20/20 Vision

by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.


“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”

Of our five external senses, our power of sight is the noblest. It is the most immaterial of our five senses, the most spiritual of them, and it has such a high nobility that we even use this power of sight as a metaphor for our ability to know things. Someone might ask us, “Do you understand what I just said?” and we often respond, “Yes, I see that.” Or when we have some moment of intellectual insight, we say, “Oh, I see.” In fact, this analogy of seeing as a way of describing knowing goes so far that we even speak of our union with God in heaven one day, our knowledge of God in eternity, as the beatific vision, when we see God face-to-face.

In the section from the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord invites us to examine our relationship with our brothers in terms of this same lofty power of our seeing. In our community, we might reflect upon how we see our brothers here in the monastery, and what beams there might be in our own eyes that prevent us from coming to know them more completely, from being united with them more perfectly. We profess, according to our holy rule, a union of hearts and minds with these other men whom God has called to serve Him here. That union certainly begins with a knowledge of our brothers that we might describe as “how we see them.”

It’s very easy as we go about our lives together, day after day and year after year, to think that we have a man all figured out. We might have fallen victim to an unkind word or a simple disagreement or misunderstanding, and then, little by little, that grows into a beam in our eye that prevents us from seeing that confrere, really seeing him or knowing him—or loving him—ever again. Our Lord tells us, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

During the Super Oblata prayer, we ask the Lord to receive our sacrifice of praise, and that this sacrifice might cleanse us and give us hearts that are pleasing to Him. Hearts that are cleansed and pleasing to the Lord: We get these kinds of hearts (and the union of these hearts) from our sacrifice of praise. This, my brothers—our sacrifice of praise in the Mass and in the choir office—this is our remedy for our nearsightedness, that beam-in-the-eye sort of blindness that tends to obfuscate our real knowledge and authentic union with our confreres. Our Lord is the one who will clear our vision. All we have to do is come before Him in humility and admit that there’s a beam in our own eye, especially when it comes to that confrere whom we have the greatest difficulty in loving, or the greatest ease in judging harshly. We can take heart in the fact that each of us has come here eager to serve the Lord, and that same Lord is busy at work purifying the hearts and minds of our brothers.

There is a concrete way that we can check ourselves on how we see our brothers. This test comes not from our sense of sight, but rather from our sense of hearing—what we hear in our hearts and our thoughts when we look upon these men around us, what we hear in our private interior dialogue during these days of silence and prayer. That interior place is the perfect place to start noticing splinters and pulling out beams, so that the Lord may use our time together to bless our canonry with a greater union of hearts and minds in the spirit of our holy father St. Augustine. To that end, may this sacrifice of praise that we offer on the altar purify us, clear our vision, open our ears, and make us always eager to serve that same Lord, who is the source of our fraternal charity. Amen.

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The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses.  It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”

Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import.  In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid.  Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.  

But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man.  Man has to leave one place to go to another.  God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one.  The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one.  And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.

The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is.  Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home.  Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.

The reaction of son and father are perfect.  The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his.  He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.

When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love.  We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism.  The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation.  Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel.  “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.”  In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.

This is the happiness of our eternal Father.  His food is our salvation.  His joy is our redemption from sin.  As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.”  This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints.  And it is for us every time we go to confession.

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