A religious sister describes how attending a wedding revealed to her the loving gaze of God.
Several years back, at a relatively ordinary wedding in a cathedral in Vermont, I witnessed a groom captivated by his bride. At the time, I was a lay woman discerning my vocation, demanding answers from the Lord as to how He’d respond to the deep desires of my heart if I was called to religious life.
I specifically prayed about my longing to captivate someone’s heart, to be gazed at with love the way a groom looks at a bride—which was clearly impossible if I was to have no earthly bridegroom. Then, a divine reality hit me like a 2-by-4. If the groom looks at the bride with that look of love, it’s because Jesus the Bridegroom looks at us that way first.
It was a moment, a dramatic moment, when I knew He had inspired my heart to desire Him alone. I was grateful I could cover my emotional response with the fact I was at a wedding. No one knew my life had dramatically changed in an instant. And in the end, it was I who was captivated by a gaze.
It’s a remarkable thing; even when we are separated by the distance of a room, catching a glance from the one you love from across the way immediately brings them to your side. We imagine how the gaze of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, gave our Lord strength to shoulder His pain as He walked the road to Calvary. A gaze of love communicates the radical power of presence, sometimes even more powerfully without the help of verbal words.
What is a gaze?
But, not all gazing is equal. We know that merely looking at another person won’t communicate intimacy. What is gazing, actually? We must look to our source; how does God the Father gaze at us, through the face of the Beloved Son? Pope Benedict XVI says the gaze of Jesus is “a gaze that begins in the heart and does not stop at the surface, that goes beyond appearances and manages to capture the deepest aspirations of the other: waiting to be heard, for caring attention, in a word: love.” Gazing answers the thirst of the other, which is to be seen. In our apostolic work, we call this gazing “delighting in the other”; it means receiving the other before us, in all that they are, letting the Lord move our hearts in love for them in all their uniqueness.
Our ability to gaze at others comes first from the gaze we’ve received from the Father, for all that we have comes from what we have received (cf. 1 Cor 4). And our love for Him and others is always a response to that first perfect gaze of Love Himself, that continues to create and sustain all of His creation, especially its crown: the human person. Now, I really need to offer a caveat: Our understanding of “gazing” is still very human: imperfect and finite. It’s radically different from God’s work of gazing, an infinite and eternal work. It’s a gaze that is always alive, and always awaiting our response. And, it’s always transformative. In fact, His gaze of love makes me capable of responding to Him, and worthy of receiving Him. St. John of the Cross captures this in his poetry:
When you regarded me,
Your eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
For this You loved me again,
And thereby my eyes merited
To adore what in You they saw.
Despise me not,Spiritual Canticle, 32-33
For if I was swarthy once
You can regard me now;
Since you have regarded me,
Grace and beauty have You given me.
When we encounter the intimate gaze of God who loves us in all our imperfections and even thirsts for us, we are changed, freed to become more fully who we are. And we must stay here; only in His gaze that sees all of who we are — our past, present, and even our future glory — and loves us infinitely, can we see ourselves correctly. Commenting on the gaze of the Bridegroom on the Bride in the Song of Songs, Fr. Arminjon, S.J reminds us: “What is essential is to remain in this look … it is impossible to despise and depreciate oneself because one cannot see oneself anymore but through the loving and transfiguring look.”
This all sounds lovely. But, it comes off a little too abstract. We know we are built for gazing, to be the center of someone’s undivided attention. The amazing thing is that this inherent need for the transforming power of presence through gazing is quite literally stamped into our very biology, from the moment we begin our lives in the womb.
Working with vulnerable pregnant women, the relationship between mothers and children often comes to mind. One of the most central ideas I’ve learned as a religious sister was shared by a friend of my community who specializes in the psychoanalyst realm of Mother-Child Attachment. It’s called maternal gazing, and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like: the frequent eye contact between the mother and her child encourages neuron development. And, the child’s interior world develops by simply being gazed at. This is why carriages for the youngest babies are usually designed with the child facing the one pushing.
Trying to stand
In the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, we have a convent where some pregnant women can come and live with us. A Sister shared with me that a few years back, one of our guests was drying off her three-month-old baby girl from a bath. Our guest grabbed a bottle of baby oil, and remarked, “I give her a little massage every night. I start with her toes …” And she was spending a long time on each little toe, so Sister said, “You do this every night? You’re spoiling her!” And then the mom stopped, looked at her, and said in total seriousness, “She works hard all day.” Sister paused for a second – thinking, um, she’s three months old!
Sister said, “… The baby does?”
“Yes! She’s very active! And, she tries to stand. She works really hard all day.” And she turned back to massaging her little foot. Sometimes I think about this when I had a really hard day, and I picture the Father looking at me with this tender look of love, saying “Hey. You’re doing great. You tried to stand today!”
From the moment of our birth, we were made to be gazed upon in love, and we come to know our identities from a young age by simply receiving.
The gaze of saints
Among the saints, we see the power of a gaze that communicates the deeper reality of God’s love, and even those who didn’t personally meet them were moved by it. Many people recall locking eyes with St. John Paul II on one of his many pilgrimages, and felt that he somehow knew them.
One of our Sisters often recalls the gaze of Mother Teresa: “When she looked at you, it was like she was piercing into your soul!” Yet, it’s important to note that this work of “gazing” isn’t limited to locked eye contact, but also a communication that the depths of one’s heart have been heard. In the lives of the saints, we see this attention to detail in the lives of others, the intentional gaze towards the other that assures them I see you.
Sliding door moments
Brene Brown is a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability. She calls these moments of leaning in “Sliding Door” moments. The example she gives is from another researcher, who talked about something that happened with his wife. One night, he was trying to finish reading a mystery novel, and he was dead-set on finishing it. He took a break and noticed his wife looking in the mirror. She looked sad. It was a moment of decision for him: if he asks what’s wrong, he probably won’t get to finish the novel. But, he chose to ask, and she shared with him what made her sad. Instead of turning away, he created this moment of communion (Daring Greatly, 50).
Our life is filled with these little moments, lasting only seconds, where we can give someone a loving glance. And we can come face to face with our own discomforts, and our own weaknesses. Yet, we are guaranteed two things: we are infinitely loved, and through Jesus, we have been given the ability to love without limits (cf. Fraternal Life in Community).
Don’t be afraid to lean in, and trust in the power of Jesus in you to love the other before you. We can foster this ability to be present to others by spending time with Our Lord in Adoration, where we receive His gaze through His Real Presence.
His gaze transforms us, regardless of what we feel when we show up. The important part is showing up. When St. John Vianney asked an old farmer what he did in the church looking at the tabernacle, the man said, “Nothing, I look at Him, and He looks at me.” Being before His loving gaze in adoration forms us, making us capable of responding to His presence with our own, and being truly present to others.