I have a freind whose eysight is poor. She needs glasses if she is to see anything, near or far. Sometimes, when being driven in a car or sitting in a meeting, she takes her glasses off. 'I like to see the world through a haze every now and then', she says. It is a way of relaxing, a way of stepping back a little from the full impact of reality. Perhaps it is true about many of us regarding spiritual and moral things: we prefer to see hazily, or partially, or selectively, rather than see all that can be seen and see it clearly. 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality', T.S. Eliot wrote.
However we understand the unfolding of the miracle in today's gospel, this much is clear: there is a stage between total blindness and seeing perfectly clearly. Perhaps, as at dawn or dusk, there is a spectrum along which we can place different kinds of seeing, different kinds of clarity.
The first reading, from the Letter of St James, also speaks about seeing. 'Look steadily at the perfect law of freedom', he says, and make that contemplation the basis of your actions in the world. Using a different vocabulary to what we find in Mark, James also speaks about other kinds of vision - imaginary and deceptive illusions, for example. His call is simple and clear: the word is planted in you, contemplate it with a steady and sustained gaze, and then act in accordance with that word which is the law of freedom and the word of truth.
The gospel reading also speaks of different kinds of seeing using a number of variations of the simple Greek term 'to see'. Emerging from his blindness the man has hazy and uncertain sight, but then comes to looking steadily, beginning to see, and eventually seeing clearly.
The concern in both readings is for a vision that is reliable and enduring not just occasional and sporadic. Our contemplation should become habitual, establishing in us a persevering sense of the truth we have seen and of what it asks of us. Do not listen and then ignore what you have heard, says James, do not look and then forget what you have seen. Do not stop at the point where you are seeing something of reality but in a hazy, ill-defined way. Do not let your religion remain at the level of imagination and deception but bring it strongly and straightforwardly from hearing and seeing the word to practising and implementing it.
Pope Paul VI described contemplatives as 'the clear eyes of the Church'. They are people called to give all their attention to the Lord, listening to his word and coming to see its truth and meaning. There are what we might call 'professional' contemplatives in the Church, men and women whose way of life is set up in such a way that it can support them in this kind of mindfulness. But we are all called in different ways to be hearers and seers, practitioners and doers of the word, seeing the needs of those around us, seeing the ways in which the world will only confuse our vision and impede our listening. What does it take to move us from seeing people as 'trees walking about' and instead to see them as widows and orphans and others who need our help?