Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Last Sunday after Trinity 2021

The story of blind Bartimaeus is moving one.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner

Sunday, 24th October 2021 at 11.15 AM

The screen which faces the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor behind the Abbey’s high altar has a frieze along the top depicting some of the saint’s most famous miracles. In the late middle ages, St Edward was especially famed for restoring the gift of sight, and the sculptures on the screen introduce us to some particularly memorable moments. One of the stories relates to how a group of blind men received their sight after washing in the King’s water. The earliest Lives of the saint report this as an actual event, but there’s also a beautiful, resonance here with the water of baptism—the sight of the blind more than just a metaphor for the sight of faith, physical healing itself a life-changing gift, but one which wakes our senses up to the need for the recalibration of the hope-laden perception and deep conviction which we call faith. By the time the great St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote his quasi-official account of Edward’s life, today’s Gospel was one of the readings appointed for St Edward’s feast.

The story of blind Bartimaeus is moving one. The blind beggar is insistent in his overwhelming desire to see Jesus, as he ‘springs towards’ him, in that wonderful image the Gospel writer deploys to portray something of the urgency of this scene. The faith which makes Bartimaeus well, compels him to become a disciple. It’s not just that his physical sight is restored—the implicit faith which his cry ‘Jesus, have mercy on me’ articulates is one which changes his whole manner of living. Bartimaeus follows. But interestingly—and importantly—he believes before he sees. The blind man recognises Jesus as ‘Son of David’, a messianic description not randomly assigned to most passing rabbis. Before he sees, he believes; it is this faith which has been bubbling up within Bartimaeus which compels him to ask Jesus for physical healing; and once he sees, he follows, presumably in the company of the disciples and the great crowd.

There is no reason to think that this is not a straightforward report of a physical, historical event. But from the life of the earliest church to our own day, these stories of Jesus’s ministry have also been taken to represent deeper layers of spiritual truth as well as the reporting of an actual event. The dynamic of the Gospel is very rarely an either/or question—early Christian history rarely poses the question that either this is true, or it’s symbolic. More usually, there is a deeper kind of truth at work. The language of the symbolic is one register of Christian truth—events pointing to other events, actions resonating with other actions. And the whole of the Gospel—every verse, every vowel—pointing to Jesus Christ, and to the most fundamental events of all time, namely his death and resurrection. For the Church, Christ’s death and resurrection is the lens through which we both receive the Gospel, and through which we are challenged to see life itself.

How we see, and what we see, is of course a contemporary question not limited to the explicitly Christian or even religious domain. In our world, what we think of as ‘seeing’ is so frequently little more than a collection of swiftly accrued glances. How often do we really ‘see’ each other? How often do we take in, notice, the sheer diversity of the world and the endless creativity of God? When we really ‘see’ someone, or something, it becomes much harder not to treat it with a little more reverence and respect. This last week, as so many of our neighbours have been mourning the loss of Sir David Amess, an MP stabbed whilst serving his constituents, has seen a renewal of public pleas to see each other more truly. An appeal for courtesy in public life is in part about social cohesion, and about calming the rather febrile cultural waters we have entered in the last few years. But it’s not just a plea for good manners—as if politeness will save the world—it’s rather a reflection on the nature of the human person. One of the fathers of the Church wrote that whenever we encounter another human being, an angel strides before them holding a banner emblazoned with the words, “Behold the image and likeness of God!” That’s what we really see, when we encounter another person. As the COP-26 summit begins this week, we are challenged to see creation itself more deeply; to notice the interconnectedness of nature and the fragile yet awesome glory of the earth, the air and the seas. We are called to see and comprehend, not to glance and shrug.

But what about the sight of faith? Bartimaeus’ cry, ‘Jesus, have mercy on me’ is a prayer which has quite a history in the subsequent 2000 years of Christian existence. The book known in English as The Way of the Pilgrim is a late-19th century collection of Russian tales, redacted and edited by one of the great spiritual teachers of that Church at that time, a monk known as Theophan the Recluse. The book focuses on the spiritual and physical pilgrimage of a character who is earnest, charming, and engaging. The first tale opens with this pilgrim in Church hearing the verse ‘pray without ceasing’, from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. This becomes his search—discussing the question with almost everyone he meets. The pilgrim is introduced by a starets, or holy man, to the collection of writings known in the eastern Christian world as the philokalia, which contains detailed teaching on contemplative, continuous prayer. His spiritual teacher says to the pilgrim, “The unceasing inner prayer of Jesus is an uninterrupted, never-ending calling on the divine name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind and heart, in the awareness of his constant presence, while asking for his blessing on all your undertakings, in all places, at all times, even while asleep. The words of the prayer are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ Anyone who makes a habit of this appeal will experience great consolation and a need to repeat it always to the point when he cannot live without it, and the prayer will, of its own accord, flow in him.”

The pilgrim is filled with an overwhelming desire to learn this inner, unceasing prayer, and inevitably he discovers all the distractions, drowzinesses and laziness which anyone who has ever tried a period of even vaguely lengthy contemplative prayer knows so well! But after some time, and guidance from his spiritual father, he discovers a deep and profound peace, such that even in his sleep he often dreamt that he was reciting the Jesus Prayer. Everything began to look different. His shack of hut appeared to the pilgrim as a magnificent mansion. The prayer became an antidote to the bite of the cold, to the pangs of hunger, and to the stirrings of anger. Now that the pilgrim has begun to see, he becomes a disciple—this ‘sight’ has social implications, too.

The Jesus Prayer, as this short text has become known, is now loved across a great variety of the Christian spectrum. Its vitality is in its simplicity. A simplicity not unlike the straightforward request of a blind beggar, “Lord, I want to see again.” Let us pray in this Eucharist that the Lord would refresh the sight of our faith, and that the message of the Gospel itself might inspire within us a new resolve to see one another, and the sacred beauty of creation, more clearly.