Remnants of Exclusionary Practices

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

My husband asked me for my opinion about a blog post about the practice of the medieval church called ocular communion. I had great difficulty reading the article because I felt so much pain on behalf of blind people who lived during that time and what this practice would have communicated to them. Furthermore, I feel that though ocular communion is not practiced today, some of the things we do in worship have the same results when it comes to communicating things theologically. I therefore feel it is important to write about the theological implications of this practice; and I pray that you will read my words and take them to heart as something that is meant as a critique of a practice that has resounding implications through the ages.

The engagement of vision in worship and piety, trained for centuries by instruction and practice, was experientially validated for medieval people by its results in increase love and piety. It was also . . . supported by an ancient theory of physical vision that described vision as occurring when a quasi-physical ray is projected from the eye of the viewer to touch its object. An impression of the object, in turn, travels back along the visual ray to be imprinted on the soul and preserved in the memory. In this theory, as we have seen, the viewer is active, both initiating and completing the act of vision in a stored memory of the object.

… The engagement of vision in worship and piety, trained for centuries by instruction and practice, was experientially validated for medieval people by its results in increase love and piety. It was also . . . supported by an ancient theory of physical vision that described vision as occurring when a quasi-physical ray is projected from the eye of the viewer to touch its object. An impression of the object, in turn, travels back along the visual ray to be imprinted on the soul and preserved in the memory. In this theory, as we have seen, the viewer is active, both initiating and completing the act of vision in a stored memory of the object.

This bothers me on numerous levels. On the personal level, it is a haughty expression of the idea that a person who cannot see cannot commune fully with the Saviour who came to redeem all beings. I can hear the arguments coming back at me: “They can commune, just not at the level that is visual.” People have used this kind of wording in discussions with me when I have spoken about the importance of accessibility in worship. It is as if it is ok for people with visual impairments to have a lesser experience of worship because, well, this is all we can really provide, and we can’t sacrifice the experience of the rest of the congregation for one or two people. In some cases, the situation concerns a video that sends one message to sighted watchers and another to visually impaired listeners who only hear the background music.

Last time I checked, Jesus didn’t commune in levels. That is what the parable of the laborer’s wages is about. Salvation–and by inference, communion, is full and free to all who will receive! Last time I checked, Jesus wants all to hear the Gospel message together. Yes and amen!

Now I will move on to the more difficult aspects of commenting on this and related practices. God forbade Israel from creating graven images at Sinai after they gave up waiting for God to answer them and decided instead to create an image they could see and touch. Have we done this in our worship? It is a serious question to ponder. Are we ever trying to do God’s work instead of waiting for God to do it? Is it any wonder that we don’t see the power of God displayed in America? That is what happens when we tell God that God isn’t working quickly enough, and we step up and invent ways to force the issue ourselves.

Back to the issue of seeing and believing… Jesus dealt directly with this when he appeared to his disciples a second time. Thomas had missed out on the first appearing; and he refused to believe the wonderful news about Jesus’ resurrection. So Jesus blessed him with a great opportunity to touch and see for himself. Jesus is merciful like that. But he also rebuked him. He said to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Jn 20:29)

What does this say about those who practiced ocular communion? For that matter, what does it say about those who didn’t, or about those who can never see, even when their churches use video and images in worship? What would Jesus say to us about our practices?

My sense is that he might be glad that we were sharing the Gospel with so much enthusiasm, but it would pain him greatly to see that we do things that leave out some of our people. Can we do better?

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