“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” – 2 Corinthians 5:7.
The words of Christ in the ninth chapter of John are rather strange and even startling. “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (See John 9:39).
In this work, I hope to provide an interpretation, if not an explanation, for how we are to understand this statement of Jesus. In order to do so, I will expound on what Catholicism means by faith. I will also suggest that our senses can actually be a hindrance to faith and why it is necessary to “blind” ourselves.
What is Faith?
Faith is trust in that which we have good reason to believe is true. It is telling that the Bible defines faith as “The realization of what is hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (see Hebrews 11:1). It is telling because faith enters the intellect not through the senses but due to God’s Grace. As such, faith is not natural, but rather, faith is a response of the soul to Grace.
With regard to the nature of faith, there are two points to consider. First, as faith is a product of Grace, it is suprarational. This becomes evident when we understand that faith only occurs as a result of God’s Grace, which then moves the intellect to comprehend supernatural mysteries. This also indicates that faith is not the abdication of reason but rather an assent at the far side of reason.
The second point to consider is that faith is a virtue, and virtues are forms of knowledge (see Plato’s Republic). Yet as Aristotle notes, it is not sufficient to know what is right; one must do what is right. Therefore, faith is a virtue in that it is intended to be lived out.
For the purposes of this work, it should suffice to say that faith (under the umbrella of virtue) is one form of knowledge. The other form, the one more familiar to us, is drawn from the senses.
The Problem of the Senses
The process whereby human beings generally gather information is called the senses. The five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, provide the brain with the data necessary for us to perceive the world around us correctly.
Of importance to the issue at hand is a power of the intellect to engage in simple apprehension. This refers to the intellect holding a concept of an object. For example, one may perceive an apple. The mind abstracts the essence or the nature of the apple from the physical apple; an apple is a fruit, round, either red or green, and so on. One need not experience every apple to understand its nature.
While the senses and the capacity for simple apprehension are remarkable, they are often a hindrance in the advancement of the spiritual life. The reason for this is the fact that the finite human intellect cannot grasp the infinite and eternal essence of God. This is why Saint Augustine writes that if you understand, it is not God.
This is not to suggest that our senses are of no value in the spiritual life. One reads or hears the words of Scripture or tastes the Host at Mass, and these have great benefit to our souls. Yet, ultimately our senses are incapable of aiding us in obtaining union with God and can even be detrimental in drawing near to God.
The cause of this hindrance lies in the fact that the senses often perturb the mind by creating desires for worldly things. Since desiring worldly goods draws us away from desiring God, the senses effectively act as a barrier to union with God. For this reason, Saint John of the Cross recommends a “darkening of the senses.”
Darkening the Senses
Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila often used the motif of a dark night to describe this concept. Light is an analogy of human reason and will. Therefore, a darkening of the senses is a privation of these facilities so as to allow one to rely on God.
The dark night of the senses is the process whereby one denies or mortifies one’s disordered desires. By doing so, one begins to imitate Jesus Himself, who sought only to do the will of the Father.
As indicated above, the soul can be illumined in one of two ways; through the senses and through faith. Yet these two ways exist contrary to each other. If one lives according to the senses, he will be driven by worldly desires, whereas if one lives according to the supernatural virtue of faith, one will draw near to God.
Perhaps now we are in a better position to understand Jesus’ words, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” Those who “see” now are those who live by the senses. Jesus seeks to “blind” these people while Jesus seeks to give sight (that is, to see God) to those who live by faith.
How then are we to “blind” ourselves to the senses so as to walk by faith alone?
As I indicated above, the way of the world is in opposition to the way of the spirit. And since human beings cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), those who seek union with God must eschew worldly goods if they are to walk in the spirit (Galatians 5:16). For this reason, Saint Paul writes, “If you live after the flesh, you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.” (Romans 8:13). This is done predominantly through the practice of mortification.
Mortification means “putting the flesh to death.” One puts the flesh to death by controlling and properly ordering one’s desires. This is done through frequent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The importance of dying to oneself (that is, dying to one’s desires) cannot be understated. As Jesus tells us, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Our goal as Catholics is union with God. For this union to occur, we must die to ourselves, die to our worldly desires. This can only be done by “blinding” ourselves. Only when we are blind to our worldly selves can we hope to see God.