By Austin Bennett
Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied,
and never satisfied are the eyes of man.
–Proverbs 27:20 ESV
Glaucoma is a disease that silently destroys vision: at first, slowly and without pain, it grays the peripheral, eventually tunneling, until all that can be seen are a few pinpricks of light—and for some the end is darkness. For those who have outlived years of treatment—drops, lasers, surgeries—they face the certainty of an incurable disease within an imperfect world. And in a dim lit exam room plastered with diagrams of gigantic eyes, I have faced them. I know the question they will ask, first me, and then the doctor. I know the answer that will be given and the irony found in the tears of the sightless. In those moments, when I hand them a tissue, and though prayer feels trite and there is nothing left to be said, often I pray or provide a sympathetic “well now” only to close the door behind me as I tell them what they already know: “The doctor will soon be in.” As if that is the only comfort I can offer and yet, somehow, this makes things momentarily tolerable for I know that he is a good doctor and that he has walked far longer with the blind than I.
For these last eight years I have worked with a disease attributed mainly to the aged and observed the toll age brings upon the body. Bones hollow. Joints grind. Nerves burn. Mobility is lost. Patients fear that they are one fall away from a broken hip or that their lack of balance will confirm what their children long suspect about their ability to drive. And for those whose family genes are not in their favor, the golden years are anything but golden and when all else fails, vision is looked upon as the last stronghold of autonomy. What few pleasures remain come through sight: reading, watching movies, and visits from their grandchildren or an old friend. It is no surprise then how often I have heard a grandfather or grandmother confide, “The day I can’t see is the day I might as well be. . .”
Secretly I mourn for these patients just as I mourn for those who lose their vision or die of cancer. Yet, the doctor confirms to us that it is a visual world, and I know this, but rarely do I consider how much of living is credited to sight; at least for those of us who see. Above my desk hangs a poster framed between two large Thomas Kincaid prints: Venice and Yosemite. Just as each Kincaid—true to form—focuses on light, so does the poster. In bold script it reads,
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness (Matthew 6:22-23 ESV)!
To those who no longer can read these words or fear that someday they won’t, the metaphor is immediate. However, for me, the meaning is buried beneath the writer’s craft. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m so hardened I fail to consider my own depravity or those habitual sins—lust and wanderlust—that enter by way of sight. But rarely do I consider the context: The Sermon on the Mount. This passage follows several passages, including “The Lord’s Prayer,” and is sandwiched between two passages focused on money: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (v. 21)” and “you cannot serve God and money (v. 24).” Commentators, such as John Piper, emphasize how the eye highlights the visceral nature of our goals and, moreover, our trust. We want what we can see; what blood, sweat, and tears can provide; so we obsesses, and are riddled by anxiety. Just as there are two kinds of death, there are two kinds of blindness, and for those who are closer to death than birth, I am sure time is money. Yet, Jesus recognizes these underlying fears and the culmination of these three passages are found in the successive passage where Jesus exposes our own anxieties by highlighting the provision of birds and flowers, only to exhorts us to, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (v. 33).” Or in a more contemporary voice, C.S. Lewis notes, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in:’ aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Recently my grandmother-in-law (on my mother-in-law’s side) passed away from a stroke. Among her ailments was glaucoma and she was plagued by the loss of her independence due to her failing body. Yet, she did not die alone as so many of our elders do. After a life working in fields or factories or office buildings, many retire to Arizona—to their kind of paradise—where their joints won’t be so inflamed come a North Dakota or Michigan winter, and eventually their children visit less and less as their mobility weakens and their personal independence is thwarted. And how often have I heard Pastor Riccardo or another pastor speak to this truth: on how poorly American’s treat the elderly and our responsibility, as the church, to take care of them. Isn’t God’s treasure more like the “Religion that is pure and undefiled. . .to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27 ESV)?” My grandmother-in-law was blessed for she didn’t have to breathe her final breath in isolation or with strangers. Her family—including granddaughter (my wife), grandson, and daughter—surrounded her and breathed the same air she did until she no longer could. And as a professing Christ follower, her faith gave way to sight; her next breath came without labor.
It’s now been over two months since her death and over one month since my family and I moved to bucolic Montana. My wife left her dream job as a Sunday supervisor for Redemption Kids. I left an eight year career in the medical field and a budding career in higher education. We left our church community and our friends. And after a few interviews, I am still jobless. We have yet to find a church community to call home. And my two-year-old daughter has told us on multiple occasions how much she misses her friends. Transition is tough, especially when roots are being severed, anxieties heightened, and doubts seemingly affirmed. Even so, the smile that my wife and our children bring my 91-year-old grandmother-in-law (on my father-in-law’s side) is a sight to behold. This is a woman who has experienced great loss: two sons to death, one son to life in prison. And now, as her independence wanes due to age and disease, we’ve moved to take care of her, even more so, to be present and love her just as God has loved us.