Jesus’ healing of the blind must rank amongst the more perplexing stories in the Bible. Jesus spits on the ground and makes a mud-saliva mix to rub on a man’s eyes then tells him to go wash in a pool (John 9:6–7). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus gives the blind man at Bethsaida the same mud-spit combination, and when he asks him if he can see, the man reports that he sees people who look like walking trees. Jesus repeats the process, this time with full healing: “His eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:22–25).
The language of healing and vision are also the language of teaching. We want students to experience such moments of enlightenment, of perception—to see things anew, to gain fresh insight. We also know that these experiences cannot be forced. We cannot make anyone see anything. The labor of teaching is largely an exercise in setting the stage for such moments of vision to occur.
There is an instructive parallel in the way early Christians educated new converts in the season of Lent leading up to Easter baptism—what is often referred to as catechesis. On the one hand, Christians knew that only the Holy Spirit, manifest at baptism, could open the eyes of the new convert. But on the other hand, Christian teachers could not just sit idly by waiting for the Spirit to strike. That liminal space of catechesis was an active time for preparing spiritual vision.
One of the great proponents of this catechesis was Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340–397). A leading figure in late-antique Italy, he found himself quickly thrust into the heart of ecclesiastical and political debates when he was elevated to the bishop’s seat in the early 370s. In addition to confronting emperors and routing heretics, he was also a humane catechist and spiritual mentor—most famously, to a young North African rhetorician named Augustine, whom Ambrose baptized during Easter of 387. Augustine recounts this pivotal time in his theological masterpiece, the Confessions, where he tells of the way Ambrose helped him see the “spiritual” sense of Scripture. Previously, Augustine had been stuck at the purely literal sense of Scripture, the “letter,” which appeared barbarous and naïve to the aspiring young rhetor.
Ambrose’s kind of instruction is a part of what scholars refer to as the “spiritual senses” tradition.1 Just as we have five bodily senses—taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell—so also do we have “inner” or “spiritual” senses that help us encounter God. Augustine exemplifies this tradition precisely in his famous “Late have I loved you” passage from Book 10 of the Confessions:
You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.2
The basic premise is this: We need spiritual vision to see a spiritual God, spiritual ears to hear the divine Voice, and so on. For Ambrose, catechesis was a time to prepare the spiritual senses to be opened at baptism—to become receptive to the blinding, deafening, delectable, fragrant, enrapturing encounter with God.
Ambrose left behind several catechetical writings, including pre-baptismal Lenten homilies and post-baptismal “mystagogical” sermons (mystagogy means, literally, a “leading into the mysteries”). In the Lenten sermons, Ambrose especially focused on teaching catechumens the moral virtues of the Christian life.3 Drawing on the Book of Proverbs and the stories of Old Testament Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, Ambrose wanted new Christians to “be informed and instructed by [these texts],” so that they “might become accustomed to enter upon the ways of our forefathers and to pursue their road, and to obey the divine commands, whereby renewed by baptism you might hold to that manner of life which befit those who are washed.”4
This kind of moral formation was not, for Ambrose, a form of what the contemporary American sociologist Christian Smith has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”5 The goal was not simply to “be good” or to conform to some abstract cultural norms. The Christian life, Ambrose knew, was learned through imitation—following the footsteps of our spiritual forebearers. Paul’s injunction to “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; see also Phil. 3:17, 4:9) could well apply to Ambrose’s Lenten catechesis. Above all, his goal was Christ-centered. He wanted catechumens to see Christ—to know Christ through a personal, experiential encounter through sharing in Christ’s own divine sonship. The pathway to seeing Christ was first learned through perceiving the virtues of Christ reflected in the saints.
While the Lenten sermons helped prepare catechumens for spiritual vision, Ambrose’s two sets of mystagogical sermons, On the Mysteries and On the Sacraments, are replete with training for spiritual perception. The ritual of baptism began with a rite he refers to as the Ephphatha—or the “sacrament of opening.”6 Based on the Gospel narratives of Jesus healing the blind man in Sidon (Mark 7:34), this ritual involved the bishop anointing the ears of the catechumen so that they would be able to hear and remember the grace at work in their midst.
Afterwards, Ambrose went through each of the steps of initiation—anointings, interrogations, washings, exorcisms—teaching them along the way the difference between physical and spiritual senses. Drawing on texts like 2 Corinthians 4:8 (“We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal”), Ambrose teaches the newly baptized the difference between seeing with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the heart.7
Baptism was the crux upon which the spiritual senses were unlocked. Before baptism, they saw “corporeal things with corporeal eyes,” but they were not able to understand the sacraments because they “were not yet able to see with the eyes of the heart.”8 Things change, however, after baptism:
Since you have come [to the altar], you are able to see what you did not see before. . . . Through the font of the Lord and the preaching of the Lord’s passion, your eyes were then opened. You who seemed before to have been blind in heart began to see the light of the sacraments.9
Ambrose’s catechesis was characterized by a thoroughgoing training in the spiritual senses. And at the heart of this training was the central Christian mystery. If the Triune God is the transcendent, immaterial spiritual source of all created existence, yet in the Son took on flesh for our redemption, then the orthodox Christian can neither escape to a purely spiritual world nor reduce God to a material idol. Instead, the Christian must learn how to see and know God in a sacramental way—in a way that does justice to both the material and spiritual existence of reality, at the center of which is the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
There is something here for those of us who aspire to a Christ-animated pedagogy. True insight is ultimately spiritual insight. It is a process of divine pedagogy in which God opens the eyes of the blind. Sometimes it takes some mud and spittle and a good washing. Sometimes the teacher needs a second time before the student sees people as people instead of trees. But whatever it takes, the teacher also has some important work to do—a related, though not the same, kind of work. It’s a lot like the work of Ambrose’s catechesis. The Spirit opens the eyes of the blind, but the teacher sets the conditions in which spiritual vision can occur. One begins to suspect that these moments become rather difficult to parse.
- For an excellent introduction to this tradition, see Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley, eds., The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
- Augustine, Confessions 10.27.38; translation from Henry Chadwick, Saint Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 201.
- On these sermons, see Marcia Colish, Ambrose’s Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005); J. Warren Smith, Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue: The Theological Foundation of Ambrose’s Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Ambrose, On the Mysteries 1.1; translation from Saint Ambrose: Theological and Dogmatic Works, ed. Roy Deferrari, Fathers of the Church 44 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 5. Hereafter FC 44.
- This term comes from Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). The authors summarize this view in a five-point “creed”: “(1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. (3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. (4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. (5) Good people go to heaven when they die” (Smith, Soul Searching, pp. 162–163).
- Ambrose, On the Mysteries 1.3–4 (FC 44, p. 6); On the Sacraments 3.2.12 (FC 44, p. 294).
- Ambrose, On the Mysteries 3.15 (FC 44, p. 10); On the Sacraments 3.2.12 (FC 44, p. 294).
- Ambrose, On the Sacraments 3.2.12 (FC 44, p. 294).
- Ambrose, On the Sacraments 3.2.11 (FC 44, p. 293).