Dr. Peter Steiger | 14 July 2020
We are grateful to Dr. Peter Steiger, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chaminade University of Honolulu, to share some of his work on St. Didymus the Blind, patron saint of OCCM. Professor Steiger's research has focused on the early Christian biblical scholar and theologian, Didymus the Blind. Specifically, how this renowned Christian teacher incorporated philosophical ideas from Plato and Aristotle into his commentary on the bible.
A recent book by a noted art historian who studies portrayals of blind people in western art and literature notes that the bible does not deal with blindness in a uniform manner, unlike the classical works from Greek and Roman culture. In some cases, a character in the bible is blinded as a punishment at the hands of enemies, as is the case of Samson, who was blinded by the Philistines in the book of Judges 16, and king Zedekiah, who was forced to witness the execution of his sons before being blinded by the Babylonian forces of Nebuchadnezzar in 2nd Kings 25, such that his final memory of seeing was watching something utterly horrifying. Some biblical characters become blind as part of the natural course of human aging, as in the case of the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob and the prophets Ahijah (1st Kings 14) and Eli (1st Samuel 3). In several of the legal texts of the Old Testament, blindness disqualifies a person from serving in the role of a sacrificial priest, even though the same texts strongly advocate compassion and mercy toward the blind. In the New Testament, our Lord heals the blindness of several people (see Matthew 9:27-28, 11:15, 12:22, 14:30-31, 20:30; Mark 8:22-23, 10:46-51;Luke 4:18, 7:21-22, 14:13-21, 18:35; John 5:3 and all of chapter 9), but Jesus also criticizes the spiritual blindness of many of his contemporaries and even some of his own disciples who do not see him properly. But what about Holy Didymus, the patron of this campus ministry? How did he deal with his own blindness? Was the adversity he faced something he easily accepted as God’s will? What might have been his last memory of vision? And what might his life show us about our own understanding of Christian faith and the spiritual life?
According to reliable tradition, Didymus was not born blind, but lost his physical sight in early childhood, before he even attended school. The cause of his becoming blind is unknown. Perhaps he suffered a disease that impaired his sight slowly over several weeks or months until he was in darkness. Or perhaps he suffered a terrible accident that damaged his eyes and blinded him instantly. Sadly, he may even have lost his sight as a result of violence, since he may have been born during the time of Roman persecution of Christians. And what devastating effect did his disability have on his family? His name suggests that he may have had a twin sibling; how did they play together if he was blind? In his surviving writings, Didymus never specifically mentions how he became blind, but it is very evident that his blindness had a profound impact on his life, spirituality and theology.
From Jerome and Rufinus, two of Didymus’ students, we have reports of a dialogue between Didymus and Abba Antony, when Didymus was probably 35-40 years old. The desert father had come to Alexandria to assist Pope Athanasius in opposing the Arians. Upon chatting with Didymus, Antony discerned that the young scholar had some regrets about his physical disability. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, he asked Didymus about this, but Didymus was reluctant to reveal his thoughts to the holy father. Antony persisted, and after three requests from the hermit, Didymus quietly acknowledged that he was indeed bothered by his loss of physical vision. Two points stand out in this story. First, Didymus struggled to accept his disability and to overcome the adversity he faced – he was not immediately a great scholar and saint. Second, this episode shows how vital are the words of a trusted spiritual friend who is often able to see God’s providential action in our life better than we see it ourselves. Abba Antony exhorted Didymus not to regret the loss of a physical ability he shared with other earthly creatures, but to be grateful that God’s providence had enabled him to behold reality like an angel. This exhortation changed Didymus’ own vision of his disability into considering it as a unique gift given to glorify the Creator.
The thought that troubled Didymus, and indeed seems to trouble all of us, is why our human life is such a struggle and hardship, and particularly, why do such awful things often befall those who seem to be faithful to God. On a daily basis, we can easily become perturbed when our plans go awry – at such moments, we are tempted to exclaim “God, why is this thing happening to me?!” And when we witness the pain, suffering and injustice in this world, we might be tempted to question, and even to doubt, God’s providential love for us. St. Paul wrote to the Romans (8:28) “we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” He wrote these words after he had stated “I consider the sufferings of this present time as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18). And so, as Paul suggests, even though we have faith and hope, “we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).” Didymus most certainly longed for the redemption of his body, as does anyone who is sick or in pain, whether that be physical, psychological or emotional illness. Yet, the words of Abba Antony turned his gaze toward trust in God’s providence. In our ordinary daily life, but even more so in these past several months of fear and grief caused by climate change, the global pandemic and the civil unrest caused by long-standing social injustice, it may be difficult to see God’s providential care for our world. Let us pray to St. Didymus, who offers us a model for overcoming our blindness in order to view our life as guided by God’s love.