Several years ago, I encountered a song by a Christian recording artist with whom I was unfamiliar. The song was “I Saw What I Saw,” and I knew immediately I had to find out who the artist was. Sara Groves wrote the song after a visit to Rwanda changed how she sees … how she sees herself, humanity, and our world. In the refrain, she sings,
Your pain has changed me
your dream inspires
your face a memory
your hope a fire
your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
and what I know of love
It reminded me of something I used to tell my students - once you see something, you can’t “unsee” it. Once we are exposed to a truth or our eyes are opened to understanding, we can’t go back to not understanding or being unexposed. The question, though, is what do we do with what we see? Does it change us? Does it call to us? How do we respond?
But even before we consider those questions, we have to interrogate what we see. Like Samuel in today’s first reading, our vision may be clouded by our expectations, prior experiences, or biases. How often do we look at situations, assuming we know the truth of what is happening or that we know what our response should be - and then realize upon further inspection that our vision is not as clear as we thought?
It’s easy for that to happen. For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about the experiences of students of color in Catholic schools that have a high population of white students and a low percentage of teachers of color. Study after study indicate that students of color face barriers to success like teacher bias and policies based in white, abelist, middle-class normativity. Therefore these students of color tend to struggle with a sense of not belonging, higher rates of disciplinary action, and low representation in honors and advanced placement courses. Often teachers and staff in these schools have a vague sense that students of color have different outcomes than the white students. However, they do not see the systemic issues. They see individual students who just need to work harder or adjust their attitude or who come to school too far behind to catch up to students who come in with more support. The problem in their mind is the student and not the system.
So often in our society we are blind to systemic injustices. We are often blinded by our biases, expectations, prior expereinces. Like Samuel, we think we know the truth, but really we are being guided by our subjective and limited understanding. But unlike Samuel, very few of us will have such a clear experience of hearing God’s voice in clarifying how we see a situation. We need assistance.
A helpful tool in this is what we call the pastoral circle. First proposed by Joe Holland and Peter Henriot in their book, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (Orbis, 1980), it is a process for determining a response to a social issue by an individual or a group. Many of us are familiar with it and yet I think another look would be beneficial.
Often shortened to “see - judge - act,” it is a process of seeing an issue, analyzing the why that underlies it, reflecting on what it means in light of our faith, and responding. It’s a process that repeats as we grow deeper in our understanding of a situation. The pastoral circle is about discernment and growing in our ability to see situations as God sees.
As we continue to engage in the process of seeing, analyzing, reflecting, and responding our vision becomes more clear. Much like the man Jesus cures in today’s Gospel.
With each recounting of what happened to him, as he continues to reflect on the healing that took place, his understanding deepens. When the authorities first ask him he explains what a “man called Jesus” did for him. Upon further questioning he is able to say it was a prophet who healed him. Finally, he sees Jesus and recognizes that not only is this a man who heals or a prophet, but “Lord.” Being able to see as God sees, being able to see the truth of a situation is often a process that unfolds over time.
The process doesn’t end there, though. Then, it is time to respond. Today’s Gospel ends with this imperative, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” If we see, we are responsible. We can no longer claim ignorance.
In our second reading Paul exhorts us to expose the hidden works of darkness - the injustice, oppression, racism, corruption, greed - bring it all to light. Make people aware. What Paul fails to say in this letter to the Ephesians is that this is a lot more difficult than it sounds. People often do not want to see. As the old adage says, “ignorance is bliss.” When people benefit from injustice or they are not negatively affected, there is little impetus to change. In fact, those who expose injustices are generally met with dismissal or anger or silencing or discrediting.
Does that mean we stop bringing issues to light? Not at all. In fact, not only are we to expose injustices when we see them, we are also called to do what we can to dismantle the systems that create them. This is what it means to be a child of light - not only to expose, but to actively bring about goodness, righteousness, and truth.
It’s a tall order, no doubt. But let us take a comfort in our responsorial Psalm for today. God will not leave us to do this work alone. It is God who will refresh us, encourage us, and walk by our side. We have no reason to fear. So let us walk as children of light ever growing in our ability to see as God sees.
Sr. Nicole Trahan, FMI
Sr. Nicole Trahan, FMI
Sr. Nicole Trahan, FMI, a native of Orange, Texas, is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianists) and currently lives in Dayton, Ohio. Sr. Nicole serves her congregation as a member of the provincial leadership team, vocations director and director of the pre-novitiate program. She is also a part-time campus minister at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School.
With masters degrees in Catholic School Leadership and Pastoral Ministry, Sr. Nicole has a background in teaching theology/religion on the secondary level, collegiate and secondary campus ministry, retreat design and leadership, and spiritual accompaniment. She has a passion for faith formation and leadership development, especially of young people. This passion is equally matched by her dedication to seeking justice.
Sr. Nicole is currently completing her doctorate in education at Gonzaga University through which she is studying equity and inclusion of students of color in mixed-raced Catholic schools. She is also a regular contributor to National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report and enjoys writing on various topics.