For all the trouble it involves, there are undeniable advantages to living here and now. We have indoor plumbing, for instance. Diseases that were a major menace only decades ago have been all but eradicated. And as a society we have adopted a far more decent attitude toward people who are clearly disabled in one way or another. With few exceptions, they are no longer isolated or ridiculed.
Although much remains to be done toward the full acceptance by society of people with special needs, much has already been accomplished. The signs of this are everywhere. Elevator controls are marked in Braille. Sidewalks are cut so that wheelchairs can move up easily from the street. Public buildings are designed or renovated to allow for handicap access. Cassettes and large-print books open new worlds for the visually impaired. Disabled persons function effectively in a wide range of occupations.
But still many of us are startled when we encounter someone with an obvious disability, especially when that person is a stranger to us. What thoughts run through our minds?
Perhaps we think, “That could be me!”
Perhaps we wonder why that person has that disability and we do not.
But the response I want us to focus on is a different one, of which we may be only half aware. That response is, “There is a part of me, a part of my spirit, which is disabled in that way.”
Thus when we encounter someone who cannot hear, perhaps that touches something in us, and we recognize, however dimly, that in a way our hearing is impaired, that we are spiritually deaf. When we encounter someone unable to speak, then perhaps we are touched in a different way, so that we dimly perceive that our speech is impaired in a spiritual sense. Perhaps this is at the root of our discomfort upon encountering a disabled person. Without seeking to do so, that person mirrors a problem in us, a problem that may be more limiting than a physical disability.
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What does it mean to be spiritually deaf? What are we talking about when we refer to being mute in a spiritual way, having a speech impediment in our hearts rather than in our mouths?
To be spiritually mute means there are parts of us that never speak, that have no voice. These may be dreams and hopes that have been silenced by the pressures of ordinary living. They may be disappointments and failures that we are afraid to mention. Somebody once said that while many Americans are comfortable discussing sex and death, we are nevertheless incapable of talking about our failures.
An extreme example of this was the office worker who for six months concealed from his wife the fact that he had been fired. Every weekday morning he would go downtown as usual, and he used his savings to meet expenses. (Michael E. McGill, The McGill Report on Male Intimacy (Harper & Row, 1985), p. 49) Being fired is not necessarily a failure, but in this man’s mind it was, and he was unable to talk about it, even with his wife.
It may be also that we have no voice for speaking about faith and doubt. Neither one nor the other is discussed, much less the two together. Articulate about so much else, here we are at a loss for words.
Or it may be that we are silent about our past: early years, formative experiences. Then our children go forth into the world, largely unaware of what growing up was like for us.
As I reflected on the topic of speech, I looked to see what was said about it in several collections of quotations, and so I read many maxims and pithy sayings on the subject. A major theme among them was how we often say too much or speak too soon. For example, we are reminded by Jonathan Swift that “Nature, which gave us two eyes to see, and two ears to hear, has given us but one tongue to speak.” (A Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind, 1707).
But there is another side to the matter, one that seems to be neglected in proverbial wisdom. It is that each of us has much to say, but we are incapable of saying it. We are, in important ways, spiritually mute. And so, a great deal of our conventional conversation, those words with which we fill the air, amount to a kind of silence, a fog of talk that stands in place of self-revelation.
What, then, does it mean to be spiritually deaf? It means there are some sounds we simply never hear. The range of these sounds is suggested by what we, as a society, have only begun to hear in recent times. I mean, for example, the voices of victims of incest and wife beating and child abuse. These voices were never heard before as they are today, not because they were absent in the past, but because by and large they went unheard. Now these voices are recognized: by the justice system, by clergy and therapists, and by the victims themselves.
Here is another example. It was not long ago that theology was done exclusively by well-educated white males. The assumption was that only their experience and reflection was valid. Now the Church hears other voices as well, voices that were speaking all the time, but went unheeded. I mean the voices of women, and people of color, and Third World people, and people who have never set foot inside a university classroom. Their voices are being heard. The old deafness is being overcome.
Thus in preparing this sermon, I not only consulted scripture commentaries written by distinguished professors; I also read the response of a group of Nicaraguan peasants who discussed today’s Gospel reading with their priest (Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, 4 vols., Orbis Books, 1982, 3:185-194).
All these voices and others have something to say that I need to hear. The question then arises: What other voices are currently speaking, which at the moment we cannot hear, but which have some vital truth to share with us?
If for us any of this talk about deafness of spirit or muteness of spirit rings true, then we must ask ourselves: What’s to be done about it? Recognition of the problem is a beginning, but it is not the solution. How do we break free from a spiritual inability to speak, a spiritual inability to hear?
Consider today’s Gospel reading where Jesus cures a person who is deaf and has a speech impediment. that he cures this person is a miracle. But perhaps the greater miracle is that this person permits the cure to happen! Many people resist what Jesus wants to do for them. The Gospels contain sad stories of that sort. And today any physician or therapist often encounters people who by their actions demonstrate that they do not really want to be well. What is remarkable is that some people do accept healing.
What Jesus does sounds odd to us. He takes the disabled person aside, inserts his fingers into the person’s ears, spits, touches the person’s tongue with saliva, looks up, signs compassionately, and then says, “Be opened!” A strange procedure. Yet these were common techniques among the healers of that time.
I said earlier that I read comments on this passage by a group of Nicaraguan peasants. They mentioned something obvious I had overlooked: that someone placing saliva on your tongue is pretty repulsive! But whether we like it or not, Jesus does this. And the disabled person allows him to do so. And as a result, that person is able to hear and speak clearly.
Maybe if we are spiritually deaf or spiritually speechless, the first step toward a better life will seem repulsive, something as unattractive as another person’s saliva placed on your tongue. An utterly distasteful experience, to be sure, but certainly worth it. There is so much worth hearing in this world, and so much in the hearts of each of us that deserves to be said.
When I was a little child, I had a speech problem. The “s” and “th” sounds were difficult for me. Through the help of skillful and persistent speech therapists, I was able to overcome this problem. Eventually I entered a profession which involves a good deal of public speaking.
But I remember one therapy session in particular which for me was the height of frustration. I simply could not make the sounds I was supposed to make. The therapist, being an understanding soul, allowed me to stop and rest for a while before we continued. How miserable I felt about the whole business! It was about as attractive as having someone else’s saliva put on your tongue. But it seems to have worked.
In what way are you spiritually deaf or mute?
What for you today is like somebody else’s saliva on your tongue?
Do you want to be healed?
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
— Copyright 1988, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.