My son Daniel was just a small baby when we flew out to visit family in Wisconsin. Strapped in his car seat on the plane, completely unaware of where I was taking him, he was obligingly content throughout the flight. Then, as we began our descent, there was sudden turbulence. The plane jolted and shuddered. Our stomachs plunged. Daniel’s little brown eyes darted about, fearful and trying to land on something familiar and reassuring. I leaned over and caught his eyes and smiled.
Suddenly, he relaxed. The plane was still leaping and jumping in the sky like a small toy – but it didn’t matter anymore. Mom’s eyes said it was all okay. He smiled back, a little toothless grin, even as the lights flickered in the lurching cabin.
We held onto each other with our eyes all that final descent. Even as the plane hit the ground with a sudden, awful jolt, and we raced the wind in a deafening howl, Daniel miraculously found peace in my face.
Immediately after that flight, I found myself considering one of the promises The Blessed Mother made through St. Bridget to those who meditate on her seven sorrows: that at the hour of their death, they will see the face of their mother. What might otherwise seem like a nice sentiment appeared to me in hindsight to be a promise profoundly meaningful. I don’t know what death will be like, but I think as I make the journey, I’d like to be reassured by the gaze of someone who loves me and who knows exactly where we are going. As my body falls away, I want to fall into her eyes.
And then, finally, to behold not only her face but the Face of God. Heaven will be the fulfillment of all the contemplating and searching and resting in the Gaze of God we do here, in our prayer. All of the glimpses we get through the veil, all of the beholding of the sorrowful eyes, will reach their final fullness in the dazzling glory of His Face.
St. Therese wrote a beautiful canticle to the Holy Face, “Thy Face it is my fatherland,” she said. “It is the sunshine of my days; My realm of love, my sunlit land, Where through the hours I sing Thy praise.”
The Spiritual Life is necessarily one which is hard to describe, which goes beyond human words. The greatest mystics and saints struggled to articulate their own encounters in prayer and used allegories to try to put into words something beyond human capacity to fully capture: ascending mountains, climbing through crystal castles, lingering in a garden, fumbling in faith through a dark night. And although these analogies and symbols fall short, still God allows us to express something of the soul’s journey through earthly realities. Some of the greatest saints of the Church – and through Scripture, even God Himself – have used the example of gazing into the eyes of another to try to capture the beautiful and astonishingly real experience of God’s great love in the soul: contemplative prayer. When the eyes meet, there is something which communicates one person to the other, suspended in the gaze of other while the world slows and blurs into the background.
This urge to see His face is put into the depths of our interiority by God himself. “The desire to see Jesus dwells deep within the heart of each man and each woman,” said Pope John Paul II in his message for World Youth Day 2004. “Allow Jesus to gaze into your eyes,” he urged the young people, “so that the desire to see the Light, and to experience the splendor of the Truth, may grow within you.” He goes on to instruct them to contemplate the beauty of that Sublime and Holy Face through the eyes of both the flesh and the soul. In the sense of the flesh, the face of God may be found in the face of others, often those nearest to us.
In 1960, John Paul II wrote his masterpiece of a play, The Jeweler’s Shop. The character of Anna, a woman in a loveless marriage, pursues the Bridegroom, her desire just to be seen by someone- really seen – growing into a desperation. As she catches up to him, the Bridegroom turns to her, and she is startled to see that he has the face – of her husband. Jesus veils His own face sometimes in the faces of those he has entrusted to us. The Pope reminds us too to find Jesus in the “disfigured face of the poor.”
In the sense of the soul, God’s face is encountered in scripture, silence, and suffering. And adoration of the Eucharist is the pinnacle of both flesh and faith: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another…” (2 Cor 3:18)
Sometimes, in the dark, bitter nights, God hides His face. In another prayer the Little Flower admits, “O Jesus, whose Face is the sole beauty that ravishes my heart, I may not see here below the sweetness of Thy glance, nor feel the ineffable tenderness of Thy kiss, I bow to Thy Will—but I pray Thee to imprint in me Thy divine likeness, and I implore Thee so to inflame me with Thy love, that it may quickly consume me, and that I may soon reach the vision of Thy glorious Face in heaven.”
In the dark nights, it may feel that we are fumbling for His face, for the reassurance of His countenance. We cannot even dimly make out His profile much less feel the warm weight of His gaze. We may echo Psalm 27: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me!” And in the darkest night, we may fear that even should we find His face, it will be turned away from us.
When the mystics speak to that, they assure us that this too is a stage of purgation, a necessary one. The experience of blind faith is exactly that – blindness. Oh, that we might see! It is such a natural human longing, and it is no accident that so many miracles in scripture bring sight to the blind, both spiritually and physically.
The true reality is that it is man, not God, who turns his face away from the Father. As a result of sin, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us in Veritatis Splendor, “man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols.” God wants our gaze; He searches it out in order to return it. It was His own instruction to Moses to bless the people with these words: “The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (Numbers 6:25-26) These words are echoed again and again throughout the ages.
The poetic words of John Paul II in Song of the Inexhaustible Sun capture beautifully the contemplative destiny imprinted upon each of us, the communion of love we were created for, locked in a mutual look of love:
When You created the poor eyes of mine,
drawing them from the deep into your open hand,
You were thinking of that eternal gaze
enraptured by the endless deep,
and You said:
I will lower myself, brother,
and never leave your eyes in solitude.
May we all become more aware of the gaze of God, and unlike the rich young man, who turned away from His eyes and back to his many other things, meet His look of love with one of our own. May we keep our eyes fixed on His penetrating face, even as the storms surge, and when we find ourselves feeling as though we have lost his features in the darkness, may we cry out with the faith of the blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash.