The Eyes of Love
"When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter to me to see lepers." (Testament 1)
Francis of Assisi's dictated testament gives us his final memory of sight. He could no longer fully use his bodily eyes. But Francis remembered the way he saw those particular people before "the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them."
It is the sole reference in the testament to what he saw in the way God granted him "to begin to do penance."
Encountering the objects of his sin changed the way Francis saw them: "when I left them what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body...."
Notice that the change was apparent when he left the sight. He saw, he acted, he changed. The memory lived in the mind's eye, in contemplation and meditation.
Assisi could be walked end to end in about 20 minutes. Even so, people could isolate, block out the suffering of some of their own townspeople. Yet they could see far enough to fight with Perugia 15 miles away. Francis did that, until he returned home and discerned that he was a lover, not a fighter.
His example of acting on what he saw with compassion has inspired many religious and laypersons. The Nobel Prize-winning doctor Albert Schweitzer discerned an ethics of "reverence for life" and went a step further with an awakening that Francis may have had when he want to serve in the outskirts of Assisi: "No one must shut his eyes and regard as non-existent the sufferings of which he spares himself the sight." (The Philosophy of Civilization)
Today we are able to see our world in more ways than ever before. How shall we see beyond the boundaries we have?
The visually impaired should be included as much as possible, both as beneficiaries of care and as people of ability and action. Vision is a key concern for the WWII and baby boom generations. With an array of eye diseases and various treatments, reading is still difficult to impossible for many. There were an estimated 253 million people with visual impairment worldwide in 2015, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Our major municipalities are aware of navigation challenges. Departments of public works implement aids such as tactile paving: the little bumps underfoot that alert one of a transition from sidewalk to street.
The American Foundation for the Blind is on top of assistive technologies, including screen readers and magnifiers.
Yet content for the blind – works worth reading – is limited. Content is all important. To "see" is ultimately to observe and perceive significance. When someone says "I see" it often indicates "I understand."
The Service of Vision
In the 1960s, I recorded books for the blind, including some requested Eastern spirituality readings. Readers of a certain age will recall the Wollensak reel-to-reel device that allowed individuals and classrooms to hear marvelous news and readings. In turn they could carefully see in their mind's eye translations to contemplate and to be and do.
Through the centuries, people have learned through various channels: manuscripts, the printing press, and so on. Everyone has loved a good book. But the oral history was first.
I find myself wondering how sight-challenged Franciscans and others today can take in the beautiful early writings by and about the saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, and the mystical reflections by Francis' Legenda Maior biographer Bonaventure.
Certainly individuals might assist others with reading. Mealtime readings are enjoyed at some Franciscan houses.
In brainstorming ways to serve people and better use today's technologies, why not consider a communication plan that pulls out all the stops? How to serve the vision impaired? How to share Franciscan documents? What about audio books of Franciscan sources? What about a Franciscan Morning and Evening Prayer app?
A former minister had printed a handy pocket-sized Rule for the province he served. That, and the Testament, Francis asked all ministers and custodians to always have with them. They could be recorded in a cell phone.
The thirteenth-century sources, and contemporary Franciscan publications, are not dry bones. They contain Gospel life: essential examples of people celebrating their creator, grappling with meaning, and overcoming their infirmities, e.g., Francis composing his Canticle while blind, or Clare "attending" chapel prayers while ill in bed.
Like the oral histories and notes that led to audio Bibles, the Franciscan documents contain mysteries and pathways that might help make sense today, and would be of service if they are accessible.
Better, through enjoyable words, and described images, music and poetry, we may all enjoy "the same loving care and special solicitude" that Francis had for his brothers and sisters (Testament of St. Clare) as keys to a full life.
And finally, thoughtful sharing and contemplation can invite someone to possess and be possessed by God. (Bonaventure, Breviloquium 5)
Fading of bodily sight, and even perhaps of memory, need not separate lovers from their visitations of the ancestral fountains.
Janet Gianopoulos is the former communications officer for Holy Name Province OFM.