Preacher: Kevin Mesher
For months I waited to take communion. But really I had waited a lifetime.
My catechumenate completed, my hair still damp from the baptism, I approached the rail and knelt as I had usually done. However this time, rather than crossing my arms for a blessing, I held out my palms to receive the host.
Blindness. Sight. Restored sight. Conversion.
Meditating on Mark’s gospel passage in preparation for this sermon, I started connecting words in ways that not only describe a very real condition of the eyes, but also in ways to connote things psychological, allegorical, and spiritual.
The scales fell from his eyes. “Was blind but now can see.”
What is conversion? Well, we know one of the most common types of conversion is the process by which a person goes from one religion to another. And although this may be the dedicated result of restored vision, I mean something more common to those already established in their faith.
Convert. “Con + vertere,” from the Latin, to “altogether-turn.” Meaning to fundamentally change form, character, or function. To be fashioned for a new purpose. To be transformed or altered, like the process by which food becomes muscle and sinew. Like wind becomes electricity. Like blindness becomes sight.
Restored vision can happen quickly like it happened in today’s gospel account of Bartimaeus, granted instantaneous sight by our Lord on his way to Jerusalem. Or it can happen slowly, in stages, like the account of the man from Bethsaida in chapter eight. Both serve to illuminate the two kinds of conversion, fast and slow that we are met with in perpetuity as we travel the Christian Way.
No one could have been more surprised than me that in 2005 I converted to Christianity. Even I was generally unaware of how it happened until the exact moment that it did—swift, total and, so far, enduring. It’s quite a tale. However, to really give you a thorough account of this journey would mean to tell you my en-tire life story in real time, which would be a little like trying to use a map that has been drawn to scale. We simply don’t have the time or space. I think you’d agree that this could be said for all of our faith journeys. For it is Spirit that sketches out the details of a life, and sometimes it spills over the edges, finding secret eddies and deep hollows that simply cannot be drawn to the befuddlement of cartographers. And as we know, the map isn’t even the territory anyways.
So, let me begin with this. I have always been a seeker. As early as I can remember I have scoured libraries, tried various forms of worship, schooling, meditation, chanting—all in hopes of trying to find an adequate means by which to touch the mystical vein of gold at the heart of things.
I was raised Jewish, was devout enough to have a bar Mitzvah at thirteen, and then, poof, became more of a culinary Jew, showing up for High Holidays to grab a quick plate of all that amazing food.
So, I continued to dabble in the shallow end of the pool. As a result, I was unable to affect the kind of surrender necessary for deep, spiritual transformation. I continued to follow my own fancy—to kind of make it up as I went along—but to quote Saint Benedict, it is very difficult to “root where you are planted” if you’re not planted or when you pray beneath moving goalposts. “To whom it may concern” becomes an increasingly hollow way to begin a prayer. But I couldn’t drop it totally because I needed something I couldn’t quite name. I sought some kind of unearned bestowal of mystical consciousness, yet I hadn’t done any of the work to gain it. And I certainly wasn’t willing to let go enough to let God do His.
Which brings us to our reading.
Mark’s Gospel, while the favorite of the four by many, is the least favorite of others—and probably for the same reasons. It is often characterized as being simple. There is no poetic birth account. No dazzling high-concept prose. It portrays a decidedly more human messiah and has a confusing double ending. It moves too quickly, and Jesus is not adverse to leave his disciples—and us readers—in the dark. But despite all of this, its writer employs a sophisticated literary device in order to amplify the text’s meaning. Mark likes to frame his teachings so as to more deeply drive home the point he is trying to make. Given there are two ac-counts of restoring sight, it seems to indicate that these two passages are connect-ed, that they are designed to speak to each other in some way.
To my mind they perfectly illuminate the two kinds of conversion one can experience—fast and slow—instantaneous and volitional that we encounter on our Christian path.
Instant conversion seems to be dependent on many factors coming together in an ecstatic flash. It occurs because everything is just so. Poised. Prepared. To para-phrase the first two sentences in Mark 10, “They came to Jericho.” Period. “And as they were leaving Jericho…” Not a long time in Jericho! This procession is obviously not stopping. But Bartimaeus, blind, sitting on the roadside, appears to have enough insight to know that it is Jesus who passes by. The time is ripe and he calls out. When given sanction, he leaps right out of his cloak, surrendering all he owns to follow Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Can you feel how intimate this moment is? By Bartimaeus’ own request, his sight is restored instantly. Hear in the words how dynamic this moment is. He waits, he hears, he shouts out, he names, he leaps, he abandons, he sees and then he follows Jesus on the way.
In the account in Chapter 8, however, the blind man of Bethsaida is brought by his community. Willingly? We don’t know. Perhaps with some reluctance. Perhaps he is shy, or feels he is somehow undeserving.
His friends beg Jesus to restore his sight. And then begins the steady work of volitional conversion.
Jesus removes the man from the village—interesting—and then takes it upon him-self to wipe the blindness from his eyes in stages. He uses his own spittle, wiping away the grime, slowly refining. “Can you see anything?” he asks. “Yes,” the man replies. “People, but they look like trees walking.”
Which means he knows of what he sees, but cannot apprehend it totally. Perhaps this is the beginning of insight.
Jesus begins again—it takes what it takes. He restores the man’s sight fully and then sends him home. Maybe to continue this work on himself.
So, Fast forward: I lead a life, I tatter through my late teens and twenties mostly inebriated; a slopping wet skid through an 80 proof desert. I turn my attention away from life and I look for the Spirit in spirits. It cannot be found there, by the way.
Though I am unaware of the significance, I begin to catch fleeting glimpses of Christ, but he passes by unrecognizable, because my eyes are occluded by rocks glasses.
Ironically, these years are incredibly creative but dangerously enervating. I am self-destructing from the inside out, losing sunlight but searching, searching, at times trawling the depths, like a grapnel scratching for purchase.
And then in 2001, August 2, I got sober through the AA program and I have been so ever since. I think of it as the beginning steps of my own slow conversion.
To me it’s no coincidence that Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous confirms two kinds of spiritual experiences necessary for true sobriety. They can manifest as either an immediate, overarching sense of God consciousness, or more typically, those of a more “educational variety,” because they develop slowly over a period of time.
But why do I tell you all of this? Why expose myself to you in this way? Because as the passages of restored sight remind us, our slow and fast conversions depends upon a community that knows us and to whom we can turn when we lose sight of the Kingdom.
We receive our sight back only because we’ve been blind. Furthermore, without this darkness, this blindness, there would simply be nothing to convert.
Fast conversion. Slow conversion. Like tides. Like seasons. Interdependent. Necessary to each other. Slow conversion is fashioned out of the raw materials of our daily faith, bringing the features of Jesus into sharper and sharper focus. Fast conversion lifts us up, grants us perspective, insight, a confirmation of the deep rightness of things. From this vantage point we can encourage others, to lift them up as we are able. But we cannot stay on these heights forever. This unity abates like a tide and finally settles itself once more into the daily toil of our faith practice.
It was then my turn to kneel at the rail and as Father Stewart ever so gently placed the host on my tongue, the whole convoluted and circuitous path of my spiritual search resolved itself instantaneously. The accordion of time and of memory whistled out its excess and I was able to see that every event that brought me to this point in time was all part of the ecstatic racket of the procession of Jesus. My whole life flopped and slapped and bashed and splashed its way into that suspended eternity. Internally, it was a leaping forward into a kind of gnosis that binds the tongue, where thinking fails because it has been abandoned to Christ. I was no longer blind. “I stood at the still point of the turning world” to quote our good friend Eliot. And it was that still point from which my present life now springs.
And then, as that experience crested and broke, I returned home. I prepared myself once again to set about the slow labor of our Christian Way, yet ever keeping an ear out for the joyful noise of an approaching procession.