Jesus said: "What do you want me to do for you?" and the man replied “Lord that I may see again (Mark 10:51)

My grandmother was full of wisdom, wrapped up in what appeared to be clichés. If you lost something and discovered it was right under your nose, she would say “Trouble with you is you can’t see for looking!” In today’s Gospel, Bartimaeus may have been looking for Jesus but he couldn’t see him because he was blind.

In the days when shop assistants asked “Can I help you?” the usual response was “No thank you, I am just looking !” This meant you were just browsing, not focused on anything in particular. 

There is an ancient tale from another tradition that tells of a disciple who asked the Holy One:

“Where do I look for enlightenment?”

“Here” the Holy One said.

“When will it happen?”

It’s happening now” the Holy One said.

“Then why don’t I experience it?”

“Because you do not see it” the Holy One said.

“What should I look for?”

“Nothing” the Holy One said, “just see”

“See what ?”

“Anything your eyes light upon”

“Must I see in a special kind of way?”

“No,” the Holy One said, “the ordinary way will do”

“But don’t I always see in the ordinary way?”

“No,” the Holy One said “you don’t”

“Why ever not?”

“Because to see you must be here. You are usually somewhere else”.

What is touched on here is the question of paying attention. Today Attention Deficiency Disorder is almost pandemic – not just in children but in all of us. We look at image after image and keep pressing the control button, so that we do no see what we are looking at.

Some years ago on the TV there was a dramatic enactment of a crime before an invited audience. At the end the audience was questioned about what happened. Some people saw things – or claimed to have done – that never happened; others did not see things that had happened.

If Jesus were to ask us the question he asked Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” we might well need to answer “That I may see again.”

The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil wrote in her book “Waiting for God”, “it is indispensable to know how to look at your neighbour. The way of looking is first attention. The soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as they are, in all their truth. Only the person who is capable of attention can do this.”

St John Chrysostom  wrote “attention to little things is a great thing” and Clement of Alexandria wrote “Wonder at the thing before you, laying down the first step towards the knowledge that lies beyond.”

The importance of this attention – not just looking – occurs in three significant areas of life.

The first is prayer. Simone Weil believed that prayer was p u r e  a t t e n t i o n.  It requires that we empty ourselves of all our pre-occupations, so that we may receive into ourselves the presence of God. This means we don’t rush to know what is happening, whether we are praying correctly or not; not describing the experience to ourselves, taking the temperature of our praying. Prayer is simply to receive the experience – whatever that may be like. Silently we wait upon God.

Another similar area is in the presence of another person (just as Simone Weil described it).  Attention means laying aside our surface judgements, our desire to “tick boxes” about the other person.

It requires letting go of the belief that we already know about the person anyway. We need to remember another cliché-like piece of wisdom: “There is more to him than meets the eye.” Attention is simply to receive the other in undefended vulnerability.

The third area where attention is more than just looking is when we are in the presence of art. We are so tempted to make an immediate judgement about it – whether we like it or not, as if our appreciation or not is more important than the art itself. It is quite common to sense that this is often the approach of visitors to an art gallery. Often when seeing a film or a play, a friend will ask “What did you think of it?” I want to say “I don’t know yet. I need to wait and think about it.”

To be in the presence of a work of art is to empty oneself of all ego-centred opinions and prejudices – simply to receive the experience, allow the work of art to contemplate you and wait patiently without trying to “sum it all up” and “take it home.” We have to remain vulnerable, not “knowing”, allowing ourselves to cross the borders of our awareness.

Jesus alludes often to seeing and not seeing. He talks about “blind guides” and the need to remove the log from one’s own eye, in order to attend to the needs of the other person.

Julian of Norwich frequently uses the verb “to behold” instead of “look” or “see”. Beholding expresses paying attention ("Behold the Lamb of God").  It is more than just looking – it is seeing and reflecting on what one is seeing in order to understand.

John O’Donohue recently said that “Each of us is responsible for how we see and how we see determines what we are.”

So, in the end, if Jesus asks us what he can do for us, we might do well to answer, “Lord, that I might see again.”             

            Simon Holden CR