Seeing and Being Seen

Here is your God, / he comes with vindication; / With divine recompenses / he comes to save you. / Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, / the ears of the deaf be cleared; / Then will the lame leap like a stag, / the the tongue of the mute will sing. . . . A highway will be there, / called the holy way; / No one unclean may pass over it, / nor fools go astray on it, / No lion will be there, / nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it. / It is for those with a journey to make, / and on it the redeemed will walk.

Isaiah 35:4-6,8-9

But not finding a way to bring  him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered  him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”

Luke 5:19-20

In his speech to the Irish Parliament, John F. Kennedy quoted from the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw:  “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’  But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” This same quote was often paraphrased by Robert Kennedy during his presidential campaign. It speaks of two very different visions or perspectives of those who are walking the same path. On the one hand there is the struggle and contradiction of a world that doesn’t make sense to us, that isn’t fair in the way that we judge. From the second perspective, there is grace and mercy, healing and strength, hope and love despite all appearances.

The second of these experiences is what Isaiah describes as “the holy way.” Those who journey on this highway will experience their lives in safety and security, whatever obstacles they may face. The prophet says that this way “is for those with a journey to make.” Those who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus are on such a journey. They have no apparent path by which to carry the man to Jesus, so they go up on the roof and lower him down to Jesus. What Jesus sees in this is their faith, and, seeing their faith, they see and receive his mercy.

On the other hand, the scribes and the pharisees do not recognize the mercy of God in Jesus; instead they see blasphemy. Jesus recognizes that their judgment comes from the state of their hearts:  “What are you thinking in your hearts?” In short, the thoughts in our heads reflect the thoughts, that is the state, of our hearts. Each morning I receive a brief reflection of Eknath Easwaran. This morning’s begins with a quote from Rumi:

Each of us sees the Unseen in proportion to the clarity of our heart, and that depends upon how much we have polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more – more Unseen forms become manifest.

Cognitive psychology is coming to confirm what the great wisdom traditions have long known and taught. Although we may look at the same reality, we do not see the same thing. Where one person sees blasphemy, another sees the mercy of God. Where one sees him or herself as entrapped in an experience of life with no way out, another sees the possibility of opening to experience in a new way. Personally, I experience continually within myself this truth of different ways of seeing. Within a matter of minutes I can experience an upcoming task, for example a long trip overseas, as a dreaded duty that promises to tax me physically and emotionally to my limit, or as a possibility for new encounters and deepening relationships, and as opportunities to give what I have in new places and ways. As a young person, I was very shy and timid. This led me to avoid expanding out beyond the very small circle of experience within which I was comfortable. To this day, this fearful way of seeing the world manifests itself in my experience. Especially when facing significant change, it is a struggle to see with the eye of faith, hope, and love, with an openness to possibility.

Rumi says that our task is to polish our heart so that it may be able better to recognize the unseen, the “more” that life is always offering us. “The more” is all of what exceeds the limits we impose on life and world out of our own past experience. We must polish our hearts by learning to trust more, to still our fears and anxieties that lead us to reduce the world to the little that feels manageable to us.

The 15th century mystic Nicholas of Cusa says that we are, in truth, always being seen, in mercy, by God. In God’s seeing of us, God is given to be seen by us. The more we polish our heart by being attentive to God, the more clearly we see the God who is always looking at us. When we experience not being regarded by God, that is abandoned by God, it is because we have ceased to regard God. God never ceases looking at us in mercy (as Jesus with the paralyzed man and his friends), but we cease realizing that mercy (as the scribes and pharisees) when we direct our attention away from God in preference to a lesser value.

When we see God in all aspects of life, it is because we are living in the awareness of God’s seeing of us. To live in reality is to live with this knowledge and awareness. Every time we cease to do so, we are living in illusion. The poetry of Isaiah had to sound very strange to those who were living in exile. In the same way, life as a path to the mercy and love of God can often seem naive at best and delusional at worst. Day to day, it may seem much more realistic and well-adjusted to reduce life to the small pleasures that our possessions and security can afford us. Yet, always, says Nicholas, God sees us as we truly are and are called to be. We are more than we are usually able to see, because most often we refuse to believe that, as with the Rich Young Man of the gospel, God is always looking on us with love and mercy.

The great temptation in life is to reduce our life and the world’s life, and to take our own limited sight as the measure of all things. In our early years of religious life, we would read each day a saying of St. Francis Xavier. One of them read:  “What is life but a continual death, a banishment from the celestial glory for which we have been created, and for which we are in the world?” As a young man, I lacked the experience required to understand this. It seemed to me to be another of  those many life denying religious sentiments to which we were constantly being exposed. I now recognize, though, that it is not life denying but in fact life affirming. Too often we live a life in death because we fail to know who we really are and what life really is. to know life we must have “the vision of God.” Not visions in the sense of heavenly apparitions, but rather the knowledge of heart of God’s seeing us. We don’t really live until we are living the life that God sees. To fail to know that life is to fail to live.

Nicholas of Cusa tells us that the eyes of God are never turned away from us. Ours, however, are frequently turned away from God. Today’s gospel tells us that real faith is to walk the path, however apparently obstructed, to the merciful gaze of God. This is the faith that will know, as the paralyzed man, the omnipresent mercy and love of God. Theodore James Ryken speaks of  a “turning toward God” by which he falls in love and then directs his whole life to God’s service. In turning toward God, Ryken sees himself anew, as the one whom God sees, and so he knows his life as the call to serve God that it truly is. So too with us. God looks on us with love always, and that love is a unique call for the sake of the world. When our path seems old, tired, and hopelessly difficult, it is then we are to turn again toward God that we might see ourselves and our call anew, as God sees us.

What other, O Lord, is your seeing, when you look upon me with the eye of mercy, than your being seen by me? In seeing me you, who are the hidden God, give yourself to be seen by me. No one can see you except in the measure you grant to be seen. Nor is your being seen other than your seeing one who sees you.

In the icon, this image of you, I perceive, O Lord, how inclined you are to show your face to all those seeking you. For you never close your eyes, never turn them elsewhere; and although I turn myself away from you when I direct my attention entirely to something other, yet notwithstanding this, you change neither your eyes nor your gaze. If you do not look upon me with the eye of grace, I am at fault because I have separated myself from you by turning away toward some other, which I prefer to you. Yet, even so, you do not turn completely from me, but on the contrary, your mercy follows me so that should I ever wish to turn back to you, I would be capable of grace. If you do not regard me, it is because I do not regard you but reject and despise you.

Nicholas of Cusa, On the Vision of God, Chapter V, 13-14

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