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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Walk by Faith, and Not by Sight: The True Story of Blind Hiker Bill Irwin

by Susan Fox

“Stand firm, and you will win life.” (Luke 21:19)

By everyone’s evaluation, Bill Irwin was a failure.
Bill Irwin, the first and only blind man
 to hike the Appalachian Trail
with only his Seeing Eye dog Orient

A womanizing alcoholic with four failed marriages, who had lost his sight, Irwin was severely depressed.

Then his son called him, confessed his cocaine habit and asked for his help. Bill spent a week in rehabilitation with the young man, constantly planning his escape back to a mindless alcoholic haze and his five-pack-a-day smoking habit.

Suddenly on the last day of his son’s rehab at the graduation ceremony, Bill Irwin introduced himself, “I’m Bill Irwin, and I’m an alcoholic.” The crowd at the rehab center was stunned as he’d spent the entire previous week denying just that.

He didn’t know how those words came out of his mouth -- except by the grace of God. After that he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and experienced a profound conversion to Christ at the age of 49.

‘When I told people I was born again, it was more than a cliché to me. A part of me that had been dead as a tent peg had come to life. It had changed my entire purpose for living,” Bill wrote in his 1992 memoir, “Blind Courage.” Irwin died of prostate cancer on March 1, 2014, at the age of 73.

After his conversion and after he stopped smoking and drinking, Bill prayed: “Lord, I’m so grateful for all You’ve given me and all You’ve done for me. If there’s ever anything I can do as a way of saying thanks to You, I want you to know I’ll do it, whatever it is.”

Be careful what you ask for because God apparently decided that Bill would be a fantastic model of “walking by faith and not by sight.” In fact, Bill was about to discover that God cannot be perceived with the senses, but He can be seen clearly without them.
White Blaze markings
show you are still on the Appalachian Trail
God was calling Bill to an impossible task: walk the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail, the longest continuously marked hiking trail in the world. The only problem is that Bill could not see the White Blaze markings on the 14-state trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, nor could he “see” the majestic views along the trail.

Bill Irwin and Orient, part of the
team they called the "Orient Express"
Nevertheless, accompanied only by his Seeing Eye dog, Orient, he completed the journey in nine months in 1990 and along the way became a symbol of hope for millions of other physically challenged Americans and a witness of patient endurance for all Christians blindly struggling in the Wilderness.   

Now filmmakers Paula O'Neal (Producer) and Clint Ross (Director), are recreating his journey as a narrative film called Blind Courage. The story deserves to be told! Bill’s witness to the value of human life is vitally important in these times when the best medical professionals have begun to define handicapped lives like Bill’s as “futile.”

Increasingly in the U.S., Canada and Europe, handicapped people -- who once fought for special access to buildings and rest rooms – now have to fight to get medical care because their lives are deemed not worth saving.  If you want this movie to be made, go here to donate before Nov. 22, 2014: BLIND COURAGE THE MOVIE The trailer made me weep.
Brittany Maynard
chose to end her life

Nov. 1, 2014 
Sadly, some people agree with the medical establishment that their lives are not worth living. Twenty-nine year old Brittany Maynard recently became a poster child for the Right-to-Die Movement. With incurable brain cancer, she moved to the suicide state of Oregon so that she could avoid a long and debilitating hospice. She chose to end her life Nov. 1, 2014. In one interview, before her death, she said, “Having this choice (to die) has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”

Bill Irwin, were he still alive, could relate to that because when he was 28 years old, he too was diagnosed with a fatal eye cancer that was expected to spread to his brain, causing his death in three months time. As a result, he was on board with the death wish, drinking himself to oblivion. They removed one of his eyes. Luckily, they studied it and determined he didn’t have cancer, just an incurable condition that would slowly lead to complete blindness in his other eye. Bill returned to his workaholic life as a corporate executive and all the little vices he used to numb the pain from a very difficult childhood and his broken relationships.

But God got Bill in the end. After his conversion, he kept getting inundated by family and friends planning trips in the Appalachian Trail. He began to think that God wanted him to make the journey too, but he couldn’t understand how God would ask such a thing.

Bill admitted to God that he was overweight, clumsy, didn’t like camping, and he would make a very bad Christian witness because he didn’t like to talk about his conversion. Plus Bill was blind. Only 10 percent of what they call the Appalachian through-hikers actually completes the 2,168-mile journey. And all of them could see.

Most are injured, run out of money, or become discouraged. These are your experienced hikers, who love the outdoors. But Bill was not like that at all.  The conversation Bill had with God about going on that hike was very similar to the ones Moses had with God when He called him to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt.

"’I am the LORD; speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I speak to you.’ But Moses said before the LORD, ‘Behold, I am unskilled in speech; how then will Pharaoh listen to me?’" (Exodus 6:28-30)

In fact, Moses was so insistent that he was a clumsy speaker that God assigned his brother Aaron to speak for him. So Moses would speak for God, and Aaron would speak for Moses.

To march in and tell the leader of Egypt to “let my people go” must have taken quite a lot of trust in God because Moses clearly was not qualified, and besides he might be killed.

So it was with Bill Irwin. He was not qualified for the task that God gave him. And he was almost killed several times. He met bears, got trounced on by an upset moose, fell down every day numerous times, broke his rib on a sharp rock (and there were many of those), was stranded without water, couldn’t find his way back to his pack when the temperatures dropped, and he almost drowned crossing a freezing river. Every single time God picked him up and saved him.
Scene from Blind Courage The Movie
God calls weak men like Bill Irwin and Moses to impossible tasks so the world can never believe that mere men did incredible things. No, in the Exodus and on the Appalachian Trail, we watch God working through the weakest of men.

Starting out on the trail completely unknown in Springer Mountain, Georgia, he was very quickly overtaken with discouragement. In that sense, he was like the Israelites after Moses led them out of Egypt. They faced the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army breathing down their backs. Moses asked, “What shall we do?” God said, “Go straight ahead.” He told them effectively to walk into the Sea, but before they got there, God had parted the waters and they passed safely.
Screen Shot from Blind Courage The Movie
Actor Bill Oberst Jr. will play the blind hiker
In the Blind Courage Movie Trailer, someone asks Bill, “Ever think about quitting?”

Bill answers: “Every day.”

“How do you know which way to go?” the guy asked.

“I don’t.  I just follow him (the dog).  God leads the dog, and the dog leads me.” In fact, the color blind Seeing Eye dog eventually learned to recognize the white blazes on the trees marking the trail.

Bill writes that God sent little witnesses on the trail to befriend and encourage him. Because of these encounters, the man who didn’t want to engage in Christian witness became an effective evangelist, forming deep friendships along the way.

His first encounter was with a lady named Patty. He was hanging his wet clothes to dry. “After only four days on the trail, I was already a few miles behind schedule. I was feeling guilty and a bit discouraged when a woman’s voice said, ‘Hi, how’s it going?’”

A day hiker, she told him that he was doing the right thing getting his stuff dried out, and it wasn’t a sign of weakness, nor a waste of time. The best part was she told him he looked like a guy who would make it all the way to Maine. That was just what he needed to hear.

Like all through-hikers, Bill had packed too much stuff. He met up with a Forest Ranger and his wife, who modified Orient’s pack using an industrial sewing machine so the dog could carry his necessary load. The ranger helped Bill pick what he would take, and what he would mail back home. He also told him to dump his “dead man’s clothes:” Cotton created the perfect conditions for hypothermia.

Bill no longer regarded the strangers’ kindnesses as a coincidence. He called it “God performing a miracle while maintaining his anonymity.” He was beginning to understand the mercy of God. “That was a big departure from the kind of thinking that had governed most of my life.”

Bill spent 49 years of his life just giving up emotionally. He spent the next 24 years doing the opposite. Many times in his memoir, he said he asked himself why he didn’t give up a task that was difficult even for a sighted man. Then he would come to the conclusion through prayer that God asked him to do this for a reason, and he would just keep putting one foot in front of another.  Bill was developing the Christian virtue of enduring perseverance.  

Consider the Parable of the Sower: "Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed, which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” (Luke 8:13-15)  In Bill’s life, God  planted a seed in a good heart that bore fruit in perseverance. 

Once word got out that a blind man was hiking the Appalachian Trail, reporters from every major media outlet mobbed Bill. He didn’t hesitate answering the questions about why he was doing his impossible hike: he expressed his gratitude to God. 
Blind Courage The Movie
“Why are you doing this Bill?” he was asked in the Blind Courage Movie Trailer.
“To say thank you to God.”
“For what?”
“For savin’ my life.”

Bill Irwin was not a Catholic man, but on the trail he walked he learned discernment of spirits. Catholics divide the movements of the spirit into that of the flesh, the evil spirit and the good spirit. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1John 4:1) Bill might have been weakened many times by the spirit of the flesh, when he faced pain and discouragement. But he ultimately welcomed the directions of the Good Spirit. For Bill was led to patience in trial.

Bill speaks of the times God spoke to his heart in silence. It frustrated the people who assisted Bill when they would give him advice on how and when to take certain paths along the trail because Bill would never readily agree to their advice. He always said he would pray about it. The desire for prayer is a sign of the movement of the Good Spirit, leading you in the virtue of hope.  Near the end of his journey he evidenced indifference to human success, willing to give up the journey before the end or continue it as God willed. This is another sign of the action of the Good Spirit in Bill’s life. The evil spirit is opposed to humility and obedience.

On the trail, Bill plunged into silence to perceive God without his senses. Blindness is actually a tremendous advantage in a difficult spiritual journey. One will never see God in His Transcendence inside creation, and creation is perceived with the senses. Think of the Apostle St. Thomas, who refused to believe that Jesus had appeared to the other apostles after His death: "Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." (John 20:25)
St Thomas puts his hand in Christ's side
Christ responded to his apostle’s need for sensual reassurance. Appearing again to the apostles, He said to Thomas: "Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing." (John 20:27) Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28)

But Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." (John 20:29)

Jesus was speaking about people like Bill Irwin. God called Bill to that kind of faith in which man enters the dark night – the prelude to union with God. Literally, one has to become blind to see. “Oh, night that guided me, 
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, 
Lover transformed in the Beloved!” sang St. John of the Cross in his poem “Dark Night of the Soul.” The night is allegory for leaving the world of the senses to seek God in blindness. It’s not a well marked path, and you might not see the White Blazes.

St. John concluded his poem reclining his head upon the breast of Jesus: “I remained, lost in oblivion; 
My face I reclined on the Beloved. 
All ceased and I abandoned myself, 
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”

Ah, may we all leave our cares forgotten among the lilies.

May we all take that difficult journey, blindly following the instructions of the Beloved, and listening for the Voice of God, directing us on the trail until we arrive safely nestled in the Heart of Christ at our eternal home.

The real Bill Irwin doing
what he does best
To see a short video clip of the real Bill Irwin near the end of his 2,168-mile hike in Maine:  Bill Irwin Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine in 1990

The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
On a dark night, 
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed, 
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, 
By the secret ladder, disguised--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment, 
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night, 
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, 
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my 
This light guided me 
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me--
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me, 
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, 
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast, 
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, 
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret 
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck 
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion; 
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, 
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.


  1. If Christians had good evidence for the Resurrection, they wouldn't ask you to believe by faith.

    Think about that.

    Historians don't ask you to believe the historicity of any other alleged event in history..."by faith". So why do we need faith to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth if the evidence for this event is as strong as Christian apologists claim?

    Christian Americans, Muslim Iranians, Hindu Indians, and atheist Japanese all believe that Alexander the Great captured the city of Tyre; that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; and that Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. No one is asked to use faith to believe the historicity of these events. So why do we need faith to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus if the evidence for it is good?

    Answer: It's not good. In fact, its terrible; nothing but assumptions and second century hearsay.

    Christians ask us to believe their ancient, supernatural tall tale based on very weak evidence, and, a jump into the dark (faith). And how do they get us to make this jump into the dark? Not by presenting us with more evidence, but by appeals to our emotions and/or our fears: Either by using, "Our almighty, all-knowing god will protect you and give you eternal life (security and hope)", or, "Our righteous, just, and holy god will torture you for all eternity if you DON'T make the jump (using blind faith)."

    It's an ugly, manipulative, sadistic superstition, folks. Unfortunately, it is the superstition used by the largest cult on the planet.

    Let's double our efforts to debunk it.

  2. Christians do have good evidence of the Resurrection, more than 500 witnesses, but by your theory what we read in the newspaper today is false. You don't accept the word of witnesses. No one asks you to believe that Christ came and was resurrected by evidence other than what you have of Alexander the Great or any other historical figure. However, you are confused. There is a passage in Scripture, "Walk by faith and not by sight." It refers to the life of a believing Christian, not to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For that we have evidence. God bless you. Susan Fox

    1. So you are saying that your (Catholic) Christian belief system is not based on the historicity of the Resurrection but on faith? So what exactly are you espousing faith in? Faith itself?

      Having faith in faith as a valid means of determining reality seems like pretty shaky ground. Can't the Muslim and Hindu make the same claim?

    2. Gary I said the opposite. My faith is based on historical evidence, the witness of over 500 people. I don't need faith to know that Christ rose from the dead. The expression "walk by faith" has absolutely nothing to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You simply injected it into the conversation for some reason. Susan Fox

    3. Right here in this piece we have the testimony of a witness, Thomas, who put his hands into the wounds on Christ after His Resurrection.

    4. Sorry I misunderstood.

      Paul says in I Corinthians 15 that he had received the "500 witnesses" report from other sources. Paul does not assert that he interviewed these 500 witnesses himself to corroborate their testimony. In fact, many NT scholars believe that Paul was simply reciting an early Christian Creed in this passage. He may have assumed the "500 witnesses" was an historical fact just as Christians today assume it is an historical fact. How we would know??

      It is interesting that the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts never mentions that 500 people saw Jesus at one time in one place. This author states in Luke chapter one that he was not an eyewitness himself to any of the events he wrote down but that he had carefully researched the story from other reliable sources. "Luke" surely had access to Paul's epistle, I Corinthians, but yet Luke does not repeat the claim about 500 witnesses in either Luke or Acts. Why not? Did "Luke" not find this information reliable??

      As for Thomas statement in the Gospels, how do you know that a man named Thomas said and did these things? Do we know who wrote the Gospels and for what purposes they wrote them? Maybe the Gospels were written as allegories to convey a spiritual message only, using fictional characters, not recording actual history. How do we know otherwise??

  3. Sorry it doesn't say anything of what you imagine it to say. It is unequivocal. Absolutely unambiguous. "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born."

    It is common for Gospel writers to omit information that appears in other gospels because each gospel is written for a different purpose and a different audience. Luke may have written both his gospel and Acts before he read Paul's epistles. Why? because he says he wrote the Gospel first, and the Acts came second. Acts ends before Paul dies, and Paul dies about 64 AD. So maybe Paul hadn't written his epistles by the time Luke and Acts were written. Luke may have read them after Paul died.

    The Apostle John was a witness, present in the upper room when Thomas put his hands in Jesus side. That is not something you forget. John wrote John's gospel. It was written last. John died an old old man. The Church put them in the order written, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. Matthew was a tax collector. He was skilled in keeping records. He kept a complete written record of the sayings of Jesus. John Mark wrote Mark. He was the young man in Mark who ran away in in the Garden of Gethsemane without his clothes. He was a disciple of St. Peter. He took Matthew's document with the sayings of Jesus, and wrote the story from Peter's perspective. Matthew was speaking to the Jews, so he collected everything about Jesus that fulfilled the Old Testament. Luke interviewed the Mother of Jesus, or someone who had interviewed the Mother of Jesus. It's clear from the text. His purpose was to write a clear and orderly account that would confirm the Oral Tradition that Theophilus had already received. There were numerous people present at all the major events of the New Testament, and they were so excited about what they heard and saw they were ready to split a gut. But basically, they are the ones, the apostles who handed down the accounts of what happened with Jesus. The authors of the message are in the gospels. You can recognize them-- Nicodemus who came at night and spoke to Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a tomb. John, a young man who laid his head on Jesus shoulder, the beloved, during the Last Supper. He was related to the Pharisees so he got a front seat on all the action when Christ was betrayed and taken away. Peter was there, busy denying Christ, just like Jesus said he would. Simon the Cyrene carried the cross with Jesus. We read in Acts that his sons were early Christians, so Jesus made an impression. Simon would intimately know what happened on the way to Golgotha. There's all those Marys at the foot of the cross with Jesus Mother. There are so many witnesses, if you but read the four gospels, it's unbelievable.

    1. My goodness, my dear friends. There are so many assumptions in your response. I challenge you to do a google search on these issues. As with any disagreement, listen to both sides. Read the Christian position and that of skeptics. I think you will be shocked by what your learn.

    2. So that's your excuse not to read the Bible yourself?

  4. Atheists love to play the telephone game where someone whispers nonsense in someone's ear and the message comes out garbled after 20 people pass the "message." But they always use a meaningless phrase or message, something not important. Now I was news reporter for 12 years, and every time I went out to cover an event with two or three competing reporters we all came back with the same basic facts. Maybe I got a better quote from someone, but no one's facts disagreed. Nowadays we have some wretched reporters that make things up. But in my day the facts were facts, and there was no deviation on a straight news story. These early Christians were so excited by what they saw and heard, and they got the story straight, just like I did for 12 years. Succeeding generations kept the story straight as this was the Jewish culture, and they had a history of keeping their own history accurately, oral and written.

    We know Thomas said and did what he said in the upper room because 10 of the other apostles of Jesus Christ were present, and three of them were responsible for the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. They were witnesses. There is no doubt. Since you are faced with so much doubt, I beg you to try to talk to God and ask Him to resolve your doubt. Your doubt is unreasonable and it is a spiritual problem. I don't rely on "faith" for believing the things in the Gospel. I don't even rely on "faith" for knowing Christ. I know Christ personally --- just like the woman at the well. Her name was Photina, and we know what happened to her. She became a Christian evangelist and martyr especially well beloved of the Orthodox Church. I met Christ personally when I was four years old. Because I am Catholic He is present in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. My father died suddenly and my mother took me to a Catholic Chapel. She said pray to Jesus for your Daddy. I responded, "I certainly won't!" I was very angry because God took my father. But Jesus and i connected anyway and I have loved Him ever since. Anger is a good prayer. However, recognize at four years old, I didn't know anything. I had no intellectual knowledge of my faith. I wasn't indoctrinated. I simply knew Him, recognized Him and have spoken to Him every since.

    What I find so amazing about meeting you here Gary, is that this story is about a blind man. Bill Irwin was physically blind. But he could see! You can't. Jesus said the same thing about the Pharisees.
    "And Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, "We are not blind too, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."(John 9:39-41)

    God bless you. I will pray for you. Susan Fox

    1. I meant no disrespect to Mr. Irwin or to you, Susan.

      I consider myself an evangelist. An evangelist for the real Truth; for reason and science. I am sharing information with you in the hope that you will investigate your beliefs further and not just assume that the supernatural claims of your religion are true. The world would be a much better place without the divisions caused by religious superstitions.

      Take care.

  5. "It is common for Gospel writers to omit information that appears in other gospels because each gospel is written for a different purpose and a different audience."

    Do the writers of these pieces of first century literature tell you this in the body of the text, or are you making an assumption?

  6. "These early Christians were so excited by what they saw and heard, and they got the story straight,..."

    How do you know? Scholars say that Matthew copied 90% of Mark, often word for word, into his gospel, and Luke copied 50% of Mark into his work. Why would eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses need to plagiarize another "eyewitness' " work?

    1. Read the Gospels. The early witnesses are portrayed, and their role in the Gospel is clear. Scholars say Matthew wrote down the sayings of Jesus, and Mark relied on Peter to put the sayings in context. Peter is the ghost writer of the Gospel of Mark. Peter witnessed everything. Atheists don't have scholars, just ignorance.

  7. " Succeeding generations kept the story straight as this was the Jewish culture, and they had a history of keeping their own history accurately, oral and written."

    This statement is based purely on assumptions. You have no evidence whatsoever that this statement is historical fact.

  8. Read the entire Old Testament. It's existence is not an assumption.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. I encourage you to investigate these issues further looking at both Christian and skeptics' research. If you would like to come on my blog and challenge any of my beliefs, I would be honored: Escaping Christian Fundamentalism

      Take care,


    2. Dear Gary, I do admire your desire to share the truth with others. Thank for you for taking the time to comment here. I pray you will find the truth so you will no longer lead others astray.

      I did want to add that your understanding of "faith" is not Christian based. You seem to view faith as believing in fantasy. But faith is actually ascent to verifiable evidence. The many witnesses to the Resurrection were credible witnesses as most of them gave their lives for the Truth. God bless you. Susan Fox