The eyes of the heart

A great saint of the church wrote to the people of the church at Ephesus and prayed that they would find spiritual illumination. In words of the most striking and tender beauty he wrote,

‘I pray that the ….. Father of Glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you..’

I think it is one of the great moments in the Bible. I am not the first and will not be the last preacher to find that the phrase – ‘the eyes of your heart enlightened’ stands out from the page.

There’s a book about the painted Rembrandt, by Simon Schama, and in that book he tells a story about Rembrandt’s eyes. He tells us about a famous early painting called The Artist in his Studio – in which Rembrandt, as he would do many times, paints himself. The picture is dominated by a huge easel – we can only see its back. The painter – a rather doll-like figure – stands at the back of the painting, almost retiring into the shadows and looking as though he is lost in thought. The most curious thing is that this figure – the painter himself – has no eyes, only dark circles, black holes. We know from drawing primers of the time that the human face was the first assignment given to apprentice painters. And the first specific feature ever to be practised was always the eye. A very young painter might sit all day drawing an entire practice page of eyes. Painters were taught how to convey emotions, passions and humours through the eyes. An eye could make a face merry or sad, lustful or haughty. Schama says, ‘Making an eye was the beginning of art’. And we have evidence too that Rembrandt practised drawing eyes – because some of his doodles remain. So why did he choose to draw just dark holes in this picture?

Schama suggests that perhaps it was because Rembrandt wanted to suggest that the true artist paints not with his or her physical eyes, but with imagination – with the deep interior space – and even perhaps, in our Bible words, with the ‘eyes of the heart’. Nothing in the conventional repertoire of artist’s eyes was equal to this moment – and so Rembrandt left them blank and empty. Painters, he would argue, no less than poets and philosophers and all the wise, must be blessed with the inner eye – and it is this that is the gift of God. It is the eyes of our heart which need to be enlightened if we are to ‘see’ well.

And of course it’s not just artists and the great and the glorious who need to have the ‘eyes of the heart enlightened’. We are all of us sometimes led astray by what our literal eyes show us, all of us tempted to believe that life is really as it looks on the surface, tempted to look no further into the beauty and truth of this many-layered world in which God has set us. We are all capable of not seeing the world that lies beneath the surface, or through the wardrobe or the looking glass, or beyond our gaze.

We sometimes do this with each other. We see the smartly dressed woman seated properly at communion or on the train perhaps or in the waiting room, but do not look further to see the sorrow and loneliness and turmoil which her orderly appearance hides. We see the man next to us at worship take out his handkerchief to blow his nose, but do not notice that he also wipes tears from his eyes. We see the friendly and confident smile of the woman at the shop till or serving us in a cafe, but we do not notice that she is afraid to meet our gaze. We see the man who comes to the meeting and never says anything, but do not see that he would have much to contribute if only we would wait a little longer. We see people in terms of their role of their age, but we do not always do we see each other or even ourselves with the clarity of real and holy sight. And, in these days, when we see each other with masked faces, hidden from view, or only on screen or at social distance, it is harder than ever to ‘see’ each other well. We see what our eyes can tell us, but the eyes of our heart are not always enlightened.

One of my favourites theologians writes about the first day he discovered this phrase from Ephesians – about the eyes of the heart. He describes how wonderful it was,

‘ find such words where I never found them before and just when I needed them. That day on the staircase when I met my first grandchild for the first time, what I saw with the eyes of my head was a very small boy with silvery gold hair and eyes the colour of blue denim coming down towards me in his mother’s arms. What I saw with the eyes of my heart was a life that without a moment’s hesitation I would have given my life for. To look through those eyes is to see every kingdom as magic.’

But for some of us, it might be a frightening thought that we should be seen with anything more penetrating than the human eye. It is easy to think that if people could see us as we truly are then they would turn away from us. And it is easy to think that that is how it is with God too. We do not want to be seen with such searing insight as God would see us. And we may not be sure that we really want to see what lies in anyone else’s heart. What we see with the eyes of our head is perhaps enough. But the writer to the Ephesians says more that really can reassure us. He does not say that ‘with the eyes of your hearts enlightened’ you will finally see what miserable and horrible people you, how sinful and disgusting, or how terrible the world is and how hopeless our situation before God. He says something very different. He says,

‘…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe….’

It is not better to have a blind eye, in this sense, or to turn one. It is not better to live in the shades or in ignorance of ourselves or of others. God offers us the gift of enlightenment, not so that we will learn terrible things, but so that we will really know how much hope there truly is – how much awaits us in the Kingdom of God – and how great and wonderful God is. These are the things we shall see with the eyes of our hearts, when they are enlightened by God.

Rowan Williams has reflected on the way in which we might say that Jesus is light for us. He begins by describing one of the great trials of life – putting the light on for the first time on a dark morning. At first the light is blinding and dazzling and you don’t see clearly at all. But by the time you get to the bathroom the world is settling down a bit. At first you’ve been so conscious of the light itself, that you can’t make any real use of it. Then you adjust and focus more on the world that the light shows you. He suggests that the coming of Christ to the world was, perhaps, a bit like a light going on, giving us a way of seeing everything. And at first it was the light, Jesus himself, that everyone concentrated on. But then slowly there was a change – the light stopped being the focus of attention itself and became instead something we see by. We see the world differently because we see it through him, we see it with his eyes. He enlightens the eyes of our heart. I think that the purpose of being part of the church, praying and we reading our Bibles, lies in finding and being given this kind of enlightenment, so that we shall see the world through Christ’s eyes – and see whatever we see not just with the eyes in our head – but with the eyes of our heart.

And I hold on to that promise from the pages of the Holy Bible – that seeing more clearly is not something to be feared. With some things in life, we often say, the more you look into it the more depressing it becomes. But it is not so with the life and truth of God. What waits for us is not knowledge too dreadful to bear or a reality which could not be faced. What waits for us is a deeper knowledge of the hope to which God has called us,  the riches of our inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of the power of God. These are great and stirring promises.

Forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before, but it has another Rembrandt connection and one with eyes too. I was once visiting a church member at Christmas time. I can’t remember why right now, but we got to talking about the story of Simeon – the man in the temple who held the Christ child in his arms and said ‘Now Lord you let your servant go in peace’. And he said to me ‘He knew didn’t he, that old man. No-one else really understood what was going on, but he did. He really saw what God was doing’. Rembrandt famously painted that story – and he painted the old man who saw what no-one else saw – with blind eyes. His physical eyes could not see, but the eyes of his heartwere enlightened. That’s the sort of seeing we’re praying for here, even knowing that it comes often as a gift, that all the screwing up of our eyes and straining in the dark won’t quite do it. It’s a gift and a grace – with our eyes we see human beings, with the eyes of our hearts we see the saints of God. With our eyes we see a world in great trouble  – with the eyes of our hearts we see the beautiful world that God love. With our physical eyes we see only temporary distractions to help us through a tough time, with the eyes of our heart we glimpse real hope for the future of us all.

May God give us – here today – what was once asked for the Christians in Ephesus, a spirit of wisdom and revelation – that we may come to know God better, trust God more deeply and look ever more intently at the world in which we live, at each other, and at the Gospel we have been given – through the eyes of our hearts, and may they be enlightened by the light of Christ, Amen.