Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6:22-23).
As is often the case in Holy Scripture, the meaning here is multivalent. More than one truth is revealed by Christ through a single expression. But one thing that Jesus Christ does not mean, as St. Athanasius points out, is that physical blindness would in any way exclude a person from future and eternal blessedness. The eye Christ speaks of here is not the eye in your head, except by analogy. [i]
St. John Chrysostom tells us that Christ uses this analogy, which is “within reach of our senses, so that we may not be confused.” Maybe some of us are confused anyway, I know I have been, but a purpose here is to speak of immaterial things using physical concepts we can more easily relate to and understand.
So if we are not speaking of bodily eyes, what sort of eye does Jesus speak of? Saint Simeon the new Theologian say, “What other eye does he mean here than the mind?” Chrysostom says the same. “For what the mind is to the soul, the eye is to the body,” he says. Mind and body are related, of course, and so we can learn from the body about the mind.
One word for mind or intellect in Greek is nous. The nous is also sometimes called “the eye of the soul,” and I think this is the best word for what Jesus is talking about here.
And I think it is above all to this faculty that Jesus refers when he speaks of the eye giving light to the whole body. The nous is that faculty in us that illuminates our soul. “It is the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God” or the true being of any created thing “by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception.” This must be carefully distinguished from reason. Deductive reasoning, which we use to formulate abstract concepts and then argue on their basis to reach a conclusion, is a useful tool and ability that we humans have. It also is a gift from God. But sometimes there is a tendency to elevate reason above all else. Frankly, there is a tendency among some to idolize reason and to fail to recognize its limits. Reason cannot give us the principles or truths upon which we reason. It is not self-sufficient. It is useful for bringing one idea into consistency with another, but it cannot provide the axiom.
The nous, in contrast, “understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition, or ‘simple cognition,’” as Saint Isaac the Syrian puts it. Saint Diadochos says that the nous “dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’” and that “it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart. The nous is the organ of contemplation, the ‘eye of the heart.’” All the preceding definition by the way, comes from the excellent glossary of the Faber and Faber edition of the Philokalia, which I highly recommend.
Look, this all may sound overly philosophical so let me try to put it in simpler terms. How do we know God? Or, how do we know anything? My father would have said, “I know in my knower.” I always liked that expression of his. And, that’s really what this nous is that I’m talking about. It’s your knower. It’s how you know things. Not how you think or decide, it’s how you know. Knowing is deeper and more experiential than just thinking. It’s like how you know you are loved by a parent, a spouse, or a friend. No one can argue away that knowledge, no matter how skilled or clever their reasoning.
The only way true knowledge can be corrupted is if the knower itself is compromised. St. John Chrysostom say,
“Just as when the eyes are blinded, some of the ability of the other members [of the body] is diminished, their light being quenched, so also when the mind is depraved, your life will be filled with countless evils. As therefore in the body it is our aim to keep the eye sound, so also it should be our aim to keep the mind sound in relation to the soul. But if we destroy this, which ought to give light to the rest, by what means are we to see clearly anymore? For as he who destroys the spring may also dry up the river, so he who has quenched the understanding may have con-founded all his actions in this life. So it is said, “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness?” For when the pilot is drowned, when the candle is put out, when the general is taken prisoner, what sort of hope will remain for those that are under his command?
You see how important it is to keep this faculty pure, or to purify it if it has become darkened? An unpurified mind knows nothing. Our mind can become completely darkened and enslaved to the passions.
A purpose of this penitential season is to free us from this enslavement and to purify our minds. So that we can again see clearly the love of God and the truth of God with the eye of our soul. Fix your eyes on Jesus, on his holy icon, rather than on worldly or fleshly images. Lift your heart to him in prayer. Remove the distraction that comes by always sating our appetites and our lusts. There is no quicker route to a darkened intellect than constant self-indulgence. Let us give to those who ask, rather than only to our own tyrannical bellies. Let us repent!
Come to confession. Confession is the shortest and quickest route I know to purification of the mind. I don’t know how people live without it. After a good confession, I can experience God so much more readily. He is always present, but my unrepented sins cloud my ability to see him clearly. They darken the eye of my soul. If the light in me is darkness, how great is the darkness! Nihilism, doubt, depression and despair seem to make so much more sense if we have blocked out all the light of God. Let in the light of God and see the truth of his presence and love for you. Confession is good for the soul, and it is good for the eye of the soul.
[i] From his discourses on the gospel of Matthew