Henri and Howard: Seeing when we can’t see

As I was recently perusing Twitter, I stumbled across a hashtag from The Episcopal Cafe asking people to name their Episcopal Identity (the hashtag is #myepiscopalidentity). One response that I found particularly salient was from some who described the Episcopal Church as “an unexpected homecoming.” An unexpected homecoming – finding home when we least expected and when we least thought we deserved it. In moments like that, “homecoming” is nothing short of grace – G-d’s love for us unearned and undeserved meeting us at the point of our need and lifting us higher.

Yet no matter how much we affirm the joyousness of homecoming, the significance of homecoming must always be thought of in context of “home-leaving.” This idea is written throughout the second chapter of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I think I had always known that, but it’s something that I never really wanted to say out loud. I want to sit in the joy of Easter, the celebration of the welcoming and return. But the joy of Easter is nothing more than a saccharine spiritual high when taken without the very real horror of Good Friday. That’s why the Christian Church needs the rhythm of the Liturgical Calendar. We need to live in a reality that validates our experiences – the ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning, giving and taking of life. Full-solar spirituality is killing us. We need faith in a G-d who blesses us in the light and in the darkness. We need a G-d who walks through those vicissitudes with us. We need a more fulsome expression of what coming home really means – it means repentance and reconciliation. “Leaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way home is long and arduous.” To come home means that we must have left home in the first place, that we’ve opted for the allure of the “distant country” over the sanctuary of home. To come home means that we must leave the “distant country” and all of its temptation behind. I have found that the distant country is easy to get to because it doesn’t demand much of us. It merely asks us to be upset, disgruntled, or similarly malcontented. The distant country by definition is not better than home. It is only alluring inasmuch as it preys upon our weaknesses. Home is a harder place to stay because it asks the most of us. In fact, home asks us for everything – home asks us to be loved utterly, fundamentally, and at our core and without qualification. Home asks us to lay aside all of our defenses to simply allow ourselves to be loved. It’s a process, far easier said than done, but that’s the demand of home – surrender to the sound of love.

In Inward Journey, Howard Thurman describes the process of surrender this way:

Religious experience in its profoundest sense is the finding of man by G-d and the finding of G-d by man. …the individual enters this experience… with the smell of life heavy upon him. He has in him all the errors and blindness, his raw conscience and scar tissues, all his loves and hates. In fact, all that he is as he lives life is with him in this experience. It is in his religious experience that he sees himself from another point of view. In a very real sense he is stripped of everything and he stands with no possible protection from the countenance of the Other. The things of which he is stripped are not thrown away. They are merely laid aside and with infinite patience they are seen for what they are seen for what they are… A man may take his whole lifetime to put away a particular garment forever. The new center is found, and it is often like giving birth to a new self.”[1]

Whether we call this religious experience Sunday worship, Mass, Holy Eucharist, or hot yoga, each of us is seeking security, stability, and our centered. We are seeking to find that which holds us when nothing else can or will. I know I do. In the midst of a rapidly changing world, I need to hold on to something immutable and stable. I need to know that when the tempests rage the anchor will hold. I need it. I can’t make it without it.

Where it is tempting for us to miss G-d is to try to locate that stability by our own means. In our need for more control in a world rapidly spinning out of it, we construct an impenetrable barrier of defenses between ourselves and our milieu – titles, degrees, status, money, achievement, accolades, and labels. In and of themselves, these things are not sinful, but when placed within a larger context of defensiveness and control, they possess the capacity to become idolatrous. Anything that stands between us and G-d is an idol. An idol doesn’t need to be clad in gold in order to classify for idol-status. It only needs to stand between us and G-d and be resistant to G-d’s consuming fire. The scriptures of Israel speak so strongly against idol worship because for all their allure, only G-d has the power to save.

But being home means surrendering control. It means the slow capitulation of our souls to the power of G-d. It means being fundamentally loved without having earned it and to live in the midst of that disorientation. It means letting go. It means truly understanding that the Father’s arms are always outstretched, extending blessing, and offering compassion. G-d’s love never needs be asked for. It merely needs to be received.

Receive – like Simeon when he took the baby Jesus into his arms. Christian tradition suggests that Simeon was blind, having advanced greatly in years waiting to “see” the salvation of G-d. I’m not sure if this is true. I don’t think scripture would have left out this important detail. I do think that the tradition is pointing toward a deep spiritual seeing that transcends the limitations of our physical world. This wrinkle adds texture to the narrative of Luke 2 which contains the word “see” three times. If Simeon was blind as tradition dictates, how was he going to see the salvation of G-d? Perhaps he would be able to see the salvation of G-d because the salvation of G-d cannot be seen by human eyes. In fact, our vision may actually hinder our ability to see the hand of G-d at work in the world about us. G-d’s salvation is meant to received, with openness, from expected places, perhaps even from the places of our greatest resistance.

In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor quotes blind French resistance fighter Jacques Lusseyran who says “Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things.” Lusseyran’s was the result of an injury he obtained during a schoolboy scuffle. Describing seeing in the midst of his blindness, Lusseyran says “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… The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”[2] Taylor illuminates Lusseyran’s experience of seeing a table and hearing trees as a result of paying attention. Finally, Taylor says that Lusseyran’s experience of blindness made her a believer. “There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”[3] I wonder if our inability to see in front of us is an invitation to pay attention to what is around us, to rely on different senses to make our way through the world. So often we look past G-d in our midst searching for G-d in the distance, or hold on to our false sense of control at the expense of real, genuine love. Maybe it’s more comfortable that way. Physical vision causes us to trust in our own ability to see and define, and yet we know that G-d does not see as we see nor does G-d love as we love. G-d “looks at the heart.” Seeing G-d’s salvation and receiving G-d’s love are both invitations to receive with joy and gladness. It’s a palms-up, open-handed, vulnerable, submissive position where we surrender ourselves to G-d over and over again. It’s the process of laying down a particular garment and finding a new center.

I like to think that the Nunc Dimittis sung by Simeon as he was receiving the baby Jesus is a song of surrender – surrendering his very life to G-d having now seen the salvation of G-d, not with his physical eyes, but with his heart. In Rembrandt’s depiction of the scene, both Simeon and Jesus resonate with an inner light, a light perhaps made all the brighter by the darkness that surrounded them. Simeon, though well advanced in years, receives G-d into his arms and sees G-d’s salvation.

I wonder how it felt to be led blind to the baby Jesus. I wonder how it felt to receive this infant into his arms, to raise him up and bless him. I wonder how it felt to stare into the vastness of eternity have held and beheld G-d’s salvation. I wonder if Simeon expected to see G-d’s salvation manifested in such a frail package. My gut says that it would all be scary and I would feel so “out of control,” and yet it is sometimes in our moments of least control that we experience the most of G-d.

Seeing when we can’t see is about seeing with our hearts. It’s “deep see spirituality” -receiving G-d’s compassion from unexpected places because were attentive enough to pay attention. It’s about mindfulness and presence, searching for the smallest light in the greatest darkness, and surrendering to the love of G-d that only accessible when we come to our own ends.


[1] Howard Thurman. The Creative Encounter: An Interpretation of Religion and the Social Witness (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1954), 39-40.

[2] Jacques Lusseyran quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).

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