NOTE: This interview was originally given by Priest-monk Ephraim in the United States, but never published, it seems. It is posted here with his permission and provides an illuminating insight into why a sighted person might choose to learn Braille.
Interview with Father Ephraim and Ray McAl
1. What about your name, occupation, and bio do you wish to share in brief?
My name is Father Ephraim, and I am a 41-year-old priest-monk at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona. After finishing college, I became a monk on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece, where I stayed 3 years before being asked to come to Arizona to help establish a new monastery here. Two of my responsibilities in our monastery are to be the choir director and music teacher.
Braille had always fascinated me, but as a sighted person I had no reason to learn it. In 2010, however, because of my involvement with ecclesiastical music, I found out that blind chanters in Greece lack access to most books of Byzantine music (which is the kind of music sung in all churches in Greece as well as in Greek Orthodox churches around the world) because they have not yet been transcribed into braille. Since thousands of pages of Byzantine music have been written on computers by people using the program I created for writing Byzantine music notation (which is completely different from staff notation), I decided to write a program that would automatically convert Byzantine music notation for the sighted into braille Byzantine music notation, and vice-versa. Thank God, that project was a success.
At the same time, I wondered, Can a sighted person read braille? I wonder what it would be like? So I yielded to my curiosity and ordered a free New Testament in Grade 2 English braille to see if I could learn to read it. Since I didn’t have a teacher, I found a website that explained the contractions and also found some articles regarding braille reading technique. Later, I emailed many questions to the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and Jerry Whittle eagerly answered all my questions and continued to encourage me when I felt like giving up. http://www.louisianacenter.org/
Another thing that kept me motivated was my keen awareness of the contemporary braille crisis: that less than 15% of the visually impaired people in America are proficient in braille, and that it is only the illiterate blind that have a high rate of unemployment. Since I believe that Gandhi’s statement become the change you want to see in the world is effective due to mankind’s interrelatedness, I am confident that my efforts have not only benefited myself but will also benefit others in subtle ways I may never know.
So after 18 months of consistent practice (I read 7,000 pages in 2011), I am now able to read familiar texts (like the Bible) at 48 words per minute and to read memorized texts (like daily prayers) at 80 w.p.m.
2. What activities associated with the blind have you done? (reading Braille, walking with your eyes closed, etc.)
I continue to use braille every day for reading the Bible and my daily prayers. I have transcribed several books and booklets into braille in Greek and English. I created an online tutorial for learning Braille Byzantine Music notation. I have also walked a few miles with a long, white cane while wearing sleepshades. https://web.archive.org/web/20110630220052/http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/music/BrailleByzExercises.html
3. What was the strength of your vision at your last eye test? (20-20, 20-50, etc.) (I ask this because it adds filler to the statements that one with normal vision is reading as one who is blind.)
Although I have very slight myopia, my vision with glasses (which I wear all day) is 20-14 (that is better than 20-20).
4. How have these “blind” activities such as Braille-reading benefited you?
I found that reading braille with my fingers (and especially reading sacred texts) gives me a sense of connection with the texts that is not present when reading with the eyes.
Furthermore, reading braille with my fingers not only gives me a sense of accomplishment, but it also provides a subtle, sensory pleasure. I must admit that for years I neglected reading the Bible on my own-primarily because in our daily church services we hear different parts of it every day. I justified my negligence by telling myself, “I already know what the Bible says.” But the extra joys of tactile reading have motivated me to begin reading it every day again. And even though intellectually I already know what the Bible says, reading it every day has become a real source of inspiration and strength.
5. In what ways might you think the blind have a special understanding of spirituality?
This will be a roundabout answer to your question, so bear with me!
One secret that much of Western Christianity has been unaware of is that prayer does not mean disassociating the mind from the body but rather delving with the mind more deeply into the body. (After all, Jesus did tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.) Eastern Christianity has always emphasized the value of this kind of prayer, which is called in Greek “kardiake proseuhe” or “noera proseuhe,” which means “prayer of the mind in the heart.” That having been said, when a person (sighted or blind) becomes fully aware of the physical sensations of his or her body with mindfulness, it becomes more natural for the mind to return to the heart and for prayer to arise that is embodied rather than dissociated-which is the place of hypnosis and delusion.
Although vision does not hinder this embodied prayer, the overload of extraneous visual information tends to be more distracting than helpful. Thus when I close my eyes, I find that not only am I protected from visual distractions, but also (and more importantly) it becomes easier to focus on the physical sensations of the body with mindfulness, which leads to prayer. Based on this, I suspect that blind people would have a natural tendency to be more attuned to their bodily sensations (probably without even realizing that they have this natural tendency), which in turn should make prayer easier. However, this is only a hunch because I realize that blindness cannot be accurately simulated for sighted people simply by closing their eyes, and it would therefore be faulty logic for me to draw conclusions regarding the blind merely by closing my eyes.
Another way in which I am guessing that blindness might help spirituality is in the very general sense that limitations tend to make people more focused. Since blindness can limit the number of potential activities to choose from, it is likely that the blind will have slightly fewer distractions and thus be slightly more focused on whatever they choose to do. If what they choose to do is something spiritual (such as praying or reading spiritual books), I would expect them to excel in it more than someone else who has more distractions. Nevertheless, this is pure conjecture and could be far from the truth if I am overlooking something due to my limited experience with the blind.
6. What other aspects of blindness or things the blind do might you wish to explore in the future?
If I had extra time on my hands, I would enjoy becoming proficient in human echolocation, i.e., navigating based on the sounds echoed by making loud, crisp clicks with my tongue. Although I wouldn’t expect to attain the proficiency of Ben Underwood and Daniel Kish, I would expect to be able to reach at least the elementary levels of success-especially considering that I have found a sighted person online who has had success in teaching himself this skill. But since this has very few practical uses for a sighted person, I will probably never invest the time to learn it, even though it can be learned quite quickly.
7. What connection might there be between your work in preparing Braille Greek Orthodox files and your experience with reading braille?
I am not sure that the ability to read braille with my fingers (instead of only visually) provided me with any experience or knowledge that affected the way I prepare material in braille. But one thing that all my braille reading definitely did do was to make me remember all the contractions of Grade 2 braille very well.
8. Do you have any friends or relatives who are blind?
When I first started learning braille, I had no blind friends or relatives. But now, because of my braille transcriptions and my own reading of braille, I have met and befriended several wonderful blind people. Perhaps this is the greatest of all the blessings I have reaped from learning braille.
9. What might you tell someone who is blind and struggling with prayer and finding meaning spiritually?
The description of a person “struggling with prayer and finding meaning spiritually” is too general a description to enable me to give specific advice that would be appropriate to that individual’s particular needs. I would give that blind person the same advice I would give a sighted person. But if they were visually impaired and illiterate, I would urge them to learn braille, unless of course their vision is good enough to read print easily and is not expected to deteriorate.