The Eye Begins to See
I keep looking for a decent response to our corona virus that is not just medical, not political. Strangely this sentence comes to my mind. “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” These words by the poet Theodore Roethke derive from his battle with mental illness.
If you get stuck in a dark scary space, they remind us, the eye can slowly open up, adapt, to its contours. So what does this figure of speech say? Adversity, even the severe sort, can open up your vision, your understanding.
We know our adversity. Health care workers surely do, and those whose paychecks have stopped coming, and those whose schooling is unsure. And we know the adversary—but just a little.
As an old Catholic at this troubling time, my faith, my mysterious belief, keeps telling me who to trust finally and what hands to put myself into. I ask the grace to do so. But our crisis is so severe that it turns me also to one of the great books of my long life, Man’s Search for Meaning by the psychologist Viktor Frankl.
Victor Frankl barely survived confinement in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, Bavaria, in World War II. As I reread his text, so full of insight, I am moved by one incident above all that he tells. A desperate inmate has stolen a bunch of potatoes from a storeroom and the guards come looking for the thief. “Who did it? Unless someone tells, you get no food for a day.”
Of the 2,500 inmates, Frankl says, none said a word. The next night, in their deepest misery after the day’s hunger, the guards turned out the lights on them. The chief of the barracks begged the psychologist, “Say something.” I had to force myself, Frankl says.
He talked about the huge significance of life, its immense worth, including all its privations and agonies. “Life expects something of us,” Frankl said. Maybe it is just giving you a cross to carry, Frankl told them; show your human dignity and accept it. That was the core of his message.
This memorable Jew, admitting that he himself was not much of a believer, spoke with admiration of those few whose religious faith made them heroic. The starving prisoners were able later to show him how much his words had helped them through that awful night.
I came to know one survivor of Dachau myself, a Polish priest who assisted at Good Shepherd parish in Pacifica, California. In gratitude and as a memorial he gave his savings for a huge statue of the Good Shepherd. It was sculpted by a dear friend of mine, Stella Pilgrim.
Stella and her husband had borne a very big share of the cross, yet she insisted that the shepherd must be smiling. That divine smile on the Shepherd still in Pacifica keeps encouraging, keeps reminding: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”