I have mentioned here before that my mentor and teacher, Fr. Francis Martin, once asked, “Do you know what is the biggest obstacle for us in understanding the Word of God?” I was expecting him to answer his own question by saying something like, “We don’t know enough Greek,” or “We haven’t studied the historical critical method carefully enough.” But he looked around the room and then said, “The biggest obstacle we have to understanding the Word of God is our sin.”
He went on to encourage us in the discipline of study but warned that all the study in the world could not be of great help, indeed could be of harm, if we did not have a clean heart. I have respected him ever since and listened (on tape) to probably two dozen other priest conferences and courses he preached and taught. Though I was never formally enrolled in one of his classes, he became one of my principal teachers through his tape ministry. He now has a great YouTube ministry here: Fr. Francis Martin Ministries.
Scholars, academicians, and even some unbelievers can tell you to some extent what a particular biblical text is talking about, but only the holy, the saints, can tell you what it means. Toward the end of his life, Fulton Sheen commented that in modern times we have tried seemingly every possible way to build up the Church: committees, study groups, task forces, seminars, and advanced degrees in every sort of religious study; the only thing that we have not tried is holiness. He went on to recommend that every priest make a daily Holy Hour.
There is a passage in the Breviary that also shows the correlation between holiness and seeing:
If you say, “Show me your God,” I will say to you, “Show me what kind of person you are, and I will show you my God.” … God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open. All have eyes, but some have eyes that are shrouded in darkness, unable to see the light of the sun. Because the blind cannot see it, it does not follow that the sun does not shine. The blind must trace the cause back to themselves and their eyes. In the same way, you have eyes in your mind that are shrouded in darkness because of your sins and evil deeds. A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light. If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it. In the same way, no one who has sin within him can see God. But if you will you can be healed. Hand yourself over to the doctor, and he will open the eyes of your mind and heart. Who is to be the doctor? It is God, who heals and gives life through his Word and wisdom … If you understand this, and live in purity and holiness and justice, you may see God. But, before all, faith and the fear of God must take the first place in your heart, and then you will understand all this. When you have laid aside mortality and been clothed in immortality, then you will see God according to your merits (From the book addressed to Autolycus by Saint Theophilus of Antioch, bishop).
So there it is; holiness together with a fear of the Lord is really the only way to see at all.
There is also the great gospel of the man born blind. At a pivotal moment, Jesus smears the man’s eyelids with clay and sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man returns able to see. When asked how he came to see, he replies, in effect, “I went, I washed, and now I see.” This is baptismal theology even if in seminal form. We cannot see until we are washed. In the end it is baptism, confession, and a holy life by God’s grace that give the greatest light. One of the great theologians and Fathers of the Church, St. Cyprian, experienced the vision that baptism and holiness bring:
And I myself was bound fast, held by so many errors of my past life, from which I did not believe I could extricate myself. I was disposed therefore to yield to my clinging vices; and, despairing of better ways, I indulged my sins … But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the waters of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man. And then in marvelous manner, doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened … and what had been thought impossible was able to be done (Letter to Donatus, 4).
Only after baptism did some things make sense and seem possible for Cyprian.
I, too, have come to understand some things only after many years of prayer and growth. Daily Holy Hour, daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, weekly confession … only then do some things become clear, only then does that which had been in darkness come to light. To be sure, study has had its place in my life, but only the path to holiness (combined with study) can ever really bring light.
We’ve tried everything else, how about holiness? …Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).
Here’s a video I put together on the beauty of prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. It is set to the words of a beautiful Eucharistic Hymn, “Jesus My Lord, My God, My All,” directed by the late Richard Proulx.