The Patron Saint of Stubborn Facts

John Adams wrote in 1770, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” (“Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials”) His observation is useful in our day as we consider the turmoil in the Church with respect to many of those “hot button” issues involving the Sixth Commandment, from the indissolubility of marriage to the very purpose of human sexuality. When a close papal confidant tweets “2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5,” it’s hard to muster confidence in the logic of contemporary theology. What are we to make of the turmoil? To whom shall we turn?

The epic Gospel passage of the cure of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) is particularly instructive about the relationship between the facts of life, our faith, and our current troubles. Jesus – using His spittle to make mud – anoints the beggar who was blind since birth and opens his eyes. But the joy of the cure is eclipsed by anxiety when the man finds himself on trial by angry Pharisees pushing their anti-Christ agenda. The account of the healing and ensuing trials is a profound metaphor for the faithful, struggling to maintain and deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith.

The Pharisees do not allow the facts to deter them. They simply tinker with the laws of logic to fit their unholy narrative: that Jesus was a sinner because He “did not keep the Sabbath” when He healed the blind man. Confronted by the Pharisees, the man born blind initially refuses to make any judgments whatsoever. He simply states the facts: “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” But the Pharisees press: “What do you have to say about him?” By reasonably reconsidering the evidence of his healing, under duress, the man takes a significant step in the direction of the fullness of the truth. Jesus healed his blindness. A prophet has the power to heal. Therefore, he concludes, Jesus is a prophet.

After a threatening interview with the man’s parents, the Pharisees fail to prove that the man was not blind from birth. So they scold him with their twisted reasoning: “We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” But the man holds fast to the facts and the rules of logic, insisting: “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”

This is what is so amazing: that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.

Healing the Man Born Blind by Vasily Surikov, 1888 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The Pharisees, despite their malice, unwittingly became the instruments of God’s grace in sparking the man’s understanding of the Person of Jesus.

The rueful cliché “no good deed goes unpunished” at the hands of sinful men certainly applies to Christ. This Gospel account has an unexpected twist. The man who was blind from birth and healed by Christ doesn’t walk away rejoicing. Sharing in the persecution of Christ, he also becomes the target of the Pharisees. But in God’s loving providence, his suffering has a purpose. As the Pharisees have him repeatedly revisit the evidence, he draws conclusions with increasingly lucid insights. This prepares him for a direct and definitive encounter with the Lord.

Jesus, apparently absent during the man’s tribulations, did not abandon him.  After the interrogators throw the man out, Jesus searches for him. His purpose is not merely to console, but to direct and elevate the logic of the man’s faith.

So Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Still requiring sufficient evidential matter, the man responds, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” The response of Jesus is immediate and without ambiguity: “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”

In an instant, his ponderings under duress are enlightened by the Lord’s grace.  He sees clearly for the first time: “He said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”

The cure of the man blind from birth reveals the ultimate purpose of all the miracles of Christ: engendering a firm faith in the Person of Christ Who saves. The malice of the Pharisees and their verbal abuse bear unintended fruit. Their deliberately faulty logic and taunts serve to provide opportunities for an admirably honest man to repeatedly return to the evidence, allowing him to continue on a path to the fullness of faith. The sufferings the man endured after his cure prepared him to accept Jesus not only as “prophet,” “from God,” and as the messianic “Son of Man,” but as Lord worthy of adoration. Indeed.

Like the man born blind and freed of his infirmity, we may find ourselves unsettled by the negative attention we receive for stubbornly holding fast to the facts of the faith we have received. With honesty and God’s grace, we will be impelled to frequently revisit the evidence of our faith in the beautiful and constant teachings of the Church (beginning with the Gospels and the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

For intercessory assistance, perhaps we should turn to that anonymous formerly blind beggar – now endowed with the eyes of true faith – as the patron saint of stubborn facts.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.