Eyes That See Not

The characteristic of orthodox Catholicism in the modern world is its claim to be true. We recall Aquinas’ “Omne ens est verum.” John Paul II spoke of the “splendor of truth,” while Benedict speaks of “charity in truth.” The issue is not that my view is “true” and yours isn’t. Rather, what is held is that truth exists and can be found, but only in terms of its own coherence.

The finding of truth is essential to what each person is. Our minds will rest in nothing less. But truth is not “imposed” on us. Rather it invites us and intrigues us, even in a world where truth is looked upon as a dangerous, “undemocratic” word. If something that I do not practice or hold is true, however, my denial of it does not cause what is true to disappear. Its light remains. If we reject it, we must carefully turn our eyes from it, lest we deny what is there.

In a famous passage in Matthew 13, we read: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’” This same passage refers to Isaiah 6. It reads: “They have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.” Matthew cites Christ citing Isaiah. John 14, reads: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Evidently, truth is not an abstraction. To see and hear means that someone we see also speaks. What is said is reported to us. We do not “make” what we hear or see.

A parable is a story or analogy that tells the truth. It is designed to hide the truth so that the reader will accept the story as told without fully realizing what he encounters. He needs to hear again and again so that gradually what prevents him from hearing is eliminated. If initially the hearer of the parable did realize what was at issue in his seeing and hearing, he would not even listen to the parable. He would want to protect himself from having to change his ways. The first step in this self-protection from truth is never consciously to allow seeing or hearing to lead to “understanding.”

In Matthew, the person who does not see or hear is not blind or mute. He hears and sees just like anyone else. The passage in Isaiah takes us further. The hearer of the word or seer of things knows what is at stake if he sees and hears what is actually there to be seen and heard. He thus must prevent himself from seeing and listening. Why? Lest he “understand” with his heart and be converted and be healed. Here is the point where responsibility for, sin against, and defiance of truth takes place in our souls.

The passage in Matthew continues with these astonishing words: “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Clearly, the gradualness of the plan of God’s purpose in creation and redemption is implied here. What did the apostles, to whom these words are addressed, see and hear that others before them did not? Clearly, it was One who actually spoke the truth about God, One who spoke the truth about Himself, “I and the Father are one.”

What is striking about the Church today are the various initiatives that constantly proceed from her about truth. She wants to talk to anyone and everyone about the truth. And even for those who are not willing to speak to her about truth, the Church seeks to find avenues and fora in which, on the basis of human dignity, it would be embarrassing or arrogant not to do so.

The fact is that even the relativists claim that their relativism is true. Otherwise, they really could not live with themselves. But they have to be cautious. As one of C. S. Lewis’ young devils said, “the young atheist” has to be very careful with whom he speaks lest his “truth” becomes doubtful even to himself.

We are in a curious world. We still “long” to see and hear, especially when we deliberately reject the seeing and hearing that the Apostles saw and heard. Consequently, we have to construct our own parables so that we can explain to ourselves why the central line of revelation is not true. We want to live as if revelation is not addressed to reason and reason is not addressed to a reality we did not ourselves create.

Yea, “many a prophet longed to see what you see but did not see it.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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