I see, said the blind man.
Can you bring me, I asked, to the small villages outside of the city? I was talking to my tuk tuk driver. Tuk tuks are small carriages pulled by a motorscooter. The driver nodded, smiled, held his hands together and bowed, like Cambodians do. Half his face was scarred. I wanted to know what happened, how did he get that scar, but I was too polite. My name is Baoom. he said. Baoom? Baoom. Baoom? Baoom. I knew I wasn’t getting it quite right, and I felt bad. He got Jim on the first try.
Baoom knew a little English. “What you want see? Fields? Cows? Moket?” I thought he said markets, but after we repeated that last word a few times, each time a little differently, I wasn’t sure if we were saying the same thing. Sure, fields, cows…people, really. I wanted to see the non-tourist Cambodia, where the real people live out their days and nights. In fact, that was the purpose of my entire trip to Southeast Asia. I wasn’t really that interested in the famous sights that all the tours want to take you to see. I was looking for the truth behind all that. I’ve always been more interested in the small things: what people eat in the morning, what makes them laugh, how they communicate with one another, what they dream about for their lives. “Moket?”, Baoom said again, smiling. I nodded back, yes, I see said the blind man. My mother always used to say that. “I see, said the blind man to the deaf mute.” I had no idea, really. “Moket.”
We saw fields, rice fields. We saw a duck “farm”—about a hundred ducks corralled next to a puddle of muddy water. We saw cows that looked like they hadn’t eaten anything for a long time, skin barely covering their prominent ribs. And we saw lots of very poor people. Little children playing in mud. Old women cutting up coconuts to sell to passersby on the road. A bunch of people wailing to the sound of mournful music as they followed a cart with a coffin on it. A young man and an old man digging a ditch beside the dirt road. A woman selling gasoline out of old Coke bottles in front of her shack of a house.
It was nothing like in the tourist brochures. These people, their lives. I was among them, but not with them. I see, said the blind man, but what was I really seeing? I wondered. My brothers and sisters?
Baoom was struggling with the motorscooter, driving slower and slower. He stopped, turned off the engine, and apologized. He pointed to the steam coming off the engine, and reached for a dirty bottle with liquid in it from a storage cubby. It was water. The scooter was old, and he had to give it water because it was overheating. “So sorry,” he said. I understood. His tuk tuk was not fancy, and was worn-looking. It was actually one of the reasons why I chose him to drive me around. He looked like he needed the work.
We talked, as best as we could. He was 35, he had three children, he lived an hour away from the city. I think he said his house was just one room, on stilts. And he was poor.
Was I rich?, he asked with some hesitation.
How to answer him? I’m not rich, I thought to myself. I’m a priest, with a vow of poverty. But compared to him, yeah, I was like Donald Trump.
I shook my head no, feeling like a total fraud. “I see,” he said, “oh.” Did he see the lie in my eyes? Or did he see what was in my heart?
He tried to start the engine, but it wouldn’t turn over. He looked at me, and smiled apologetically. “We wait a moment, ok?”. Sure, I said. And then his eyes brightened. “Moket?” Yeah, sure, whatever, I nodded, and he gestured to me that we could walk a little ways down the road. To the market, maybe, I thought.
It was really hot, I mean the sun was super hot, and it was humid and we were both visibly sweating as we walked.
And suddenly behind some trees there was this very colorful pagoda. It looked like a small amusement park behind a wall in the middle of nowhere, avery fancy-looking building with a gold and red roof, two life-sized statues of white horses,and three or four baby pagoda shrines to the side of the main building, in gold and blue and green and red. In front there was a small pool with dirty water and with about a dozen turtles swimming around in it.
Baoom gestured to me to go into the pagoda, where there was a large gold Buddha statue, and candles burning in front of it. It was an astonishing sight. We took off our shoes and entered. And then Baoom motioned to me to look to the side, over in the corner. There was a tiny figure, a little old man, and he was looking at us, smiling. “Moket”, Baoom said. Baoom pushed me forward, and as I approached, I saw that he was blind, both eyes almost looked like they were sewn shut. Baoom sat down in front of the man, and gestured for me to do the same, which I did. And for the next 5 minutes or so, we simply looked at him. It was confusing to me at first, and uncomfortable, and I wondered just what I was doing there. But then I began to let go of my self-consciousness, and I started hearing the sounds all around us. A rooster crowing from somewhere, some far off voices, the sound of water from the turtle pond.
Throughout it all, the old man continued to smile, and I smiled back at him. Did he see?
It felt like hours went by. Was it hours? His sewn eyes, my open ones. What is sight, I mean, what is real sight?
And then at one point the old man put his hands together and bowed his head towards us. I watched Baoom do the same to him, and of course I followed his example. And then we got up, and after bowing again to the old man, Baoom led me out of the pagoda, and back down the road to the tuk tuk. I got in, he got on and the scooter started. He turned his head back towards me, with his thumb up.
On the way home, I thought to myself, “Moket”. Those five minutes felt like five hours. I see, said the blind man. And I saw because of the blind man.
"I see, said the blind man," it was just one of those expressions that my mother always said, one of those mother things. She would usually use it to subtly point out to me that things are not always as they seem. I could see her saying it, sitting across the kitchen table, a book always open before her. How she loved to read. How she loved to learn. When she neared the end of her days, her sight failed her and those books she loved to read were forever shelved.
Later, I excitedly told an American that I met the story of Baoom and the blind man at the pagoda, and that I felt for Baoom so much that I gave him $50 when we parted, more than 5 times the amount that was required.
Sounds like your friend might have known how to pull your strings, he said, grinning. ‘I see, said the blind man,’ was all I could think, hearing his cynical remark.
When Jesus smeared mud on the eyes of the blind man, the man went to the pool of Siloam to wash it off, and as he did so, he was able to see. And all these sophisticated men are gossiping and wondering if he's the same blind beggar they used to see at the gate of the town, and they ask him how he was able to see and he tells them about Jesus and the mud and the spit, and it’s clear that they are as cynical as my American friend was. Jesus? Really? And even if it is true, how dare he make a miracle on the Sabbath! And when the blind man points out to them that their questions reveal their own blindness--only God can make a blind man see--when he sheds light upon their darkness, they throw him out and call him, and Jesus, sinners.
I love the story. The sightless can see, and those with sight are blind. The Gospel story is really funny because it's all so obvious and fantastic and wonderful... and the brainy guys, the smart guys don't get it, they just can't see it, even though it's staring them right in the face. Sometimes it takes a poor simple man who drives a tuk tuk, who takes you to “moket”, or a shepherd like David in the first reading, to show the truth about life, and who we really are.
"I see, said the blind man," but in the case of the gospel blind man he didn't really see until the end of the story. Oh, he saw his hands, and the mud from his eyes floating in the waters of the pool of Siloam, he saw the sophisticated men who called him a sinner, but he didn't really see as a blind man ironically sees until the end of the story. He didn't 'see' until he saw the one who opened his eyes, he didn't truly gain his sight until he recognized Jesus for who he was. “Lord,” he called Jesus, "'Lord, I believe.'...And he worshipped him.
And the same is true for us. Most of us are walking through our lives blindly, and we don’t often see the truth of who we are to one another--Cambodia, Meiers Corners, follower of Buddha or of Jesus the Christ. We belong to one another as brothers and sisters, all of us poor at the very core of who we are. The miracle of sight is what Jesus gives to each one of us, but for the miracle to happen we need only to sit across from one another and open our hearts.
In a few minutes, we're going to come over to this dinner table, and we're going to put some of this wine out and some of this bread, and we're going to pray together over this food, and we're going to ask God to make it into something altogether different, the body and blood of Jesus, who makes blind men and women see. And you know what? God will do that, he will change wine into blood and bread into body and you and I will see it, even though to the sophisticated eye it will look exactly the same. It's not magic, it's sight, and our eyes will be opened if we recognize Jesus for who he is underneath it all: the Lord, the one who makes blind women and men see. During the consecration, when we pray over the bread and the wine, close your eyes for a moment, and when you open them again, pray you see the truth that God makes happen. There's an old saying, "seeing is believing" but in faith it's just the other way around, "believing is seeing".
There is truth to be seen, and it is all around us. It is in the eyes of a blind man in Cambodia or in the scarred face of a tuk tuk driver. It is in the cynical heart of an American tourist, but also in the frightened faces of children in Cambodia or Syria or Mexico or in the food court of the Staten Island Mall, "I see, said the blind man," which is not a bad way to spend our Lent, seeing with new eyes what we often try not to see. With Jesus, we can, if only we will.