Dr. Oliver Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. In his book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” he tells the intriguing story of a man who received his sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness.
In 1991, Sacks received a call from a retired minister about his daughter’s fiancé Virgil who at 50 received his sight. Virgil was diagnosed as a young boy with retinitis pigmentosa. It is a hereditary disease that destroys the retina causing permanent blindness. This diagnosis was compounded by cataracts that were so thick that Virgil’s retina could not be seen. His doctor labeled Virgil as irreversibly blind sealing his fate.
Virgil’s fiancé Amy who was seeing an eye specialist because of her diabetes dragged her soon-to-be husband in for an appointment. After close examination, the doctor wasn’t so sure about Virgil’s genetic disease, since Virgil could see light and shadows. The doctor suggested removal of the cataracts. The cataracts were removed and incredibly after 40 years of blindness Virgil could see.
But there was a problem.
Sacks described it this way, “His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.”
In her journal, Amy recorded her husband’s journey to normal sight.
For weeks, Virgil struggled to see properly, and he “often felt more disabled than he had felt when he was blind…Steps posed a special hazard because all he could see was a confusion, a flat surface of parallel and criss-crossing lines; he could not see them (although he knew them) as solid objects going up or coming down in three dimensional place.”
Virgil’s cat proved particularly puzzling. Though he recognized its ears, tail and paws, Virgil saw them only as a collection of parts – tail, paws, ears — and was incapable of grouping them together to form the cat.
After weeks of learning how to see, Amy said, “Virgil finally put a tree together – he now knows that the trunk and leaves runs together to form a complete unit.”
We take sight so much for granted, but as a baby we spent months learning how to see. Have you ever picked up an infant and looked him strait in the eye. For a brief moment the child makes eye contact, then you get this strange feeling the baby’s eyes are focused on the lampshade behind you. Well, they probably were. The child is in the process of learning depth perception and the reason he is giggling is due the strange face he sees peering out of the lampshade.
Virgil’s story is strangely reminiscent of the Biblical account of another man who was instantly healed of lifetime blindness.
The miracle involves the healing of the blind man recorded in Mark 8: 22-25.
Mark, other than recording the facts of this miracle, offers no comment on what took place. None of the other Gospel writers recorded the story and may have had more questions than answers on what happened that day in Bethsaida. Secretly, they may have considered it as a less than perfect miracle.
But in fact, this may be one of Christ’s greatest miracles. Not greatest in terms of size but great because the miracle proved itself.
A blind man was brought to Jesus while He was visiting the village of Bethsaida. The first thing Jesus did was lead him out of the village, away from the hustle and bustle. Since there were trees around, it was possible Jesus led the blind man into a garden located on the outskirts of the village.
Here, Jesus set on the task to heal the man.
First we are told Christ spit on his eyes. Jesus then asked the man what he saw and the man replied, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” (v 24 NASV)
Jesus then put his hands on the man’s eyes and told him to look up and Mark records that the man’s eyes were restored and he could see clearly.
For centuries, preachers, scholars and theologians have wrestled with this passage. Most conclude Jesus only partially healed the man in His first attempt and needed a second to complete the miracle. Some use it as evidence that God heals in stages. Others suggest it is proof that people need more faith to move in different levels of healing.
But this man’s struggle to separate the walking men from background trees is very reminiscent of Virgil’s ordeal to fully comprehend everything he saw once his sight was restored. Virgil even said, “Trees did not look like anything on earth.”
Sacks said, “Virgil told me that in his first moment he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, all a blur. Then out of the blur cam a voice that said, ‘Well?’ Then, and only then, he said, did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was face – and indeed, the face of his surgeon.”
In his instantaneous healing, the Bethsaida man similarly did not understand depth perception and everything was running together in one mishmash of images and colors. In fact those fateful words he saw men walking as trees were proof a miracle had taken place at Jesus hands — just as it should happen to a man seeing for the first time.
Dean Smith works in the communications field. You can visit his website at www.opentheword.org
Dean Smith, Assist News Service