“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” (John 9:1) The details of this story are, of course, well known to us. However, there are layers of symbolism here worth exploring. From the outset we can say he is no different than any other passer by in first century Judea. We could also rightly say that he is each and every one of us, broken, blind and in need of healing, and of salvation. We could, however, take the blind man as symbol for another who was blind from birth, not because of his sin, nor his parents sin, but so that the works of God should be made manifest in him: Adam.
From the outset we will set some boundaries. Adam is the first Man. He has no parents and until the time of his first transgression, he has no personal sin. We must also state at the outset that the Fathers of the Church instruct us that the creation of Adam’s flesh is simultaneous with the inbreathing of his soul. While this piece will be speaking of the creation of Adam’s flesh apart from the inbreathing of his soul, we need to suspend rigid, literal thought, in order to embrace a deeper symbolic meaning of the passage.
As previously discussed Christ fashions “seeing” eyes for the blind man. This is so the blind man could know He is the Word and Son of God, through Whom all things were made. Our Lord spitting on the mud is a symbol of breathing forth the Spirit at Pentecost, which hovered on the waters, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are all symbol of God inbreathing the dust of Adam with a living soul. (Gen 2:7) It is well documented that subsequent to the fall, humanity cannot see God. But it was also true for Adam prior to the fall, that God remained hidden, until God revealed Himself.
“For it seemed that the greatness of God so far surpassed the mental powers of His handiwork, that however far the limited mind of man might strain in the hazardous effort to define Him, the gap was not lessened between the finite nature which struggled and the boundless infinity that lay beyond its ken [beyond our understanding].” ~St Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate
We’ve already discussed Christ fashioning the eyes as the first day of creation, and the blind man washing his newly fashioned eyes as the washing away of the waters, that is the second day. It’s time to take the next step and understand how God reveals Himself to us who are spiritually blind, unable to approach His ineffable essence.
“And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.” (Gen 1:7-8) This is the second day of creation, which we discussed in Separation of the Waters as “our sins are swept away, revealing the earth, and all kinds of suitable vegetation.” Yet as with most symbols, there is another way of interpreting the waters, highlighting each stage of water, that is those above and below the firmament, and adding in the dry land, all of which combined as symbol of tripartite Man.
Typically the Orthodox Church employs speaking about Man in a dipartite, or “of two parties,” way. That is, composition of Body and Soul. There is another way, known as tripartite or “of three parties.” Tripartite Man is more detailed and nuanced, a composition of three parts: Body, Soul, and Nous. Recall that in Light for the blind man, it was explained that nous pertains to intellection, that faculty which apprehends spiritual realities in a direct manner. (Intellection, Glossary, Philokalia vol 1) We map tripartite Man with the second day, along with adding the third day, of creation. We have two different waters, one above, the other below, the firmament, which is heaven. That one is above heaven, the other below, is key. Angels are pure nous. They are pure intellection. Angels have neither a body nor a soul. Angels are also in heaven. The waters above the firmament can safely, therefore, be seen as a symbol of nous. That which exists below the heavens are not of the angels, so while still incorporeal, the waters below can be seen as a symbol for soul.
Dryland appears after God gathers the waters together on the third day of creation. The waters which previously just stood for nous and soul, in this case mean our drowning in ignorance, sin, and death, as found in Polyeleos. This “dryland” is Man’s flesh or body, our final component in the tripartite composition of Man. It is notable that this dryland is suitable for every kind of vegetation. We see just how important this detail is in that the Fathers are ripe with agricultural and irrigation symbolic verbiage, as seen below:
“Among the seeds of eternal life which the heavenly sower, in the field of an untilled soul, irrigates with waters flowing from the divine source His precepts, and which he makes fertile by His doctrine, is the one in which He tells us: “He that doth not take up his cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me.” ~St Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum
As stated in Polyeleos, Dryland is important since dryland is barren until it is watered. Christ thus spits on the eyes (John 9:7), that is, He issues His Divine precepts, and creates “seeing” eyes in us. St Gregory the Dialogist explains:
By His spittle understand the savor of inward contemplation. It runs down from the head into the mouth, and gives us the taste of revelation from the Divine splendor even in this life. The mixture of His spittle with clay is the mixture of supernatural grace, even the contemplation of Himself with our carnal knowledge, to the soul’s enlightenment, and restoration of the human understanding from its original blindness. ~commentary on the Blind Man
By His Word He creates “living” matter, a body endowed with a living soul. But just how is the flesh irrigated? What is it about the tripartite man and the creation narrative that teaches us how this is accomplished? Quite simply, it is the union of the nous and soul; it is the union of the waters above with the waters below the firmament which symbolically rain down on the fertile dryland.
“Woman symbolizes the soul engaged in ascetic practice; through union with it the Intellect [nous] begets the virtues.” ~St Thalassios the Libyan, 4 centuries On Love, 2nd century, #27, Philokalia vol 2
And we read in the Psalter:
“Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine upon the walls of thine house; Thy children like newly-planted olives trees round about thy table.” Ps 127:3-4 LXX
These two quotes by St Thalassios and psalm 127 draw our attention to symbolic marital relations language: union, a fruitful wife, and of bearing children. And we discussed in Kidron Brook how olives, which are referred to as children in psalm 127, are a symbol of virtue. This is how Man begets virtue within himself.
This union of nous with soul produces the virtues; the union of the waters above, with the waters below, irrigates the dryland, that is our flesh, which has become suitable for all kinds of vegetation (i.e. the virtues). And God reveals this by His spittle, that is by way of the mouth. Whether by spitting, as is the case of the blind man, or by breathing, as is the case with that first inbreathing of a living soul with Adam (Gen 2:7) or at Pentecost when Christ breathed the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.
“And he breathed into his nostrils,” that is to say, he placed in man some share of his own grace, in order that he might recognize likeness through likeness.” ~St Basil the Great, commentary on the Genesis
St Basil here leads us now to the idea that Tripartite Man, that is nous, soul, and body as one whole and concrete reality, is made in God’s image according to His likeness. (Gen 1:26) I have italicized likeness on purpose, because as also stated in Polyeleos, For a man is not merely who has hands and feet as a man, but who practices piety and virtue with boldness (~St John Chrysostom). This union of nous with soul to produce the virtues is what being according to Our Likeness (Gen 1:26) means. And it is this likeness, that is our ability to produce virtue within ourselves, which Man lost in the Garden. St Gregory Palamas explains:
“Since the noetic and intelligent nature of the human soul alone possesses intellect, thought-form (logos) and life-generating spirit, it alone – more so than the bodiless angels – is created by God in His image. This image the soul possesses inalienably, even if it does not recognize its own dignity, or think and live in a manner worthy of the Creator’s image within it. After our forefather’s transgression in paradise through the tree, we suffered the death of our soul – which is the separation of the soul from God – prior to our bodily death; yet although we cast away our divine likeness, we did not lose our divine image.” Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life, #39, Philokalia vol 4
If we return to the blind man however, doesn’t our Lord clearly state that it was neither his sin nor his parents sin that caused his blindness? (John 9:3) How do we negotiate what St Gregory Palamas says above with that the blind man’s blindness is not caused by sin? I am not bringing up St Gregory Palamas above as an argument against the blind man’s blindness being due to anyone’s sin. The first reason is to draw attention to the idea of the likeness being “cast away.” In order to be able to cast something away, it must first be in your possession. The second is to highlight that our being created according to God’s likeness is our ability to create the virtues, of which no other creature, not animal nor angel, is capable. St Gregory Palamas continues:
“Thus when the soul renounces its attachment to inferior things and cleves through love to God and submits itself to Him through acts and modes of virtue, it is illuminated and made beautiful by God and is raised to a higher level, obeying His counsels and exhortations.” Ibid
We see now two saints, St Gregory of Tours and St Gregory Palamas, separated by close to a thousand years, saying the same thing: virtue is created by obedience to the doctrines and precepts of God, through our inalienable faculties, which is the union of nous with soul. This virtue is spoken of using agricultural and irrigation language, symbolizing the nous and soul as the waters both above and below the firmament which irrigate the dryland, our flesh: days two and three of the creation narrative.
And although Adam lost the likeness due to his original disobedience, that light is returned to all of mankind when Christ fulfills that original temptation (Symbolism at the Kidron Brook). This is how the works of God are made manifest, for it is in virtue that we are given light as stated: in thy Light shall we see light. (Ps 35:10 LXX; Doxology)
From the Ikos for the Sunday of the man born blind :
That I may recount what the divine book of the Gospel of peace teaches: the miracle of the blind man; for being blind from birth he receives both physical eyes and eyes of the soul, as he cries: You are the radiant light of those in darkness.