30 July 2021

What the blind can see
and when to pray with
eyes that are closed

Can physical sight contradict and weaken our inner or spiritual sight?

Patrick Comerford

There is a story about Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman (1886-1969), a prominent Lithuanian rabbi. After the Holocaust, he tried to find Jewish children whose parents had hid them during World War II.

Rabbi Kahaneman would walk through orphanages in Europe, reciting the beginning of the Shema. Instinctively, some of the children would cover their eyes, and cry out, ‘Mama, Mama!’

It is a universal Jewish custom to cover the eyes with the right hand when saying the first six words of the Shema. It is said that in doing this, the person who is praying is enabled to concentrate properly without visual distractions.

It is also said it is even more important to have the proper intention when reciting the first verse of the Shema than when reciting other parts of prayer. As the words are said, the focus is not just on the meaning of the words, but also on accepting the yoke of heaven.

The person saying the Shema is expected to concentrate on the idea that God is the one and only true reality. This intention is so important that one who recites the words of this verse but does not think about its meaning is expected to recite it again.

In my reflections on this Friday evening, I am reminded that this custom of covering the eyes is traced back to the times of the Mishnah, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) covered his eyes while reciting the first verse of the Shema.

Some early commentators, however, explain that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi covered his eyes while reciting the Shema because some other people had the custom of looking in all directions in order to accept God’s sovereignty throughout the world. Rabbi Yehuda covered his eyes, wishing to conceal his precise eye movements while reciting the Shema.

The kabbalists, especially Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, say that one is meant to use the right hand to close one’s eyes while reciting the first verse of the Shema. He connected this with an enigmatic riddle found in the Zohar.

The Zohar tells of an old man who appeared as a donkey driver met Rabbi Yossi during his travels and asked several questions. Rabbi Yossi failed to appreciate the true significance of the old man’s question.

However, his colleague Rabbi Chiya sensed that there was more to the questions than met the eye. After some reflection, they realised the old man was in fact teaching them deep mystical secrets.

The riddle that gave them the hardest time in understanding asked:

‘Who is the beautiful maiden without eyes, whose body is concealed and revealed, who comes out in the morning and disappears during the day, who is adorned with ornaments that never were?’

The Arizal offers an explanation that relates to the reading of the Shema. The ‘Maiden’ refers to the divine attribute of malchut (‘kingship’), sometimes referred to as the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of the divine. In this context, it is also referred to as ‘Rachel.’

There are four spiritual worlds in the kabbalistic formulation of the cosmos, and the world of Atzilut (‘Emanation’) is the highest of the four. In this realm, nothing has physical form or colour, and sight is non-existent.

The Kabbalists say that whoever recites the Shema is elevating the Mayin Nukvin (‘Feminine Waters’) to the world of Atzilut, setting the stage for the unification of the feminine and masculine, or the unification of the soul and the Shechinah. Since the Mayin Nukvin are entering Atzilut, a world that is higher than sight, the eyes must be closed during the first line of the Shema.

The right hand is used to do this, even when someone is left-handed. This is said to symbolise the attribute of chessed or kindness, as well as the Mayin Dechurin (‘Male Waters’), also connected to this riddle.

Have you ever noticed that when you are trying really hard to concentrate, you sometimes close your eyes to help you to focus?

Throughout the Talmud, the blind are called sagi nahor – ‘enough of light’ or ‘full of light.’ It is said this is so because one’s physical sight, which gazes out at the mundane and materialistic world, often contradicts and weakens one’s inner or spiritual sight.

Our physical senses often seem to contradict the idea of God’s oneness, that God is the only true reality. We see, smell, taste and feel the world around us, while God can remain an abstract and spiritual reality.

Therefore, when the Shema is said and the oneness of God is proclaimed, this becomes an affirmation that true reality is neither what the eye sees nor what is experienced naturally and intuitively. By covering the eyes when praying, a person indicated the desire to disconnect from the physical and connect to the spiritual.

It is said that when a person recites the Shema and accepts the yoke of heaven, the Shechinah or Divine Presence rests upon his/her face. The face is covered out of respect for the Divine Presence, for, as God told Moses: ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33: 21-23, NRSVA).

The first verse of the Shema proclaims that ‘the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.’ This statement affirms belief that both God’s attribute of strength and judgment and God’s attribute of mercy are really one. Covering the eyes, symbolises acceptance that is seen with physical eyes as negative is, in truth, positive.

Shabbat Shalom

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
62, the Church of the Saviour, Thessaloniki

The Church of the Saviour or the Church of the Transfiguration … suffocated by the surrounding apartment blocks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is seven churches in Thessaloniki, and my photographs this morning (30 July 2021) are from the 14th century Church of the Metamorphosis tou Sotíros (the Transfiguration of the Saviour), also known as the Church of the Saviour.

The small sanctuary area in the niche is not screened off by an iconostasis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thessaloniki is a city rich in Byzantine treasures, including churches, buildings, towers, walls and arches. Many of these have survived through the Turkish occupation, countless earthquakes and the Great Fire of 1917

Although many of the churches were converted into mosques in the Ottoman period, those that survived returned to their original use as churches in the 1910s and 1920s, and they often dominate the streetscape.

However, one church that never became a mosque and that is easy to pass unnoticed because of its location is the 14th century Church of the Metamorphosis tou Sotíros (Μεταμορφώσεως του Σωτήρος, the Transfiguration of the Saviour), also known locally as the Church of the Saviour (Ναός του Σωτήρος).

This 14th century Byzantine church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the ancient Christian and Byzantine monuments in Thessaloniki. It stands across the street from the Arch of Galerius, at the junction of Egnatia Street and Palaion Patron Street, between the church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Church of Ipapantis.

Yet this charming little Byzantine church, despite its tall cupola and its unique and rare architectural features, is often missed by passers-by because it is half-hidden below the current street level of Egnatia Street and is suffocated by the apartment blocks that tower above it and all around it.

A coin found mounted in the dome of the church indicates it was built around 1340-1350. Some tombs found under the floor of the north and south arch, under the narthex, and in the area around the building, lead archaeologists to conclude that the church was originally as a sepulchral chapel for a Byzantine monastery.

A small reliquary marking the consecration of the church after it was built and two other inscriptions show that the church was first named in honour of the Panaghia, the Virgin Mary.

In its original form, this was a square church with a dome, but an earlier, though not Byzantine, narthex at the west end of the church was demolished in 1936 to add the later narthex.

The church has a a square floor plan, with four semi-circular niches, one of which forms the arch into the Sanctuary area, and there is no icon screen to mark this division as in other Greek churches.

The church has a large and high octagonal dome that is decorated with successive arches and brick semi-columns. The walls are made of raw clay stones at the base and bricks in the upper section.

The walls inside were decorated in 1350-1370, and this decorative work is part of the Palaeologan tradition. The frescoes in the dome have been dated to the same period, between 1350 and 1370.

The frescoes in the dome are unusual for their depiction of the of the earthly Divine Liturgy as it evolves in the church. The Ascension of Christ is at the top of the dome, and in the levels below are the Virgin Mary (the Panaghia) with the Apostles, accompanied by depictions of the sun, moon and winds. Eight prophets can be seen between the windows of the dome, while at the base there is a depiction of the Divine Liturgy with bishops, deacons, cantors, and lay people.

The church was never transformed into a mosque during the Turkish presence in Thessaloniki. Perhaps it was too small for use as a mosque, perhaps it was saved because it stood in yard of a house in the Christian district of Panagouda.

The church survived the great fire that raged through Thessaloniki in 1917. But 43 years ago, the great earthquake in 1978 caused significant damage to the church, and the tower with its cupola still seems to lean to one side even after extensive repairs.

Despite its half-hidden place below street level on Egnatia Street, this small church is worth seeking out.

The dome depicts the Ascension of Christ and the Divine Liturgy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 13: 36-43 (NRSVA):

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37 He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The church tower and cupola seem to be leaning to one side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 July 2021) recalls William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, and invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the lives and works of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson. May we remember their efforts to abolish the slave trade and renew our commitment to ending modern slavery.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A small roadside shrine on Egnatia Street in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Icons on a stall in the streets of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)