Some events in our lives are so profound that their impact is as if we were seeing again for the first time. It is as if we were wearing a new pair of glasses that let us see as never before. Some of these experiences are even life changing.
Bryan Taphouse, a priest who writes devotionals for an English newspaper, tells the story of the famous Russian author, Dostoevsky, who was arrested by the Czar and charged with participation in an underground socialist study circle. After some period in prison Dostoevsky was condemned to death. The Czar played a cruel psychological trick by having him blindfolded and led out in front of a firing squad. “He heard the gunshots but felt nothing and slowly realized that the rifles must have been loaded with blanks. The emotional trauma had a transforming effect on him. He spoke of waking up on the morning of his execution sure that this was the last day of his life. As he ate his last meal he savored every bite. Every breath he took was precious. He studied all around him with a new intensity. As he was marched into the courtyard he felt the warmth of the sun like never before. Everything took on a new depth of meaning.
After his captors removed his blindfold everything had changed. He was suddenly thankful for everything. He loved people he had previously hated. He later claimed that this experience made him perceive dimensions of life previously unknown to him and made him the novelist he became.” Psychologically it was a shattering experience that left a permanent mark on his soul. His sentence was reduced to four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. “He passed the time among common criminals, an experience that proved invaluable to his later work as a writer. But this period was also the forge of his spiritual convictions. His only book in prison was a copy of the New Testament. From long contemplation on this text he imbibed such themes as the common human consolidarity in the sin of the world, the redemptive meaning of suffering, and the power of Christ’s love.” (Robert Ellsberg)
We probably haven’t had such life changing experiences, but I have known people who have made dramatic changes in their lives born out of trauma. They may have hit bottom in their lives from an addiction, and their choices were to die or change their life style. Choosing to live, the resurrected person saw his or her life with new eyes. It was as if the guns fired were only blanks, and they were given a second chance to live.
In Biblical days John the Baptist and others preached to help people make this kind of change in their lives “by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” No doubt Jesus’ followers experienced radical change in their own lives, especially St. Paul who was blinded by the Spirit for his persecution of Jesus, and then received new sight as a champion of the Good News.
Seeing life in a new way is available for all of us, and it doesn’t have to be born out of trauma. Even little things can make a difference. Is the cashier in the grocery store only of value by virtue of what she does, or is she a person with feelings, a family to consider, and one who deserves our respect? Is a person’s worth based on what they can do for us?
Perhaps you remain generous in all your relationships, but sometimes our eyes are opened when we discover that the person valued only for their work might also be a relative of a friend. With new insight we begin to see that person in a new light.
During the Advent Season it is good not to limit our eyesight to religious piety but to be grateful for everyday opportunities that can free us from prejudice and allow us to love even the stranger. We’re all brothers and sisters of equal worth to God. If only we could see as God sees us.