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Seeing the Need for Salvation
Seeing the Need for Salvation

Seeing the Need for Salvation

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gregory Pearson preaches on the healing of Bartimaeus.

Brother Vincent, a much loved brother of our Order who died a few years ago, was born with very limited vision, and his sight deteriorated in the course of his life so that, by the time most of today’s friars knew him, he had been completely blind for many years. When he first joined the Order, though, he could still make out some distinction between light and shade, and he used to tell the story of the moment when he realised the last of his ability to see had gone. He was in the kitchen one evening washing up after dinner, and another brother came into the room and said, “Vincent, what are you doing in here in the dark?” It was only when someone else pointed out to him that there was no light in the room, a fact he hadn’t noticed, that he knew there was no ‘signal’ coming from his eyes any more. It was at that moment that his brain stopped generating any mental image, which up to that point it had been doing, presumably by compiling the limited information it was drawing from his other senses.

As well as giving some fascinating insights into neuropsychology, this experience of Brother Vincent can also help us think through the significance of blindness, and Christ’s healing of it, in today’s Gospel. Clearly, there would be plenty to say about the particular miracle and its context, but the words of Our Lord spoken as he restores Bartimaeus’ sight suggest that this episode can be understood also as a image of his work of salvation. He does not say, ‘your faith has given you your sight,’ or something like that, but rather, ‘your faith has saved you.’

So how can thinking about blindness, and the experience of Brother Vincent, help us to think about what it means for Jesus to save us, and how he goes about it?

Firstly, blindness is not simply the inability to see. We do not say that rocks, or plants, are blind, although clearly they do not have a sense of sight. Rather, it is the lack of a sense of sight in the kind of being that, ordinarily, might be able to see. When Christ gives Bartimaeus his sight, he doesn’t endow him with a unique superpower, but restores to him something which belongs to his life as a human being. Similarly, to speak of our salvation in Christ is to say something about the restoration, not the unnatural enhancement, of our humanity: we were made in God’s image and likeness, made for friendship with him, and in saving us, Christ is restoring to us the possibility of enjoying that friendship. Note that because friendship is mutual, it is always God’s gift – grace – and never something we can claim as a right, but the loss of the capacity for that friendship through sin is a loss of something proper to us as human beings, which Christ, in saving us, restores.

For Bartimaeus, the restoration of his sight is a clear and urgent desire. We see this from his persistence despite the reproaches of the crowd, and his circumstances give ample explanation for the urgency: he is living as a beggar because, presumably, he is unable to earn enough to live. In any case, though, the clear recognition of what he lacks is the precondition for his appealing to Christ as the one who can give him what he desires. He is able to come to the healing, the salvation, which Christ tells him his faith has wrought because he had a desire which, through faith, he believed Jesus could fulfil. Likewise, if we do not recognise that there is something we lack, if we do not desire for the wounds of sin to be healed, then we will not be able to recognise in Jesus the saviour in whom to place our trust, for the notion of salvation will be meaningless

In Brother Vincent’s story, one of the things that has always struck me is the role the other brother played in it. It was information he was able to communicate to Brother Vincent – the fact it was pitch black in the kitchen – which enabled Vincent to recognise the reality of his situation. In some ways, that made things harder for him – it made the complete lack of sight more obvious, depriving him of the hazy mental image he had retained until then – but it also meant that he no longer risked relying on an image which would eventually, and perhaps dangerously, have turned out to be false. It seems to me to be a helpful illustration of the way in which we can bring each other to a recognition of our situation which can prepare the way for us to be open to God’s promise of salvation: in other words, it is a way of thinking about what is sometimes called praeparatio evangelica, the preparing of the way for someone to be open to hearing the Gospel.

In restoring sight to Bartimaeus, Christ reveals his power over the created world, as he does in all his miracles, and as with all the miracles of healing, he shows that he exercises that power in kindness and love for humanity. More than that, though, in Christ’s words spoken to Bartimaeus we can see how this restoration of sight to a blind man is an image for us of the restoration to humanity of what we have lost through sin, that restoration of the fullness of our humanity which we call salvation.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9 | Hebrews 5:1-6 | Mark 10:46-52

Image: detail of a mosaic is by Fr Marko Rupnik SJ, in the chapel of the Mysteries of Light in the National Shrine of St John Paul II in Washington DC, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.

Fr Gregory is Master of Novices of the English Province.
gregory.pearson@english.op.org

Comments (4)

  • Marion Jordaan

    I feel so sad about Brother Vincent, really heart sore. Thank you for sharing.
    However, your insightful and thought provoking homily eases the pain!
    Thank you

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  • michael Tate

    I remember seeing Brother Vincent incredibly helping with the washing up after a meal at Blackfriars In Oxford.He was good for a short chat, though I never realised that he was as completely blind as the homily tells us. Congratulations to Gregory for so masterfully bringing the stories of Vincent and Bartimaeus together, illuminating the character of each.

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  • Dave Verrill

    I have fond memories of Brother Vincent from visiting my brother in training in the priory in Oxford. At the end of the Offices in the chapel Brother Vincent would hold open the side door to the priory to go to the refectory to eat. He knew when there was an extra one and would wait while I scurried up from the body of the church. All this while blind. It was like being let into heaven by the back door.
    Vincent was a remarkable witness to salvation.

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  • Isidore Clarke

    I have many fascinating random memories of Vincent when we were both members of Hawkesyard community, firstly, when I was a student there, and then when I was his prior. Vincent was always so generous hearted in defending someone who accidentally made an insensitive remark about blindness. We didn’t need to tip toe round Vincent. He had the resilience to understand our difficulty in avoiding tactless remarks; Vincent had the compassion to come to our rescue and defence.
    I noticed with the loss of sight his sense of hearing became more acute. He could recognise and distinguish peoples’ footsteps. Vincent was an expert at reading brail -so good that publishers would ask him to proof read books for them. That surprised me, since his main job was in the back kitchen where he pealed potatoes for over 70 people and washed all the pots and pans for their large meals. I would have expected that would have de-sensitized his finger tips and made them incapable of reading brail. I was wrong!
    Vincent was a great asset to any community, a wonderful lay/co operative brother, and a dear friend.

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