November 17, 2013
The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
Reading from Swedenborg
Where there isn’t kindness and charity, then prejudice exists instead. Prejudiced people see evil and wrong in others, and if they see any good in them they tend to put some bad interpretation on it. People who are in charity are not like this at all, and in fact, the presence or the absence of kindness or charity distinguishes everyone, especially in the next life. Those who are in charity hardly notice the evil in someone else; instead, they notice the good and true things that are in them, and if they see something wrong, then they try to put a good interpretation on it.
(Arcana Coelestia 1079)
Window cleaning must rank as one of the most worthwhile tasks we do! You can really see the difference: the sparkle, the shine, the brilliance, and of course the satisfaction. We knew a window cleaner once who used to do a set of high-street shop windows inside and outside, and when he’d finished at the far end, back he went and started all over again—and when you looked at him you could actually see the same sparkle in his bright eyes from all that window cleaning.
We sometimes say that “the eye is the window of the soul.” This means that our eyes sometimes show the inside part of us fairly well—eyes are open, expressive, bright; they can show a lot of love. They can also show someone’s pain and suffering and yet still be beautiful, and eyes can show fear, anger, hatred and envy.
The concept of the eye as the window of the soul isn’t from the Bible—I think it’s an Arabic proverb—but the idea of it is very biblical. Jesus used eyes and looking to get across to us the way in which we look out at people and situations. The eye is the lamp of the body, so if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.
Of course, this statement doesn’t have much to do with our physical eyes—it’s a metaphor, a correspondence, in the same way as we say “I see what you mean”—but it brings home to us the way we judge, interpret, and view who and what we’re involved with.
And then the question arises: Do we tend to look for and see the good that people try to do and be, or are we more likely to see their faults and their not-so-good side? If we’re honest, we’d probably say it’s a bit of both, but then there’s another question: Do we try and get over seeing their faults and noticing their bad side, or do we generally just keep it there? That’s when the way we see others can become dangerous. Of course we shouldn’t gloss over wrong or make out that everything is “just fine,” but we should try and move on from assessing others’ ragged spots. Jesus went on to say, “If the light in you is darkness, then how great that darkness is!” You see, if we hang on to the negative things we see (or think we see) in others, and if we keep reminding ourselves about peoples’ possible faults, we become the losers—it’s affecting us. It’s important to take good care of your own spiritual state.
I came across a new word yesterday when I was reading the newspaper. The article was about two MPs who lost their seats in the recent election—one Labour and one Liberal—and how each of them might be very glad the other isn’t around in Parliament any more. And then it said, “This is real schadenfreude,” and I thought, “What’s that?,” so I looked it up.
“Schadenfreude” is German, and it means feeling glad that someone else is being knocked down or is failing. (In English, the rough equivalent is called “gloating.”) The writer noted that some people turn schadenfreude around to be “freudenschade”: sorrow at someone else’s success. That’s just as bad. That’s jealousy!
The article also described the Buddhist concept of mudita, which is “feeling happiness in someone else’s good fortune and success.” It completed this quartet of relationship terms with the idea of feeling unhappiness at someone else’s misfortune—which we could describe as “sympathy,” “pity,” or “compassion.” Both of these last two terms are virtuous and good responses, but schadenfreude (gloating) and freudenschade (jealousy) are corrupted views; in Jesus’ imagery, they’re eye-darkness, not eye-light.
Let’s come back to windows for a moment. Windows look their best, of course, when they are completely clean, clear of any dirt or smear. Linking this idea with our own views of people and situations leads me to think that the word “clean” is the key word—not what we’d call squeaky-clean (for who can claim that?), but just clean and clear of something. That idea’s very much like the true idea of innocence, which literally means being free of any wish to cause harm to someone else. To be free of the desire for harm is to have innocence.
In our scripture reading and in a few things I’ve been saying, the word “interpretation” has come up a lot, in reference to putting a bad interpretation on someone’s actions or words, or putting a good interpretation on them. That’s what this eye business is all about. We shouldn’t start interpreting when it comes to others—we really, really shouldn’t. Who are we to do that? The eyes may truly be the window of the soul, and we may see peace or pain in them, but we cannot look into someone else’s being and make accurate judgments and assessments about their reasons and motives. That is ultimately between them and God. I must leave it there, leave well alone between them and God, and concentrate instead on putting my own house in better order.
I want to highlight one of our church’s key teachings: that the Lord alone knows our state. The Lord alone knows what causes us to be the way we are, understands our intentions and motives and what our overall state is. Even we ourselves don’t know our own spiritual state—only God knows it.
I find that idea incredibly reassuring. We don’t need to go all psychological with ourselves and dig deeper and deeper. We leave it alone, and hand it over. In life, we will almost certainly come up with things about ourselves that we like or that seem right, and others that we don’t like or that seem wrong. Then we wonder, “What am I really like, really?” That’s not good—that’s an awful lot of self-preoccupation! Show me the person who isn’t a mixture of good and bad!
So understanding that the Lord alone knows our state becomes a deterrent for us, keeping us from heading into a dangerous game. Of course, that teaching doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change things about ourselves. I think it’s pointing out that a clear line exists between what we can know about ourselves and what we just can’t, and we are to concentrate on things like being useful, showing respect, watching our comments, and so on, and leave what we cannot know for sure with the Lord, who alone knows such things.
Early on in my ministry, I had a talk with a visitor to our church, a woman who was the mother of an exceptionally good-looking family. She looked like a model, she worked for Fabergé, she appeared to have it all. During this talk, she said at one point that she was unsure whether her husband was her real soulmate. I stopped her right there and said, “Only God knows that. But if you decide to believe that the two of you are intended soulmates, you are doing what you need to do, and you can then get on with that confidently.”
Let’s stay a bit more with the idea that God alone knows. That does not mean that while you think you’d prefer to be in heaven, God’s going to put you in hell! No! It doesn’t mean, either, that while you are married to someone, God is going to prise the two of you apart with a crowbar and say, “You, go over there with him, and you, over there with her.” No! What is God after? He’s after genuineness, genuine love and sincerity and personal commitment. If we give God that, he can work with it infinitely well, with infinite full knowledge, and set it in place.
So, you see, all this and so much more happens when we take great care about our viewpoints, our labels, our “interpretations,” and the eye through which we look out at the world. Our eyes are amazing things—it seems that they’re like torches as we look at far-off mountains or at the litter someone just dropped. That’s how they seem, but it’s incorrect. Everything, sightwise, comes into our eyes, rather than going out from them; we are taking in everything and making sense of it inside our minds and brains.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great that darkness then is!” Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth