We are all familiar with the almost-but-not-quite connectedness that the innovation of Facetime brings to the college experience. On the one hand, the joy of seeing a beloved friend or family member brightens my day and draws the other into my daily narrative. On the other hand, my hearts continues to search—for presence, for the experience of the other. I am perpetually distracted by the person’s surroundings, or by that pesky reflective square in the top corner that never quite permits me to go outside myself and truly see the other.
Perhaps most crippling is the shifting gaze—of never being able truly to see into the eyes of the other. The eyes draw two people into trust, into sharing their ideas and their hearts—rather than merely the events of the day. Looking into the eyes of another, be it in a passing smile with a stranger on the quad or in deep conversations over a meal, is an immense gift of self. In eye contact, I give another the permission to see my joy, or sadness, or confusion, communicated, perhaps more than by words, through the eyes.
Consider the scene in The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus falls, and we enter through the eyes of Mary into the hidden life of Jesus. The child Jesus trips and falls, and Mary drops everything to run to her beloved Son and tell him, I’m here. Her eyes communicate the deepest tenderness and her arms enfold the little boy. The same eyes, slightly sunken and deeply pained, watch the same boy fall on the road to Calvary, as He is crushed beneath the weight of the Cross. She runs to Him, saying with the same expression, I’m here. Mary’s gaze is the fullness of compassion—the ultimate suffering with.
Through that gaze, Mary enters her son’s suffering, not taking it from him or appropriating it, but humbly being present at his side. Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, says “loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs.” One forgets oneself in truly seeing and loving the other. In fact, “the aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that ‘gaze’ which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly, or physically unattractive.” The emaciated and bleeding face of Jesus calls Mary to deep and tender love, expressed through her gaze, which transfigures the experience of ugliness into an aesthetic experience of love—not removing the pain, but triumphing over it, such that Jesus can struggle to His feet, and continue on the way.
Over spring break, I journeyed to the Holy Land, and had the opportunity to celebrate Mass within the tomb where Jesus was buried, and whence he rose from the dead. It was “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” and the whole church, especially inside the sepulchre, was quiet (Jn 20:1). Impressed on my mind in a permanent and final way is the memory of the consecration during Mass, immediately over the place where Jesus stood up and walked. It was as if I was watching the resurrection, as if Jesus met my gaze in that moment, saying I’m here. The lingering incense smelled not of death, but of life. The tears of pilgrims that anointed the stone covering Christ’s resting place streamed in torrents of joy, not sadness—the same tears of grace through which I fixed my sight on the Eucharist. I cried because Christ does not stay here. The glory of the tomb is its emptiness! Receiving the Eucharist, and bearing His presence out of the tomb, I fulfill the command “Go, tell my disciples.” And so it is at every Mass, that the gaze of Christ exhorts us to go out and sing the Easter Alleluia.
In that moment, I felt known in my joy. In Christ’s passion, he was known in his anguish. In a terrifying way, the gaze communicates that we are known—simultaneously our greatest fear and deepest desire. But what a marvelous thing to be known, and all the more loved. The gaze of a parent, a friend, or Jesus, which sees us for who we truly are, is a gift. “Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another,” as our wise Pontifex declares. Why is the gaze so important? What might it be like to seek out opportunities of uncomfortable, joyful, truthful encounter, rather than hide behind a phone screen outside the dining hall or walking across campus? How might we become a gift for others by the mere crack of a smile and a look that says, I’m here?
Carolyn is a junior PLS major, with Theology and Constitutional Studies minors, and lives in Lyons Hall. Please shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the nature of friendship or the essence of beauty (a yet unanswered subject of pondering). Subsequent discussion should, of course, be had face to face.