Thursday, 7 December 2006

John Milton on the calling of the disabled

England’s greatest poet, John Milton, suffered from glaucoma, which led to his total blindness by the age of 43. In one of his sonnets (Sonnet XIX), Milton struggled to come to terms with his blindness in relation to his profound sense of personal vocation. He believed God had called him to be England’s poet and prophet: but what would become of this vocation now that he was blind?

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In this sonnet, Milton finds resolution not by downplaying the severity of his impairment, nor by giving up his sense of divine calling, but by enlarging his understanding of what it means to be called by God. God has many servants who can carry out his will. He does not “need” any person’s talents and abilities, since all such abilities are already “his own gifts.” Our role, then, is simply to offer service in God’s royal court; our role is to be ready to serve whenever God might call. Such service is performed not only by those who “speed” over land and sea; it is equally performed by those who merely “wait” in willing readiness: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In this way, Milton both lamented his blindness and affirmed the integrity and authenticity of his vocation. To be called by God is not the same as achieving things for God. To be called by God is to wait on God, to be ready for God’s voice.

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