I am thinking of Bartimaeus, the blind man in the Gospels who is healed by Jesus. I have been thinking of him because I have also been considering what it means to advocate for oneself and how this is a man who refused to be silenced. He heard that Jesus was close by and he began to yell, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And even as those around him tried to hush his cries, he just kept screaming until Jesus heard him and called for him.
Bartimaeus is my hero because I don’t have that kind of persistence. I have been told to hush and I hushed which is why his refusal to stop asking for mercy is inspirational for me.
Not being able to speak up for myself is not just my limitation, I realize. All around me I see those who have been silenced, those around me who do not know how to voice their needs and I know that as a person of faith, part of my call is to speak up for those on the margins who cannot do so. I would like to share with you a story of a hospice patient I visited, a story of how a voice is silenced. Let’s call her Beatrice.
When I arrived at her apartment for our monthly visit, Beatrice had pages spread across her bed, pages ordered and displayed like trophies lined up on a shelf.
Beatrice was a poet. A librarian for years, she still loved the newspaper, books, and magazines; and she used to write poetry, a lot of it, even having a poem published in her hometown paper every Sunday for years. She spoke of this accomplishment, this means of being a published writer with a great deal of pride.
It turns out what she wanted most in life was to have her poems bound together in a book. This was not a tough task to complete and we set about together getting a self-published book of her poetry.
“What shall we name it?” she asked after we decided this could be done.
“Whatever you like,” I said. “It’s your book.”
“Life’s Moments of Joy,” she replied quickly almost, as if she had known what it should be for years.
“That’s beautiful,” I responded. “Do you have a poem by that title?”
And she shook her head.
“Then maybe you’ll write one,” I told her and I was buoyed by the hope sparked between us.
“Oh, I haven’t written in years,” she said. And I was about to launch into something inspirational or encouraging “like it’s never too late,” when she told me a story. A very awful story.
“Our marriage was already on the rocks,” she started. “I wrote all the time back then,” and explained about the Sunday papers, her poetry a weekly feature. “My husband worked many hours and when he came home he only wanted to watch television; so I wrote poetry and short stories.” She turned away.
“One day he came home and said a friend told him that writing poetry is a sign of mental illness and he asked me not to put anything else in the paper ever again.”
I was stunned by her pain. She was silent until she added, “I never wrote again.”
It always breaks my heart when I know a voice has been silenced, when shame or fear or even something as mundane as boredom causes someone to shut down, put away the pen and paper, sell the guitar, throw aside the brushes, never dance again in public. But it stirs up something totally different when I hear someone else is the cause for the writer not writing, the musician casting aside music, the artist without paints, the dancer who no longer dances.
It’s a sleeping beast that stirs within me when I hear a story like Beatrice’s.
Who has the audacity to call a poet mentally ill? Who gets to silence a writer’s voice? Who gets to do that and get away with it?
And yet, I realize that voices are silenced all the time. Using shame and dismissal and violence and oppression, voices are shut down all around us. Maybe it’s even happened to yours.
This week, I invite you to think about the blind man, Bartimaeus and consider what it will take for you to keep calling out for healing. What will it take for you to speak up again, for yourself or for others? How will you find your voice? And I hope the story of a blind man who would not shut up and who found his vision will inspire you to speak up and ask for what you need.
You are the light of the world.
NMCC Conference Director