own terms. It demands that our retinas be lit up with physical light waves. But God will not be seen simply on our own terms, for, in his Divine nature, He is pure spirit and will not be seen by merely fleshly eyes. His effects in the physical order are clearly seen, to those who have eyes to see it. But even here, many deny the obvious evidence that creation shouts the creator, and design, bespeaks the designer. Indeed, order requires one to order it reasonably and intelligently. But many simply refuse to see this, even though this evidence is plainly available even to our fleshly eyes.

If that be the case with our fleshly seeing, how much more is spiritual seeing difficult for the flesh to accept. But that is what the Lord Jesus is summoning us to in this passage. He is saying to us in effect,

In a little while you will no longer go on seeing me as you have been accustomed to seeing me.  I am passing into the mysteries, into the sacraments, and you must learn to see me there, and to experience my power and presence. But I am no less present to you that I have been in your fleshly seeing. In fact, I am more present to you than ever, for I have been glorified in my humanity, and am now more present to you than ever before.

To our flesh, to our fallen sinful and rebellious human nature, to that part of us that only prizes the physical, the material, and the temporal, such an invitation is an insult! Again, as we have already stated, the flesh desires to see on its own terms, and it resents the journey that it must make out of the physical and into the spiritual. It resists this spiritual journey at every step, at every stage. It idolizes the material, and the physical.

And thus, the battle is engaged! The demand of the flesh to see on its own terms versus the desire of the spirit to see on God’s terms, to look beyond the merely physical and to see deeper into the mystical, and the truer meaning of all things.

A few thoughts, on the sacrament of seeing, both physical and spiritual.

1. Our strengths are our struggles. One of the great glories of the human person is our capacity to see. Of all the five senses, vision is the most acute. The animals with which I have associated, mostly dogs and cats, navigate the world more by smell than by sight. This is especially with dogs, which have long olfactory bulbs, but even with cats and most other mammals. Seeing seems quite secondary, it is smell which mostly informs their interaction with the world.

But with we human beings, vision is king. Our acute vision, has enabled us to see out to the stars, and also into the tiniest bits of inner space. Our vision is also given rise to glorious art, and intricate forms of communication involving letters and words, and the picture, which is 1000 words. Yes, for us, the world is lit up with meaning.

But our strength is also our struggle. For faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), and the obedience that accepts what is heard. Scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). This stabs at the heart of our most precious sense. Too many of us are from Missouri, the “show-me state.” We say “seeing is believing!” But in reality, seeing is only seeing. And when we do in fact see, that in no way guarantees that we will believe at all. I’ve been to many a magic show and watch these illusionists pull off things that seem quite miraculous. I do not conclude that they are gods. I figure they have some way of doing that. Seeing is only seeing, is not believing.

Scripture is right, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. It is only by the hearing of faith, that we learn to see the world as it really is. Though we prize seeing so highly, our eyes easily deceive us. Optical illusions are one of the simplest things to pull off. The Internet is filled with optical illusions, entertainment halls are filled with magicians, etc. Though we glory in our eyes, they are very easily deceived.

But because we glory in our ability to see, because our capacity to see is our most powerful of the five senses, our flesh finds it difficult to believe. Our strength, is our struggle. Demanding to see on fleshly terms, we close our minds and hearts to the deeper realities. Our fleshly eyes see only the physical, which is only the surface. But the truer reality and mystery meaning of all things is deeper in the metaphysical world of meaning, of purpose, of formal and final causality. The the flesh scoffs at all this and will only accept the physical, and what is on the surface. Thus, our strength, our glorious capacity to see, becomes our struggle, our weakness.

2. Some biblical illustrations. In recording the saying of Jesus that, “In a little while you will no longer see me. Later you will see me again” the Scriptures themselves give portraits of the necessary transition from merely fleshly, and physical seeing to spiritual insight.

For example, most of the apostles and disciples who saw the risen Lord took some time to recognize him. Mary Magdalene only recognized him, upon hearing his voice call her name. Yes, faith comes by hearing. The disciples on the road to Emmaus also did not recognize the Lord was walking right along with them! Scripture says, their eyes, that is the eyes of the flesh, were downcast. This does not likely mean they were simply sullen, but that their eyes were fleshly, looking down toward the world rather than up toward heaven and glory. But, hearing a word from the Lord, and having their hearts set on fire, they recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.” In this, the Lord teaches them by faith, that they were now no longer see them and merely earthly, and fleshly ways, but they will see him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, they will experience him in the Word, in the liturgy of the Church, and in other ways.

Regarding the triumph of spiritual seeing over fleshly seeing, the Lord says, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see, and those who see will become blind (John 9:39). Yet, those of this world prefer the darkness to the light (cf John 3:19).

The biblical verdict of the demand of the flesh to see on its own terms is a rather firm and general refusal. While God does grant occasional visions and miracles, the general insistence is that we believe in obedience to what is heard.

3. Presbyopia– as most of us age, our eyesight declines. Doctors call this presbyopia. The clarity of our youthful vision, gives way to the soft and blurry focus of age. In my own life, at age 40, my eyesight deteriorated rapidly. I needed no eyeglasses at all before 40, now at 52, I am crippled without them. I am incapable of even recognizing faces. At best, I can discern general shapes and contours, but I cannot even read large signs; Presbyopia.

But there is something of a sacrament in this decline in eyesight. For, as our eyesight declines, our glorious certitude in everything that we think, is also humbled a bit. It often pertains to young people to be absolutely certain about what they think. As people age, they come to accept that absolute certitude in many things, (other than revealed truth), in a world filled with mysteries, is prideful. There is a kind of a wisdom that comes with accepting that there is much that we do not know or understand.

Young people claim to know a few things. With the wisdom of age comes the insight that we do know only a very few things, and that things often have deeper meanings and we often first appreciated.

The very word, “insight” describes a capacity of wisdom to see deeper than what is apparent, and what is merely on the surface. To have insight, is “to see in,” to see inwardly, to see more deeply.

In a sense, for most of us, especially those who walk with faith, as our physical eyes decline, our spiritual vision, and the wisdom of insight grows. The world that is passing away becomes blurry to us,  we see its apparent certainties less clearly, and we learn a kind of interiority. We see more deeply, and beyond the merely surface and physical, because, in a way we have to! Deeper spiritual vision grows within, as our fleshly eyes begin to fail us.

Allow a humorous example. When I counsel young couples getting ready to get married, they usually come to me youthful, they are sound and sleek. The brides are so pretty and they look with love to their handsome groom. But with glee, at my 52 years of age, I like to remind them that their physical attractiveness is going to head south. They will gain weight, and other less appealing things will manifest! 🙂 But, I tell them, God has a plan! It is his will, that as our physical attractiveness declines, he also, wills that our eyes grow dim with the presbyopia, the blindness of old age. Thus, we do not notice how physically less attractive we have become! But of course, our problem in the modern world, is it we’ve overruled God and invented eyeglasses. Of course, I say all this in good humor and do not suggest we not wear eyeglasses.

But my point is simply this, that ideally as we age, we are less focused on and obssessed with physical appearances, and more able to see the inner beauty of people. Yes, if we are faithful, we begin to see the magnificent mystery of every human person, that every one of us was known and loved by God before we were ever made or formed in our mother’s womb (cf Jeremiah 1:5). Yes, we begin to see the beauty and the magnificence, the mystery and the glory of human life. Here is the insight, and in a way, it requires that our fleshly sight be dulled and overruled by a deeper spiritual insight which comes from interiority and Spirit of God within us.

4. Contemplative prayer–from the Carmelite tradition of St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, comes the also biblical teaching that, as prayer deepens, we move beyond images, words and other discursive and mediated forms of prayer, and we moved towards immediate and deeper forms of contemplative prayer.

Contemplative prayer is a manner of relating to God beyond images, words, or any discourse at all, it is an immediate and ineffable union with God, (cor ad cor loquitur), heart speaking to heart, without words being necessary or vision, even imagined vision required. It is a deep union, beyond sight, beyond words.

The idolatry of fleshly seeing is being put to death, as we move toward deep and mystical vision, and insight beyond the senses. Paradoxically, the true contemplative, and true mystic, does not become utterly blind to this world of senses. But now, by this gift, the contemplative and mystic sees everything and everyone in this world more deeply, mystically, and more richly. Now everything is seen to reveal God.

The true mystic does not simply see God on the pages of the Bible, he sees him, beyond fleshly seeing, in the sacraments, in the beauty of the human person, in creation, in the events and moments of daily life.

Here then is mystical vision, not seeing things as they simply and physically appear. Rather it is seeing that everything, everyone has deeper meaning, is caught up in God, caught up in his love, and his will. God is encountered everywhere, in everything, and everyone. The true mystic is able to fulfill Paul’s edict of praying always (Eph 6:18), not by sitting in a chapel, but by being in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of the day. As this begins to happen,  insight, the unfolding of mystery, becomes our daily fare and our eyes become truly open to the deeper reality of all things. As the seeing of the flesh dies, seeing of the Spirit, and in a spiritual way comes alive.

And thus Jesus says, in a little while you will no longer see me, but later, he will see me again…and your hearts will rejoice.

Think of these beautiful windows in the video. They are but sand and lead. Yet, having been subjected to the fire (of God’s love) they have been transformed to radiate (by Christ the light of the world) and communicate the deeper reality of the paschal mystery into the interior of a mausoleum, where I took the photos. Light and life shine in the midst of those whose eyes have closed but will reopen, gloriously transformed.

6 Replies to “From Sight to Insight. A Meditation on the "Sacrament" of Seeing”

  1. In reading both yesterday’s and today’s article, I couldn’t help but be reminded of John 14:27. It struck me as pivotal, hinged or central to both? Often, in pondering thoughts of absence do I see and am gladdened by the mystery of presence most.

    [27] Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid. [28] You have heard that I said to you: I go away, and I come unto you. If you loved me, you would indeed be glad, because I go to the Father: for the Father is greater than I. [29] And now I have told you before it comes to pass: that when it shall come to pass, you may believe.
    (John 14: 27-28)

  2. You have written an excellent meditation on this telling announcement: “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later you will see me.” (John 16:16)

    It reminded me of the expression “Seeing is believing.” There are at least two ways of understanding it.

    One way: “If I don’t see it, I won’t believe it.” The problem with this is that many people who do in fact see something startling say almost immediately: “I see it, but I still don’t believe it.”

    A second way: I believe something my eyes encounter before I “see” it. Thus, one is not truly seeing unless and until one is believing something as a prior act.

    Doubting Thomas overcame his disbelief when he followed the train of thought of the first way.

    Believers see more than non-believers in the second way, in part because they are looking for more than what the senses present.

    Given these ways of seeing, it seems understandable to me that Jesus would not only leave us his body and blood in the Eucharist to allow all of our senses, especially taste, to experience him, but also leave us an image of what he looks like.

    In this regard, see Paul Badde’s book “The Face of God” [ ] where he discusses Veronica’s Veil.

    Thus when I partake of the Eucharist, I believe first that I am seeing the face of Jesus in the Eucharist. Here’s a link to a depiction of what I see: [ ]

  3. You are helping us prepare for death, Monsignor. Thank you.

    Lovers, i.e. newlyweds and such, like to look at each other, but people can only look at each other for so long. Friends like to look at some third thing together. For example, two pals might watch a baseball game together. That is one reason why married people have children: so that they can become friends and have something to look at together. That is about everything I know about romantic love and friendship. I think I learned it in one of Mortimer Adler’s books.

  4. These sacramental aspect could also be applied to all our senses.

  5. I love the fact that you have the love for others, to share something profoundly beautiful here. It lends great weight and credibility to your reflections Monsignor Pope. When we enter the contemplative life, you state a stunning truth. All we then see is God in everything we see or touch or perceive. Conversations with God go on all day, with such childlike confiding joy and love. I cry often from that joy. It is so huge that love, that communion. I pray others find this state, for there is nothing selfish or vainglorious in it. Soul knows it is unworthy, yet somehow, it makes the love and joy so much sweeter. God bless your loving heart.

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