Working in the wine house at Thien Phuoc monastery recently, I was enjoying a mid-morning break, with five or six other monks, when one of them asked me if I knew a certain spiritual song very popular in the U.S., which he began to sing. I said the song was not familiar to me. He sang another song, and was disappointed to hear me say again, that I had never heard the song before. Then, a thought came to me, and I began to sing, tentatively: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . .” To my delight, three or four Vietnamese began singing in English: “ . . . that saved a wretch like me . . . I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see . . .” It was a lovely sound that echoed for a few moments in the break room: the sound of men quietly and gratefully singing together of God’s grace and redemption; an especially sweet sound because all six men singing were Cistercian monks.
In this morning’s gospel, a wretched man; a wretch like you and me, is blessed with the power of Christ’s redemption, by having his sight restored. He is like us monks in that we are both viewed by the world as disabled from birth. It is often said of a man who enters a monastery: “Yes, but, of course – he was always a monk.” The world has little use for disabled persons of either type. Jesus, himself, meeting this man, blind from birth, mixes dirt with his spit, and smears it on the man’s face . . . but people have been doing that to him all his life. What is to be noted here is the man’s willingness; his consent to be addressed this way by the Lord, as if he knew this defacement might restore his sight.
What is this “mud” Jesus is applying to the blind man’s face? Why is our Lord mixing it with spit? Brothers, mud is earth. Earth is that movement in a monk that draws him into and toward himself, as autonomous, independent of God and self-sufficient. Earth is the attraction to sin that gives a monk eyes only for enjoyment of what is sensible and earthly. Sin, given into, makes a monk blind. But, as we heard proclaimed at the beginning of Lent: “Jesus became sin, so that I might become the righteousness of God.”
A monk, applying himself to the Lenten observance is saying to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, apply to my eyes this mud and spit, lest I forget how blind I am; what a wretch I am.” A Cistercian monk begins his conversion by this confession of sin; by the admission of his blindness in a very personal appeal to the Lord. Beginning with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, we monks say “yes” to this laying of dirt on our face, as an appeal to the One whose face was made dirty by His incarnation, suffering, and death. Jesus made Himself blind for love of me: His Sacred Heart consumed with one holy desire: that I might see; that I might see, first, the reality of my sin, secondly, the consequences of my sin: my wretchedness, and most importantly, God’s boundless mercy, offered to every child of His suffering from this condition. As we proceed to celebration of the eucharist, we place ourselves and all our sins as offerings on the altar, even as Christ who became sin, offered Himself as a sacrifice, and uniting our death with His, we look forward to that resurrection we will share with Him of which our celebration of Easter will be only the faintest glimpse.