My dad enjoys sharing one-liners, familiar jokes and puns that he heard from his parents and grandparents as a child. Many came from his beloved maternal grandfather, who liked to say at the moment he understood something, “‘I see,’ said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.”
I’m fairly sure my dear great-grandfather did not invent this witticism because I’ve seen it many times in many other places, but he was on to something with his play on the word “see.” We know that it refers to the physical act of vision, a function of the eye, but it also has a deeper meaning of understanding, perceiving with the mind, even the heart.
This idea came to mind recently when a friend and I were discussing a haunting line from the movie Silence of the Lambs. As Hannibal Lecter is helping investigators pinpoint the location of a serial killer he talks about the madman coveting the skin of the young woman who becomes his victim. He instructs the FBI agent, “We begin by coveting what we see every day,” which leads her to realize the victim lived across the street from her abductor.
Seeing has this dark side that leads to coveting, wanting to posses what is not ours. But this doesn’t mean we have to stop seeing. In fact, seeing is fundamental.
Seeing needs to be balanced, tempered with a sense of letting go; seeing without the need to possess. To expand on Hannibal Lecter, seeing may provide the occasion to covet but it doesn’t cause the coveting – that comes from a deeper selfishness, grasping, not accepting things as they are. Coveting happens when we fail to value people and things in themselves and see them only as a means to our own personal happiness or attempt to achieve happiness.
In Psalm 131 the psalmist sings, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, / my eyes are not raised too high….” Another translation has it, “my eyes are not fixed on things beyond me.”
This may sound like an ode to underachieving but I think it’s really about seeing things properly and understanding correctly my relationship to that which I see. Seeing can be an act of joy, of pleasure, of insight and appreciation.
“Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing,” writes Robert Barron in the prelude to his book And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation. Later he continues, “Origen remarked that holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ. Teilhard de Chardin said, with great passion, that his mission as a Christian thinker was to help people see. And Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a ‘beatific vision,’ an act of seeing. This book is about coming to vision through Christ.”
A carpenter by calling, my great-grandfather picked up many hammers and saws in his life. And judging by my father’s descriptions of him as an exceptionally good-natured man, I’d say he had at least a glimpse of that beatific vision Aquinas describes.