When I attended the Collegeville Institute for a conference this summer, I had the opportunity to hear Mara Faulkner speak about her book, Going Blind. She is a professor of English at Saint Benedict College and a member of the Benedictine community. She has written a memoir, which documents her childhood and adolescent experiences of her father’s steadily advancing blindness. But the great strength of the work is Faulkner’s skill with language.
Truthfully, I had not considered the plethora of negative images in our culture regarding blindness. We speak of a “blind spot” and “putting on blinders” as insults. Blindness can mean an inability or an unwillingness to understand; it can denote a lack of awareness or intelligence. Imagine, challenges Faulkner, what these words mean to those who are physically blind. It is as if we find them mentally inferior, as well as physically.
Because she is a nun, Faulkner is especially sensitive to the imagery and use of words in church. In the Christian parlance, “blind faith” generally refers to a sincere, yet unsophisticated belief system. There is a connotation of narrow-mindedness and irrationality. Blind faith can even be understood as fool-hearty or downright ignorant. Furthermore, the Bible consistently glorifies light while demonizing darkness. How horrible this must feel to someone who is blind! As a girl, Faulkner heard the stories of Jesus restoring the sight of the blind and prayed for God to do the same for her father. When the miracle didn’t happen, she, too, felt inferior, as if she lacked enough faith.
Through the story of her dad’s life, Faulkner crafts a kinder and more sensitive understanding towards the blind through the use of new language. She is a poet by training, and recruits the insights of Tillie Olsen, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver and a cast of others to offer new images. Darkness is lovely and it is also complex. There are actually far more shades of black than the seven colors of light refracted by a prism. If we do walk by faith and not by sight, then the blind are actually our spiritual guides.
What I appreciate most about Faulkner’s work is her evolving understanding of miracle. She once prayed for the miracle of her father’s restored sight. Now, she prays for the scientific community to advance cures for genetic diseases that result in blindness. She prays for adequate healthcare coverage for those with these diseases and legislation that will empower, not stigmatize. She prays for communities of support for those who are suffering. And so, Faulkner invites those of us who can see to open our eyes to the needs of those around us. The real miracle would be if we can learn to see others with a little compassion.