Sometimes everything falls into place in the strangest way you never expected. Sometimes I have nothing to say, no words to write, nothing to share, until in an instant of connectedness I realize that I do, and thoughts pour in from so many places to fill an empty mold of the perfect size and shape that I never knew was there.
Recently I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time. Published in 1974 and the recipient of a Pulitzer, Pilgrim is nothing new. Even in 1974, groundbreaking as it was, I believe it was not that the book was new that made it great. Rather, Dillard’s examination and enjoyment of the world, at once both careful and giddy, teaches her readers to look in new ways at what has been there for them to see all along.
Dillard herself learns this lesson in the course of writing Pilgrim, when she learns to see the egg case of a praying mantis. “Now that I can see [them],” she writes, “I’m embarrassed to realize how many I must have missed all along.” Life is often just like this.
She writes, too, about seeing in a literal sense; about how the invention of a successful surgery to be performed on those who suffered from blinding cataracts led to unexpected results that were at once disappointing for the doctors and terrifying for the patients. Concepts such as size, depth, shape, and color, which we learn by exploring objects as babies, are lost to those who are blind from birth. To have their eyes opened to reveal so many colors and shapes and lights that change and move is a strange and startling experience – one that is not always welcome. Some adjust to it and react to the astonishing beauty before them in ways that we who have always seen never do. Dillard wishes these newly-sighted people had been painters, and that we “could all see the color-patches … Eden before Adam gave names.”
At the very same time I have been reading Pilgrim for pleasure, I have been studying John 9, titled in my Bible “Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind.” Despite this bolded text it was not until I heard another woman speak aloud that I realize what this man was going through – thanks to Dillard. Blind for decades, this man has been miraculously healed by a man who, as far as the text says, does nothing but touch his eyes and tell him to go and wash. He does so, and receives his sight – experiences the color-patches and the moving lights that he has no way to comprehend. Despite this shock, he is dragged by the Pharisees to the temple for questioning about the man who healed his eyes.
Dillard argues that even for us who have always had sight there are two ways to see. “When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.” It is this cameraless, open shutter-gut sight that Dillard seeks when she writes,
“If I thought he could teach me to find [the secret of seeing] and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred desserts after any lunatic at all. … I cannot cause light, I can only stand in it’s beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind.”
Perhaps for the man in John 9, whose eyes have already been opened in a literal sense by the one who causes light, it is easier for him to both stand in the beam and rig his sail. Throughout the questioning, this man stays true to his healer, claiming that Jesus is a prophet of God, who does the will of his father – in spite of the common knowledge that these claims could mark him as an enemy of the Jews. The anger he causes gets him thrown out of the temple, but that’s not the end of the story.
When Jesus heard what happened, he found the man and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.” “You have seen him,” Jesus said, “and he is speaking to you!” “Yes, Lord, I believe!” the man said. And he worshiped Jesus. – John 9:35-38
Concluding her beautiful passage on the once-blind, Dillard shares how a girl was blindfolded and led to a garden and asked to describe what she saw. “The tree with the lights in it,” she said. As you rest in this Holy week – whether in a literal or figurative sense – think about the once-blind man and his opened eyes. The secret of seeing is within reach – many called Jesus a lunatic, and many followed him. Stand in the beam of the light that he causes, and rejoice that the tree we mourn on Friday has lights in it, and the Light will rise again on Sunday.