Written by Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C., Director of Pastoral Life
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, “Who is he, sir, that I might believe?” “You have seen him; the one speaking to you is he.”
When was the first time you ever saw God? And I mean, like, face-to-face with the Creator. Was there ever a time when you actually looked into the face of God?
Psalm 139 seems to suggest that each of us, before we were born, gazed upon the face of God, and God upon us:
From the beginning, Lord, you created my inmost being,
You knit me in my mother’s womb.
My body was not hidden from you,
When I was made in your secret place.
When I was woven together,
Your eyes gazed upon my body.
This is an intimate psalm about our creation. There is a spiritual revelation here that, sometime even before we were conceived in our mother’s womb, we gazed into the eyes of the Pure Love who created us from the very beginning. But does this spiritual insight have any practical consequence in our everyday lives?
You may recall from high school biology class a most unusual phenomenon called imprinting. Imprinting, as I understand it, was first discovered to occur in chickens. It describes the almost humorous phenomenon that the first living thing a baby chick sees when it hatches out of its egg, it believes for the rest of its life to be its mother.
So, for example, if a baby chick is hatched in an incubator, by a lab technician, and the first living thing it sees after it hatches is the lab technician, guess what? The lab technician is, forever and indelibly, “Mommy.” And if the chick is let out of its pen, even if there are other hens around – including its real mom – it will follow around the lab technician. In fact, if memory serves me right, it has been shown that the lab technician can disappear for months, even years, at a time, but if she comes back one day, the chicken will immediately start to follow her again. That’s how powerful the imprint is!
Now this is where the Scriptures – from Psalm 139 to this Sunday’s Gospel – get interesting. John’s Gospel today records the story of a man “blind from birth.” This man, in other words, has never seen another person in his life. And then Jesus comes and opens his eyes. So, the very first person the blind man sees in his life is Jesus.
In order to cure him, John tells us that Jesus made clay and smeared it into his eyes. Now John is a masterful storyteller, so this detail is hardly unimportant. In fact, clay is the very material out of which God made the first humans in Genesis. So, we are invited to ponder, that just as Adam and Eve gazed upon God, and God upon them, in Eden, with no obstacles, so this man will gaze on God and God on him, face-to-face, through the person of Jesus.
And sure enough, the man opens his eyes, and gazes upon Jesus, and from that moment on, he has a longing deep within him, to know something about this man who re-created him. The whole remainder of this Gospel story is this man coming to a deeper and deeper knowledge of who Jesus is. First, “He’s the man who gave me sight.” Then, “He’s a prophet.” Until finally, Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answers, “Who is he, sir, that I might believe?” “The one speaking to you is he.”
Our longing to come to know the first being we ever knew is a longing that is meant to keep us always trying to encounter God more intimately. The humorous thing about the phenomenon of imprinting is that it is so powerful in the little chicken, that it actually makes the chicken start following the first thing that it sees move. And we can laugh at that, until … we realize that every one of us does the same thing – just in much more complex ways!
The longing at the center of our being is so powerful that we very often fill it with the first thing that we see moving! In fact, all our other longings – to befriend someone and feel loved, to know and be known intimately, to experience beauty, to have our needs fulfilled – are all instances of this one central longing at the core of our being – to be one with our Creator again. Lent is always a good time to purify our longings so as to more authentically experience our true Longing.
All our desires in the end are just little instances of our desire for God. And the lesson of imprinting is that only God, who we looked upon first, and who looked upon us in total and pure love, will ultimately fill our deepest longing.