Light without Sight
John 9:1-11 (MSG)
“I do not know what darkness means to someone who is blind, but I am beginning to understand that light has as many meanings as dark.” This is what Barbara Brown Taylor said in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, as she thought about this story in the gospel of John of the man born blind. “I do not know what darkness means to someone who is blind, but I am beginning to understand that light has as many meanings as dark.”
She goes on to say, “No one has described it better for me than Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who wrote about his experience in a memoir called And There Was Light. Lusseyran was not born blind, though his parents noticed that he was having trouble reading and fitted him with glasses while he was still quite young. Beyond that, he was an ordinary boy who did all the things that other boys do, including getting into fights at school. During one such scuffle he fell hard against the corner of his teacher’s desk, driving one arm of his glasses deep into his right eye while another part of the frame tore the retina in his left. When he woke up in the hospital he could no longer see. His right eye was gone, and the left was beyond repair. At the age of seven he was completely and permanently blind.
“As he wrote in a second volume, Lusseyran learned from the reactions of those around him what a total disaster this was. In those days blind people were swept to the margins of society, where those who could not learn how to cane chairs or play an instrument for religious services often became beggars. Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to a residential school for the blind in Paris but his parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school where he could learn to function in the seeing world. His mother learned Braille with him. He learned to use a Braille typewriter. The principal of his school ordered a special desk for him that was large enough to hold his extra equipment. But the best thing his parents did for him was never to pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” They were not among those who spoke of the “night” into which his blindness had pushed him. Soon after his accident his father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, said, “Always tell us when you discover something.”
“In this way Lusseyran learned that he was not a poor blind boy but the discoverer of a new world in which the light outside of him moved inside to show him things he might never have found any other way. Barely ten days after his accident he made a discovery that entranced him for the rest of his life. “The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,” he wrote. “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.”
Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.
This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves. (Against the Pollution of the I)
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I thought he was speaking metaphorically—or perhaps theologically—but as I continued to read, it became clear that he was also speaking literally of an experience of light that had nothing to do with his eyes. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him
that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows.”
She asked herself, “Why had I never paid attention to the sounds of trees before? Surely the leaves of an oak made a different sound in the wind than the needles of a pine, the same way they made a different sound underfoot. I just never bothered to listen, since I could tell the trees apart by looking. When a sighted friend told me she had been to a workshop where she learned how to listen to trees, I was taken aback. ‘What do they say?’ I asked incredulously. ‘You don’t want to know,’ she replied ruefully.
“Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote. One of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.
In January of 1944 the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with 2,000 of his countrymen. There he learned how hate worked against him, not only darkening his world but making it smaller as well. When he let himself become consumed with anger he started running into things, slamming into walls and tripping over furniture. When he called himself back to attention, however, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found his way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while he knew where he could find it again.
Taylor says that since reading Lusseyran, the idea of blindness sounds more promising to her. “At the very least,” she says, “it makes me wonder how seeing has made me blind—by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking that I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”
The light of the world shines in our lives. Let us shine this light in the world. Take what you have heard this day. Take what you have perceived with sight beyond the reach of your eyes, and live as children of light. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, March 19, 2023