But Now I See

I know next to nothing about Canon Law, but I have the impression that it would frown on carrying a voice recorder into the Confessional. I wish I had, though, when my pastor recently bid me adieu with an uplifting litany of things that absolution had just done for me, among them (I have to quote from memory) “your sight is now clear.”

Unbeknown to him, I’d just had cataract surgery – as, coincidentally, have a couple of TCT writers and readers in recent months. In my case, the cloudiness was brought on by treatment two years ago for a partly detached retina, which untreated can instantly produce blindness. So I was both seeing much better and “seeing” much better.

I have to take the latter on faith, since the process of clarifying spiritual sight takes a lot longer – a LOT longer – than a fifteen-minute cataract procedure. (See Dante’s Purgatorio and any of the great spiritual writers.)

When I was a young man, I went through a period of utter infatuation with Ezra Pound (who is not one of the great spiritual writers). I read everything I could find by Old Ez, including his translation of the Confucian Analects, where I ran across this:

At fifteen I wanted to learn. At thirty I had a foundation. At forty, a certitude. At fifty, knew the orders of heaven. At sixty, was ready to listen to them. At seventy, could follow my own heart’s desire without overstepping the T-square [what was right].

Since at the time I thought I already knew everything, I don’t know why this stuck with me. But it has, and only grown more mysterious with time. Imagine: one of the great sages of one of the great civilization in one of its great periods says it took him fifty years to know the orders of heaven, another decade to be ready to listen, still another decade to be able to follow them. It’s un-American.

I’d like to think that I could follow in these steps of K’ung Fu-tsu, his honorific name before Jesuits in sixteenth-century China (in some accounts Matteo Ricci himself) gave it a Latin form. But time grows short, and hearing – let alone following – comes up against stubborn habits indulged over years, even before we get to the matter of sin.

“Christ in Silence” by Odilon Redon (1897)
“Christ in Silence” by Odilon Redon (1897)

It’s not a simple thing to hear, or to see. In Lumen Fidei, Benedict/Francis work out some of the difficulties, and the differences, e.g., this: “Faith is linked to hearing. Abraham does not see God, but hears his voice.” So what Abraham comes to see depended on what he first heard.

For modern minds – in whatever epoch they have lived – this is precisely the problem. How can you place trust, the greatest trust, in something you cannot “see,” in the ordinary meaning of the word, let alone the more esoteric sense. The Enlightenment thought the light of Faith was darkness. But as even secular critics of Enlightenment rationalism now maintain, the greater problem, may lie with those who deny any other way of seeing.

When you start to encounter the difficulties such vision raises, it can make you want to turn away. There’s a bit of Brideshead Revisited’s Charles Ryder in all of us, who flees the Catholic household of the Marchmains: “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses.” But Ryder was a painter, and a real painter can never be content with mere seeing, as if he were a camera and the world one big still life (what the French, tellingly, call nature morte).

So he continues: “I have since learned that there is no such world, but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue.”

This is the world that William Blake opposed to real vision:

Now a fourfold vision I see

And a fourfold vision is given to me

Tis fourfold in my supreme delight

And three fold in soft Beulah’s night

And twofold Always. May God us keep

From single vision, and Newton’s sleep.

That old Newtonian world, a world of mere masses and forces, and all things, including all human things, like billiard balls bouncing off one another on a table still has a bewitching effect on us, even though it’s no longer a true picture, even in science.

Still, seeing and hearing are funny things. In John’s Gospel, the Word that existed in the beginning, already an incomprehensible reality for us, says, enormously, a bit later, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” In his Commentary on the Creed, Aquinas argues that the original Word is like a word held deep in our minds, which is heard and known internally, only to us. The Incarnate Word is like a word written down that can then be seen by all.

Throughout the New Testament, the apostles are asking people to hear what they say, which is what they have seen, even touched: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John)

And if we’re not already overwhelmed, Lumen Fidei tells us that the origin of the light that enables us to see things previously unsuspected is the Word we’ve heard, which not only comes to us from the past and informs the present, but opens out towards the future, a kind of paradoxical memoria futuri, that leads us along a path we must follow.

Nietzsche once told his sister that faith was for those who wanted comfort, but seeking was for those who wanted truth. Maybe in his circle, in his day. But this hearing, seeing, touching, journeying – all so familiar and yet so mysterious – if our eyes are opened.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.