Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

Seeing with Our Third Eye

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Sometimes people say,
“It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
But most of us would nod our heads in agreement
to the claim
that “what you know” and “who you know”
are both important.
We value smarts: what we know.
We also value connections: who you know.
What we often overlook is:
how you know.

How you know.
Not the evidence for particular claims,
but something bigger than that:
your ability to see,
your vision.
We don’t pay much attention
to how you know
and so we miss a great deal.

I like the playful approach taken
by a pair of Christian philosophers,
Hugh of St. Victor and Richard of St. Victor,
who lived at the monastery of–
you guessed it–
St. Victor in Paris
many centuries ago.

They said that humanity has three eyes,
the second and third
each building upon the one before.

• The first, they claimed,
is the eye of sight.
This is ordinary, everyday vision
with which we see the material world around us.

• The second is the eye of reason.
This is the scientific way of looking,
when we analyze information and recognize connections,
working with what the senses discover.

• The third is the eye of true understanding.
This one builds upon sense and science, yet goes further.
It leaves us in awe and wonder over the mystery,
coherence, and spaciousness surrounding us.

To see only with the first eye,
the eye of sight,
is to miss a great deal.

But to stop with the second eye
is also tragic.
When we depend too much on the eye of reason,
we get struck on dividing, opposing,
posturing, and controlling.

Where do we see this problem in our society?
In many places!
We are a second eye culture.
While the second eye can be immensely helpful,
without the third eye, it becomes destructive.

We need to use our third eye,
and practice mystical seeing,
a contemplative gaze at the world,
a unitive approach to life.
This is the approach of the saint, the seer,
the transformative leader, the poet, the artist.

Without the third eye,
business turns greedy, education becomes dull,
government ends up bureaucratic,
religion is egotistical.
But where people, especially leaders,
use the third eye,
recognize grace and glory close at hand,
and start to see the whole picture,
then–and only then–
does true hope appear.

Without the third eye,
religion in particular turns rancid.
Unless there is this third eye vision,
then the belonging, believing, and behaving
that characterize religion
fall out of touch
with the divine gift of life.

The third eye
does not make the first and the second optional.
Mystical vision needs ordinary sight,
mystical vision needs reason,
or otherwise it becomes shallow, eccentric,
and even dangerous.
We have three eyes,
say Hugh and Richard of St. Victor,
and we must use them all.

This talk about the third eye
may sound more than a little strange.
So let’s approach the matter
with a different vocabulary.
Here’s one way
that Richard Rohr talks about it.

“The mystical gaze
builds upon the first two eyes–
and yet goes further.
It happens whenever,
by some wondrous ‘coincidence,’
our heart space, our mind space,
and our body consciousness
are all simultaneously open and nonresistant.
I like to call it presence.
It is experienced as a moment
of deep inner connection,
and it always pulls you, intensely satisfied,
into the naked and undefended now,
which can involve
both profound joy and profound sadness.
At that point,
you may want either to write poetry, pray,
or be utterly silent.”

Today’s readings invite us
to look with this further vision
that we may be healed
and enjoy eternal life–
not only after death,
but in this present moment.

On their way to the promised land,
the Israelites grumble and complain
many, many times.

Today’s passage from the Book of Numbers
recounts an incident
when the people grumble
about what they’re given to eat and drink.

The Lord then sends poisonous snakes
among them,
and many of the Israelites
die from snakebites.
Sobered by these losses,
those who remain confess to Moses
and ask him to intercede for them.

The Lord instructs Moses
to make a serpent of bronze
and place it on a pole.
Those bitten by snakes
are to look at this bronze serpent,
the image of their attacker,
and they will live.

And how will they look?
With their third eye.

They will see beyond
the simple bronze image.

They will look beyond
what threatened to take their lives.

At the edge of despair,
their heart space and mind space
and body consciousness
all become open and nonresistant.
Their dire circumstance
pulls them into the present moment.
The bronze serpent
draws forth from them
both profound sadness and profound joy:
sadness over their repeated, habitual grumbling;
joy because the Lord who punished them
is also eager to restore them.
Once alienated,
now they experience a deep connection
with the author of life
who grants them recovery
and a new start.

An echo of this story from Numbers
sounds forth in today’s gospel:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him
may have eternal life.”

Like those grumbling Israelites,
we also have poison in our system
due to sinful living.
What is given to us
is better than the bronze serpent of Moses,
destroyed years later by a reformer
because it was treated as an idol.

What we see is the Son of God,
impaled upon the cross.
We see him resurrected from death to life,
lifted up from the earth,
drawing everyone and everything to himself,
thus making whole
our divided and broken world.

We can look to him with our third eye,
look to him at any moment,
and experience in that moment
the reality of eternal life.

Thus we will know
both profound sorrow
and profound joy.

because for us the Son of God
underwent torture, capital punishment,
an agonizing, ignominious death on the cross.

because this cross is the victory of God,
setting us free from sin and death
to make us participants in the resurrection.

We can see this
with the third eye.

To look with the third eye
is possible for us.

This mode of vision
is known by many names:

This is the pearl of great price
that you sell everything you own
in order to buy.

This is vision
of which the first and second eyes
are not capable.

Seeing with our third eye
teaches us humility time and again.
We keep recognizing
that what matters
is not who we know in the world,
nor what we know.

What matters is
how we know–
by a way of seeing
that God is eager to supply
and which changes everything.

Rohr, 30.

2 Kings 18:3-4.

Matthew 13:45-46.

Copyright 2015 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.