We tend to think of seeing as an entirely passive operation. One can hear it in the phrases that we use. “What you see is what you get.” “Open your eyes and look.” “It’s as plain as day.” But neither our ancient nor our medieval forebears thought of seeing as such a passive activity. They believed that sight was an active process; that it had as much to do with the person seeing, as the object seen.
They were mistaken about the physical operation of the eyes, which are passive receptacles, but the ancients were quite right in terms of what it means to comprehend the world around us. We are actively engaged in that process, and what we bring to the task, in large measure, determines it outcome.
If you think of seeing as comprehending, understanding, receiving something from outside ourselves and making it a part of our selves, if you think of seeing as insight, then our forebears were quite right to insist that vision depends upon intelligence, patience and of course the virtues.
The holy ones see more than others, which is why icons depict the saints with slightly enlarged eyes. One might say that wisdom is the ability to integrate into the self the best of what one finds in the world. Wisdom makes the world a part of the self.
That’s why, quite paradoxically, those with failing eye sight are often credited with much greater insight. The young see better, the old comprehend more. One could metaphorically say that the inner eye is more important than the outer.
In his spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton pondered the most prosaic of childhood memories. Looking back, with insight, he sees what he didn’t spot then: his brother’s “natural humility and love” and his own “hard-heatedness.” It moves him to compunction.
Physical sight may be quite passive, but spiritual sight, insight, is far from it. That’s why learning is never purposeless, because all that we learn equips us to learn more. It’s why insight sometimes only comes with years of mulling over memory. And it’s why a life of virtue disposes us to truth, to insight, to God.
Without Nathan, David could not have said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12: 13). But without the insight which we call grace, without being open to God, David would have been chided in vain by Nathan. Ultimately, it is David who sees his sin.
The mistake, which the Pharisees make, is seeing the woman’s sin but not her contrition. If they weren’t narrow-minded, looking out from blinders, they would see her sorrow and their own presumption. If they turned and looked within, they would know the gift of tears. But that is the meaning of grace and of sin, which we, not the Pharisees, must now master. Sin dims our eyes. Grace opens them.
2 Samuel 12: 7-10, 13 Galatians 2: 16, 19-21 Luke 7: 36 – 8:3