Wednesday 6 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.


Anonymous said...

Ben, have you read the work of a modern-day English poet who also believed that he was called by God to be a poet and prophet, and who also went blind (and deaf), namely Jack Clemo?

If not, run to your nearest library or secondhand book site and get some of Jack's fine Calvinist poetry (his novels and autobiographical works are unique too). You won't regret it.

Anonymous said...

This is a great poem. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of blindness . . .

Frances Young, who is, of course, a fine patristics scholar, referred in her lecture to the 4th century Alexandrian theologian Didymus the Blind. Actually, she said, he was known as the Seer. Interesting.

Another interesting point is that John Hull describes himself not as blind but as "a whole-body seer"; touch, for example, becomes "the art of gazing with one's hands".

He also makes a sharp observation about why people tend to feel uncomfortable around the disabled. It is, he suggests, because "The disabled person tends to render other people powerless". Big theological implications there, I think.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Marva Dawn, an excellent theologian with the Lutheran Brethren (an expert on Jacques Ellul and a former student of John Howard Yoder), suffers with many disabilities. I have often thought that it gives her a great many theological insights.

byron smith said...

Thanks for this poem and your reflections. Very timely and much appreciated.

Unknown said...

Great poem and post Ben. While I realize this is an older post, Byron aptly linked me to it as I consider Identity and what it means.

I agree that all our gifts, talents and abilities are gifts from God. Therefore there should be a sense of empowering that we can step out to do things for/with God that are within our calling with the humility to allow God to make straight the paths we are to tread.

As Bonhoffer says, Christ beckons us to die... and it is in dying to self we gain much of Christ.

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