Saper Vedere

“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly”

Mark 10:48

Our lectionary text this week invites us into one of the principal issues for us at Street Psalms – knowing how to see. Ironically, our teacher this week in learning how to see is actually a blind man. Many Biblical scholars have placed this text at the end of a portion of Mark’s Gospel that begins with the healing of a blind man, thus the section starting with Mark 8:22 and ending with Mark 10:52 is bookended by the healing of blind men. In between these two miracles, Jesus is trying feverishly to get the disciples to see and understand what he’s saying about his death and resurrection, but they are blind to his teachings.

In the text (Mark 10:46-52), we are introduced to a blind man sitting by a roadside begging. As far as the art of begging is concerned, this occasion holds the potential for significant income because it’s during a great religious parade of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Bartimaeus cannot physically see anything as the people pass in front of him, but he discerns something with his heart that seizes his attention. He asks those around him what is occurring and learns that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.

To the embarrassment of those around him, Bartimaeus yells and screams until Jesus stops to invite him to a meeting in the street. Those around Bartimaeus had tried desperately to shut him up in an attempt to save him from impending shame. Bartimaeus, however, relentlessly pursued an audience with Jesus.

Considering the absurdity of his actions, he becomes a living metaphor that embodies the heart of the conclusion to Last Lovers, a novel in which author William Wharton writes that “perhaps sometimes it is best to be blind, so one can see the way things really are, and not be blinded by the way they look.”

During this encounter in the middle of the street, Jesus asks a beautiful question of Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” This kind of beautiful question animates our work at Street Psalms as we explore together what it means to have the ability of Bartimaeus to see with one’s heart the presence of Jesus of Nazareth in unexpected people and surprising places. This is the ability first to discern the presence of the Divine and then the courage to not let the sacred moment pass by without hearing one’s personal “beautiful question” from the lips of Jesus. It is the art of knowing how to see.

In his book entitled Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet described a 1999 Panasonic ad campaign called “Leonardo de Vinci: The Art of Seeing.” It centered on da Vinci’s philosophy, summed up in two words: saper vedere, or “knowing how to see.” As a scientist, philosopher, inventor, and artist, da Vinci enlisted the concept of saper vedere to engage the world around him. To him, life was measured by one’s ability to see correctly. He described the almost mystical process of artists as not simply painting what they see, but their ability to see what they paint.

While the folks on that road to Jericho were blind, Bartimaeus was able to see using the eyes of his heart. The temptation to move ahead without saper vedere – before knowing how to see – is strong. But usually when we cave to that temptation, we cause more problems than we solve. Then it is easy to miss the beautiful question rolling off the lips of the Master who speaks through some very unexpected people and in some very surprising places.

As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in “Aurora Leigh”:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

p.s. Explore a pop culture illustration of saper vedere, or read how it shapes Street Psalms’s vision trips.

Image: “Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus” by William Blake (c. 1800)