On Not Seeing, And Believing

Almost everyone I know has been living through a stressful time since last year. So, I hesitate to claim anything extraordinary about what I have experienced. But is there not at least something ironic about losing one’s eyesight in the year 2020? Well, that is what happened to me. Following a brief illness and a bad misdiagnosis, I found myself struck with nearly total blindness last April, a condition from which I am only now slowly reemerging.

It seems all the more remarkable that my sudden loss of vision occurred on the Byzantine “St. Thomas Sunday,” with its celebrated theme of faith without seeing. My favorite translation of the pivotal verse from that Sunday’s Gospel reading comes from the Aramaic Bible in Plain English: “Blessed are those who have not seen me and have believed” (Jn 20:29).

I suppose the usual way of interpreting this verse is that belief was easier for those who saw the Christ and witnessed the miracles He worked, especially the Resurrection. Whereas a special blessing is reserved for those who have faith despite not having had the opportunity to witness the Messiah. However, in my hearing, this verse has always resonated quite differently.

Some great writer (I cannot remember who, so we’ll just attribute it to Chesterton) once remarked that each of us can locate himself, his true nature, in one of the figures of the New Testament. That is to say, our thoughts, our deeds, our fears and misdeeds, are more like those of one particular Gospel

character than of any other. I suspect this observation is quite true, and for that reason I have always considered it a singular fortune that I did not live in the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, for me it is a decided blessing that I did not see Him with my own eyes, or hear His strangely disquieting parables, or witness his extraordinary acts among the passionate and pressing throngs. I say this because I know myself only too well to wish it were otherwise…

With my family’s long military history, I would love to imagine myself as the Roman Centurion whose humble request of Jesus was spoken from a strong, masculine faith, expressed in words of confidence and authority, words that still echo in the Mass 2,000 years later: “Dominus, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum; sed tantum dic verbo…”

Alas, where I actually see myself is in one of those fastidious groups like the Temple scribes or the Pharisees, an intellectual mediocrity, overly obsessed with minor scholarly accomplishments, fussy about liturgical precision and grammatical minutiae. I avoid the common turn of phrase, I shun big groups on every occasion, and I’m terribly afraid of being taken in by a fraud, or swept along by some new fad or enthusiasm.

What if I had lived in Galilee two millennia ago, if I had heard of this Jesus of Nazareth, this carpenter’s son who had a gift for speaking and a unique take on the prophets of old? Oh, I might have gone out to hear him standing on the Mount, with his strangely comforting yet preposterous Beatitudes. I would have listened intently, maybe even strained to hear, but only from a distance, at the very edge of the passionate, thirsty crowd, trying my hardest to look indifferent and bored. “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” / “Who, me? I’m just passing by, on my way to the parchment store…”

Would I ever have wanted to be known as a follower of the desert preacher who called Himself the “Son of Man,” among his many paradoxical statements? When the whole Messiah enterprise appeared to be collapsing in horror and shame on that terrible Friday, I have little doubt that I would have scurried away to the relative safety of a copyist’s alcove, less in fear of the Romans than in embarrassment for my Jewish confreres.

Thus, in my thinking, I am indeed blessed to have “not seen,” as I would have found belief very difficult when Christianity was in its chaotic infancy, with zealotry and passions breaking out on all sides. And the corollary to this is that having come into existence in our desperate age of unbelief often feels like a blessing itself. To believe in Christ today is just about the most counter-cultural, unfashionable thing one can do, perfect for a suspicious snob like me. But there are more compelling signposts that guided me to believe.

I think back to what one of my university mentors once said to me. Dennis Quinn was an English professor when I was trying to navigate through the minefield of graduate school in the 1980s. I was then a “closeted” Catholic neophyte at the University of Kansas, a place that was and is very hostile for Catholics. But this ever-cheerful man exclaimed to me his view that “at no point in history has it ever been easier to be a believing Catholic.” Reading the astonishment on my face, Dr. Quinn continued: “Yes, because everything else has been shown to be so utterly false. There just isn’t anything left that could possibly be true, or that you would even wish were true.”

That simple remark was an illumination for me. Of course, he was right! We have had time, through the centuries, to see the disastrous and farcical elaboration of the fantasies of men, or foresee where they are heading: Protestantism, existentialism, positivism, nihilism, feminism, scientism and materialism, Islam and every Eastern religion, environmentalism, globalism and nationalism, socialism and capitalism, every “-ism” in the arts, every self-help fad, the New Age, social media, the sixty-seven new “genders,” paganism and neo-eco-paganism, Gaia, astrology and “living green,” and now Terraforming Mars while awaiting the great Singularity… From age to age, the preoccupations of man outdo each other in absurdity, ugliness, wastefulness, fraud, and violence. Cut off from the living Word, almost everything produces, sooner or later, a guffaw, a garbage heap, or a gulag.

Conversely, we have also had time to see how, emerging from the sanctity of the womb, belief in the Incarnation gradually led to the greatest creations of the human mind and spirit in every field of science and art. To see it all more or less collapsing now does nothing to invalidate the obvious nexus. Compared to the words of Jesus of Nazareth, everything else is but empty feelings or hair-brained thoughts of varying degrees. In our age, it is easy to see it, to hear it, to know it, and to believe in Him.

Had I lived in the cruel but orderly world of the Roman Empire, it is Christ Himself who might have appeared to me a madman, the greatest madman the world had yet known. Thank goodness, given my skeptical nature, I was given the grace to be born in these obscure times, with our endless parade of madmen. Despite the gloom into which even the Church herself seems, at times, to have sunk, Christ is the Light and Life of us all. Today, even a blind man can see it.

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