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Tuesday, December 14 2004 19:00
The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in an essay reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004, discusses various experiences of blindness. Some of those who have lost their sight (or who never had it in the first place) have found an amazing increase in the power of their other senses.

Sacks describes what happened to an Australian, John Hull, who became blind in middle age. He lost all visual memories and images, becoming like someone blind from birth.  

But, as if in compensation, Hull came to know, in time, a striking enhancement of other ways of experiencing reality. About this change Sacks says: “He seemed to regard this loss of visual imagery as a prerequisite for the full development, the heightening, of his other senses.”

His blindness came to transform the way he hears various sounds. For him, the impact of rain falling on different surfaces creates all kinds of auditory effects. Raindrops on the roof, for example, sound very different from raindrops  on trees or on pavements.. Before he became blind, John Hull, like most of us, did not notice the difference.

Typically, blind people’s sense of touch differs greatly from that of the ordinary sighted person. They use their hands to explore their environment, and learn a great deal about it

Smell is another sense that can be rendered more powerful by deprivation in one part of the brain. Dr. Sacks mentions another blind man who can recognize people by their smell, even detecting anxiety and tension in those who approach him. It seems as if a system of compensations is at work.

Lose your ability to see, and you may develop ways of making up for this loss. Perhaps this phenomenon renders it easier to understand why some blind people who have had their sight restored do not welcome returning to the world of the sighted.

Reading about these experiences, I came to draw two conclusions.

First, what gifts the five senses are! Being enabled to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is a precious gift of God. Taking these powers for granted, as most of us do most of the time, is to underestimate the glory of being human.

Secondly, each one of these powers has much greater potential than we commonly realize.  Becoming more aware of the beauty of what we see, or the form, or the shape, or the color, is to increase appreciation of the world around us.

Empowered by this realization, I sometimes leave my house, resolved to see things anew. For a time, at least, the world takes on a splendor that is usually lost on dull old me. No one, of course, can keep this up for long; to try it would be to flirt with madness.

Too easily do we become dull to the sights and sounds of our environment To some extent, this is understandable: it is to protect ourselves from sensory overload. But ignoring the songs of the birds that perch in our trees and the beauty of the night sky exacts its price.

And surface often leads the way to depth. Creating one of my favorite poetic lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

These reflections, in my mind, have a vital connection with Christmas. I see the birth of the Christ child as prompting a celebration of the senses.

It is a feast that calls contemplators to appreciate the light more deeply. This is the light that enlightens every person who comes into the world, as the beginning of John’s Gospel asserts. At Christmas, one can allow that light to suffuse one’s soul.

Paradoxically, the Christian tradition shows this Christmas light in the midst of darkness: the glory breaking on the shepherds’ night watch, the star shining in the east. It inspires attention and wonder.

In a season when commerce assails our senses with holiday sights and sounds, we can still recover the gift of perception, by appreciating darkness and silence. We can then recover the celebration of the light of Christmas, as well as the wonderful evocative odors of pine and balsam, the sounds of childrens’ voices, and the touch of a friend’s hand.

As Oliver Sachs learned, each sense is a gift in itself.

Richard Griffin