There Is None So Blind: To See or Not to See


People who cannot see what really is are the very ones who see what is not.

—Tertullian

One baffling question in human life is why some people claim to see what others cannot see. The latter often accuse the former of hallucinating. How can one explain that our spiritual, intellectual, and physical fields of vision differ so widely from one person to another?

Physical eyesight is the most obvious example of this difference. Some people are born with severe visual handicaps that can be improved with correcting lenses. Yet a person suffering from poor vision will never accuse those enjoying perfect eyesight of "hallucinating" or "imagining things." If you ask a very near-sighted person whether he can see an object in the distance, he will never say, "There is nothing to be seen." He is aware of the limitations of his own vision.

The question changes when we come to intellectual problems. A veteran in the classroom knows by bitter experience that some students simply "do not see." Take mathematics: Some students follow reasoning with great ease and will say how "simple’" and "luminous" a geometry concept is. Others stumble in darkness. Logic is like mathematics. To some students, its laws are obvious, but others cannot understand why some conclusions are invalid. Likewise, some people can immediately "see" how a machine works, yet to others, mechanics are incomprehensible.

If we turn to metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, the question changes again. Whereas mathematical or mechanical problems do not affect us personally, these branches of knowledge intrude into our personal lives. To many, this is very unsettling. Crucial metaphysical questions—whether there is a God, whether we have an immortal soul—inevitably impact on our way of life. A student of mine once told the class that the worst thing that could happen to him would be to ascertain that he had an immortal soul, because "then my acts would have consequences." The chances of convincing him of his error were weak, as his will was against the proof. Some people will oppose the objectivity of truth—a key to a valid epistemology—tooth and nail on the grounds that it offends democracy, which guarantees that everyone has a right to his own opinion. Another student told me, "I see no reason that your opinions should be better than mine." This student did not even consider that some opinions are true and others false.

Ethics is the most sensitive domain of all, as it tells us how we should live. The word should is categorically detested in our world, which is dominated by "totalitarian relativism" and subjectivism.

"Don’t we have a right to make our own choices?" "Who is so-and-so to tell me how I should live?" "What is good for one person might not be good for another." These are all arguments that one hears ad nauseam in colleges and universities. The average student will faithfully repeat the "opinions" of professors without taking them seriously, because truth, they believe, is subjective. Science, though, is viewed with some respect, not only because knowledge of the material world "improves" man’s way of life but also because it leaves everyone free to live as he pleases.

Teaching has taught me that it is useless to try to convince a student of a truth that he has decided to reject. One cannot force someone to see what he does not want to see. Most intellectual mistakes are not caused by lack of intelligence; they are the evil fruits of a rebellious will.

True and False Mysticism

Supernatural phenomena, including mystical experiences and "visions"—which some claim to be valid and others view as the product of a deranged mind—shed more light on the problem.

The supernatural is a domain in which the deepest of all experiences occur. It is also the one that can lead to the gravest illusions. Atheists and others who reject in principle any supernatural phenomenon believe that such "abnormal" experiences are indicative of psychological disturbances. To their myopic minds, further investigation is unnecessary; the "victims" of such experiences are in need of medical help. Their position is buttressed by the fact that a high percentage of "mystical" experiences are not authentic. This is why the Church is so slow in granting recognition to visions and miracles.

From time to time, we hear about "apparitions" of the Holy Virgin. They make headlines and are seen on television. How is one to distinguish between these visions and mystical experiences that are divine messages?

What about "visions" that are the products of mental or psychological disturbances? In his great work The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Henri Bergson remarks that St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest mystics of all times, had "abnormal" experiences. But "abnormal" can refer to what is above reason as well as to what is below it. As Plato wrote in his dialogue Phaedrus, folly and divine madness look alike.

Victims of illusions attract a lot of attention, but nothing meaningful or constructive ever comes out of their visions. St. Teresa’s life from her fortieth year on was a series of amazing experiences, yet she was of sound mind. In spite of frail health, she accomplished work—reforming the Carmel convent and founding many new ones—that not only attests to her sanity but testifies to powers that can come only from above. St. Teresa’s autobiography combines sublimity and angelic ardor with the sound common sense of someone who is clearly not "unhinged." Fake mystics are eager to draw the limelight to themselves and are resentful when people doubt the authenticity of their message.

In the story of St. Philip Neri, it is related that there was a nun outside Rome who was privileged by visions. She was anxious to make the acquaintance of St. Philip, and he acceded to her request. One inclement day, he went to her convent. His boots were crusted with mud and dirt. The famous sister came to the parlor. After greeting her, the saint said, "Sister, you see that my boots are badly stained. Would you kindly clean them?" Taken off her guard, the "visionary" exclaimed, "I thought you had come to see me!" Her self-importance and lack of humility proved to St. Philip that her visions were not authentic. "Dear Sister," he said to her, "I have seen enough," and took leave of her.

St. Teresa was anxious to hide the graces she received and was deeply humbled when they could not be hidden. Fearing that her visions might be coming from the Evil One, she scrupulously related all her experiences to her spiritual director. She was blessed by being guided by several men of deep wisdom and faith. To test her spirit of obedience and humility, one of them told her that he was convinced that her visions came from the devil (Vida, chapter 25) and commanded her to greet her next apparition with a gesture of contempt (Vida, chapter 29). Convinced as she rightly was that her experience was authentic, she obeyed with profound reluctance. Later Christ appeared to her and praised her for her spirit of obedience. Conscious of her unworthiness, St. Teresa often begged Christ to refrain from giving her such extraordinary favors.

Humility and a willingness to submit one’s judgment to one’s spiritual director are keys to distinguishing between diabolical visions and divine ones. Whether the fruits of such experiences are oddities or admirable actions that glorify God is another.

Secular v. Supernatural

The word philanthropy means "love of man." But this is not the same as love of neighbor. It is easy to confuse them and assume that great philanthropists have an authentic love of neighbor.

In the United States, there are innumerable foundations dedicated to helping the poor and many worthy causes that benefit mankind. The motivation behind them is certainly praiseworthy, and they accomplish much good. But do the people who endow these philanthropies truly love their neighbor as Christ commanded us to do? In fact, he added the words, "As I have loved you." It is well to remember that his love expressed itself in his willingness to suffer and die for sinful humanity.

The obvious difference is that any man of good will can be a philanthropist, but it takes revelation and supernatural grace to live up to the command of Christ. Atheists can do a lot of good social work; their intention may be a genuine desire to help the underprivileged. But there is an abyss between sitting in a plush office attending meetings to decide whether a particular request is worth supporting and sharing the sufferings of the poorest of the poor, bathing their wounds, and exposing oneself to physical horrors. Mother Teresa of Calcutta did such things with love, sweetness, and patience, because she saw the suffering Christ in the people she ministered to. As with visions, it is a question of what we see.

Christian love of neighbor includes all men: those we like and those whose conduct is revolting, those who are kind and those who persecute us. In practical human terms, it is madness to "love’" evil men. Those with a secular outlook consider that to do good to those who hate us and persecute us, whose joy is to make others suffer, is perverse. Only a religious point of view makes this love possible. Only a supernatural outlook based on faith sheds light on the divine commandment and renders its fulfillment possible through grace, enabling men to partake of God’s infinite love for those who hate their own souls.

There are many men who love humanity but, unfortunately, cannot stand their next-door neighbor, who "love" abstractly those they do not know while rejecting those placed in their path.

Charles Dickens sketched such a character in Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby, the mother of numerous children, is so totally absorbed in her philanthropic work for the Borrioboola-Gha tribe that her husband and offspring were sacrificed to her admirable and noble dedication.

Love Is Blind

How unfortunate that in our society the word love is used to describe experiences that that are better described as escapism into a rosy world of illusions.

Many wives canonize their husbands or their children. That their husbands are the most intelligent and their children the most exceptional is perfectly obvious to anybody who is not motivated by envy. In fact, these "exceptional" beings are often the product of her wishful thinking. Likewise their children, who can make mothers their children’s worst enemy. Any valid criticism by friends or teachers is dubbed "unjust."

Yet sometimes these women are actually in very difficult situations: Their husbands may in reality be domineering, self-centered, or bitter because their gifts and talents are not recognized by others. Their wives survive by nurturing the illusion that their husbands carry crushing crosses, are not understood, and are victims of lesser people who are blind to their genius. Too weak to face a painful reality, they escape into a world of their own making, which has little to do with their actual situation. Such people call for merciful understanding. There are human situations of such painful complexity that, without a deep prayer life and much grace, only escapism can save people from despair.

Yet it is possible to love wrongly and perversely. Idolizing a human being, far from being an expression of true love, is a perverted love. St. Augustine writes in his Confessions that to love a human being while forgetting that he is an imperfect creature is a sort of madness. The most perfect human love is the one that partakes of God’s love for the beloved. St. Augustine calls itamare in Deo.

The true Christian, following the example of the blind man of Jericho, should daily beg God for the grace "to see."

Love Alone Makes Us See

Authentic love alone makes us "see." It is not based on wishful thinking or on the unhealthy projection of imaginary virtues onto another person. It is not triggered by hysteria, overheated feelings, or a craving for excitement to shake one out of a state of exhausting boredom. It is an ardent yet calm perception, granted by God, of the beauty he has put into each of us, and it fills us with awe and gratitude. Authentic love is a pure gift that fills the soul with an intense and yet peaceful joy.

Whereas infatuation wages war on reason, the person blessed by an authentic love disregards "worldly" prudence and can be heroic. This is true in the lives of saints, such as St. Francis, who abandoned everything for the kingdom, but it can also be the case of great human loves. When a young Danish girl met Leon Bloy at a party and asked the hostess who this strange-looking man was, she was told, "a beggar." Impressed by his personality and his spiritual radiance, the girl said to herself, "I shall marry that beggar." She did. Obviously, it was not a "reasonable" thing to do. In marrying him, she also married a life of an abject poverty. Two of her four children died very young because their father was incapable of providing for them adequately. Yet Mrs. Bloy never regretted her decision. This is true of many great loves.

There is a world of difference between selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage and selling everything to acquire one precious pearl. Of course, this applies first and foremost to the love of God, but there are valid analogies in human life. One can take "holy" risks in which reason is transcended, not trampled upon. Likewise, all the great deeds in history were "unreasonable." It was not reasonable of David to challenge Goliath, a powerfully armed giant, with a slingshot and a few stones. He was animated by what Plato called "divine madness." Joan of Arc, too—a nineteen-year-old peasant girl—was "mad" to attack the British in order to "bouter" them out of France. Reason is often confused with mediocrity, which hates heroism.

In the words of Blaise Pascal, "There is nothing more conformable to reason than this disavowal of reason" (Pensees, 272). Man’s reason functions best when it recognizes its limits. This is why, as Søren Kierkegaard said, the Bible must be read on one’s knees; otherwise its supernatural message will be totally overlooked. Although an atheist will find only what he projects, a great scientist or thinker respects reason but is conscious that there are mysteries that reason cannot penetrate. To claim that one cannot be a scientist and a believer is to claim that man’s reason is supreme. That is a most unreasonable statement.

As long as man lives, true madness will be called divine, and divine madness will be called insanity.


Alice von Hildebrand is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hunter College of City University of New York.

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 7.