Magazine article The Christian Century

Light without Sight: A Different Way of Seeing

Magazine article The Christian Century

Light without Sight: A Different Way of Seeing

Article excerpt

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. There is an old prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that goes like this:

   Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, and illumine this
   night with your celestial brightness; that by night as by day your
   people may glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
   Amen.

Among other things, this prayer recognizes a kind of light that transcends both wave and particle. It can illumine the night without turning on the lights, becoming apparent to those who have learned to rely on senses other than sight to show them what is real. This is the light the mystics see when they meditate in the night hours, picking up their pens in the morning to write down their revelations. It is the light Moses saw in the darkness on Mount Sinai, where the glory of God came wrapped in dazzling darkness. Dionysius the Areopagite called it "the unapproachable light in which God dwells."

My guess is that this idea is as incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it as it is indisputable to those who have. 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, he 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. …

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