Sunday of the Blind Man, June 9, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!
I am holding in my hand a small pebble of rose-colored marble. This stone has traveled thousands of miles from its native land. It comes from a little island which is only about 3 ½ miles long and a little over a mile wide. The pebble originally rested on the southern beach of the island, which is a little bay covered with pebbles just like this one. The island is one of a long series of islands which run the coast of a much larger island. What makes it unique geographically, however, is that it is the first place traveling north along the coast of Scotland where you can no longer see Ireland.
On the tiny island of Iona is where a holy abbot named Columba landed in the year 563. He was traveling with a small band of monks from Ireland, and he had been sent there in exile, commanded never again to set foot on his beloved native land. Part of his instructions were that he had to sail north from Ireland and could not settle until he could no longer see the island. When Columba and his monks landed on the desolate southern beach of Iona, they scrambled to the top of some high rocks there and strained to see the beautiful green of Ireland. But it was nowhere in sight, and so they knew that their journey was over. But that was not the beginning of that story.
The story of Columba’s exile began three years earlier, in the year 560. In that year, he was visiting St. Finnian of Moville at his monastery in Ireland. Finnian, also an abbot, showed Columba a manuscript of the book of Psalms that had been carried to Ireland from the East. Seeing the beauty of its calligraphy and illumination and the precision with which it had been hand-copied, Columba asked to borrow the psalter so that he could study it closely. He was given permission to study it but not to remove it from the monastery which was its home. So Columba brought it into the monastery chapel many nights, often staying up quite late into the morning. Little did Finnian know, however, that Columba wasn’t merely studying the psalter, but was making a copy.
Finnian only discovered later that a copy had been made and became angry. In those days, as in our own, copying books was only something that could be done by permission, and so Finnian demanded that the copy be given to him. Columba refused, and so the case was brought to the high king of Ireland, who ordered Columba to hand over the copy. He again refused and brought the matter to his own father, who was one of the lesser kings of Ireland, the leader of the Clan O’Neill. His father supported him, and a war began between the Irish clans, leading to a battle in the year 561 which cost the lives of thousands.
At seeing the death he had caused, Columba’s heart was torn in two, and he went to his confessor to repent of his sins and ask what he could do in order to atone for them. His confessor told him that he had to go into exile from his beloved native country, traveling up the coast of Scotland and not stopping until he could no longer see Ireland. He was also commanded to convert to Christ at least as many souls as had perished at the battle which he had caused.
Columba obeyed his spiritual father and left for Scotland. When he landed on Iona, he founded a monastery which lasted there for centuries and became a missionary center, leading to the Christianization of the whole of Scotland, largely due to Columba’s travels throughout that country, converting many thousands of Scots. Columba was particularly known for his great courage, as he faced down pagan rulers who were eager to put him to death because the Christ he preached was a threat to their power base in paganism. Despite the danger and because of Columba’s bravery and his repentance, Scotland became a Christian country, producing many saints.
On this Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Pascha, we listen to the Gospel reading in which the Lord Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath day, and not just any blind man, but one who was born blind. His eyes hadn’t been damaged by some accident or injury. They had never worked at all.
When Jesus meets this blind man, He tells His disciples that He is Himself “the light of the world,” and that that is His purpose for being in the world. He then works a miracle for this man born blind, spitting on the ground and then anointing the man’s eyes with the clay that resulted. He then sent the blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, and then his eyes were opened. He met the Light of the World Who brought light into his world.
In this account, the true blindness is not exhibited by the man born blind, but by those around him who were more concerned with whether Jesus was following their particular interpretation of the rules of the Sabbath. You see, they were spiritually blind even if they weren’t physically blind. And while physical blindness can be fairly easily cured by a brief act from Jesus, those who close their spiritual eyes will not see the Light of the World even if He is standing in front of them.
The story of St. Columba also demonstrates for us a kind of spiritual blindness. There was of course nothing wrong with Columba’s love for the Scriptures, nor is there anything inherently wrong with making copies of them. These are both wonderful, praiseworthy things.
But Columba demonstrated his blindness not by these things but by his insistence that things had to be done his own way. He was not content merely to read the Psalter that belonged to St. Finnian but had to have a copy for himself. He became blinded by his desire. It’s worth noting here that what we desire might be a good and beautiful thing, but if we seek it in the wrong way, then we are doing so in spiritual blindness. We do not see the harm we are causing.
Many of us may seek things that are good but go about it in a spiritually blinded way. Does your profession and desire to provide for your family deprive them of your care and love by your presence? Does your ambition to achieve something good blind you to your need for spending time in prayer both privately and corporately? Does your desire for spiritual knowledge blind you to the needs of those right next to you? Does your desire for relaxation and taking some time off blind you to the urgent needs of those whom God has given you?
There are many things we may desire, things which in themselves may be laudable, but if we do not keep them in balance and do not look at the bigger picture, we may be stumbling about spiritually blind. Columba did. His blindness led him eventually to provoke a war, and thousands of his countrymen died. Was it worth it? Was it worth it for him to keep that book? Is it worth it when we achieve our hearts’ desires yet neglect those whom we should love? Is it worth it when we attain what we seek yet lose sight of the care of our souls? What does it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26, Mark 8:36)?
There is hope, however, and Columba finally saw it when he went to his confessor and repented. He had to pay a price for his blindness, and that was exile from his homeland. We who are such a mobile society may not understand this as well, but the loss of his home affected Columba deeply. He could not go back. But even while he suffered this loss, the cure of Columba’s blindness enabled not only him to see the Light of the World, but became the impetus for many thousands upon thousands more to see the Light.
Columba is remembered by the Orthodox Church among its saints, and his feast day is today, June 9th. His great repentance led to a harvest of many souls for the Church of Christ, and the places where he traveled and preached can still be visited today, marked with churches and other artifacts. And even on Iona itself, that little island, though Columba’s monastic community has been gone for many centuries, there still lingers the presence of holiness, the sense that God Himself is huddled down next to the island. I have been there, and I have seen it, and my own heart still aches with longing when I think of that place.
Columba had succumbed to blindness, but God turned his blindness to sight and through him brought sight to many who were spiritually blind, and while he lost Ireland, he became the Enlightener of Scotland, bringing to those people the good news of Jesus Christ and baptizing them into His death and resurrection, giving them the true spiritual light. May he also enlighten us.
To the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Light of the World, be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!