“Look at me, Mom!” my five-year-old called to me from across the room, wanting to show me a trick he was doing on his rocking horse.
I looked, but apparently not well enough.
“You can’t really see me! Look at me! Look!” The more he insisted, the harder I tried. He was right: Even though I had turned my head toward him from the start, I was not entirely looking. My mind was in a hundred places, and he was waiting for me to focus on only him.
With each attempt, I let go of more distractions. At last, he was satisfied that I could “see” him. Both of us smiled, and my heart was at peace.
Why was that one look so important? One look. It seems so insignificant—yet its power is immense, and even life-changing.
The Power of a Look
One of my favorite Gospel verses is about one look.
It happens in the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus reminds him of the commandments, the man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.”
Then, Mark tells us, “Jesus looking upon him loved him” (Mark 10:21, RSVCE).
Jesus looking upon him loved him.
I can only imagine what this look of love must have been like. I wonder: How did it feel for that young man to have the eyes of Love Incarnate look upon him and love him?
And, since I am called to imitate Jesus, do I try hard enough to bestow this look of love upon those around me?
Looking directly into people’s eyes has never been one of my strong points. When I was growing up, my friend from childhood, Ann, was always shocked when I said I didn’t know what color someone’s eyes were (which was almost all the time). Eyes were the first thing she noticed when she met people, and the last thing I noticed, if I ever noticed at all. To this day, I cannot tell you with certainty the eye color of people I have known for years. I look at people, of course, but I don’t tend to focus on eyes.
Recently, though, I have been trying to overcome my natural weakness and be more intentional about eye contact. I have been reading about how making positive eye contact is a simple and profound way we can show love, especially to our children.
It’s important to distinguish positive eye contact from negative—the former bestows a look of unconditional love and acceptance, whereas the latter is a means of punishment, intended to make a child feel uncomfortable or guilty about his behavior.
Negative eye contact can be damaging to a child and to a relationship. Years ago, when I was an elementary-school teacher, I heard an educational expert say that it is natural for children to look down or to look away when they have done something wrong or are experiencing stress, and that it is better for us to allow them the freedom to avert their eyes, rather than forcing negative eye contact with a command like, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
In my years as an educator and then as a parent, this advice has been a great blessing to me. Yet it’s not enough to simply avoid negative eye contact; it is crucial to make positive eye contact, as often as we can, no matter how the children are acting, in order to show them that they are loved unconditionally.
When I make an effort to make positive eye contact with my children, the effect is transformational—not only for the child, but also for me. The bills on the desk, words on a screen, scuffmarks on the wall, and toys on the floor lose their hold over me. As I look into the eyes of each child, my focus is right where it should be, and my normally-scattered mind is at rest.
“The Eye is the Lamp of the Body”
Blessed (soon to be Saint) Mother Teresa was known for looking into the eyes of the poor people whose wounds she dressed, off of whose bodies she cleaned maggots, whose hunger she filled with rice, and whose loneliness she eased with love. I’ve heard that when she spoke with someone, she looked at that person as if he or she were the only person in the world.
In Kathryn Spink’s Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, Mother relates a story about a time she visited an old man whom nobody ever visited. He lived in filth, and Mother finally convinced him to let her clean his house. While cleaning, she found a beautiful lamp covered in layers of dirt that had built up for years.
“Why do you not light the lamp?” Mother asked him.
“For whom? No one comes for me, I don’t need the lamp,” he said.
“Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?” she asked.
“Yes, if I hear a human voice, I will do it.”
Much later, the man sent word to Mother Teresa: “Tell my friend the light she has lighted in my life is still burning.”
In Matthew 6:22, Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
The old man’s house was dark and dirty, and his lamp was not lit, because no one cared for him. No one looked at him. When Mother Teresa came, when she looked at him and truly saw him, his world grew light again. If the eye is the lamp of the body, then pouring a look of love into someone’s eyes is like lighting a lamp in that person’s life. One look of love can fill a whole person with light, the way the beautiful lamp filled the old man’s house with light. It was not the lamp, but the Sisters’ love that brought the real light; and that love can be shown with one look.
The Love in Jesus’ Eyes
There is another place in the Gospel where I believe Jesus gave this look. (Well, I think he gave it often, and especially so in this passage.) In John 8, the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. While they accuse her before him, wanting to stone her, Jesus bends down and writes in the sand with his finger. Then he tells them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, they leave, until Jesus is left alone with the woman.
At that point—when it was just the two of them—John tells us that “Jesus looked up” and told her that he did not condemn her, either. Other translations say that he “straightened up” or “stood up,” which I believe means that he wanted to meet her at eye level. Either way, when Jesus had a moment alone with this woman, with this child of God who had sinned but whom he still dearly loved, he stopped looking at the ground, where he had been looking while she had been accused. He “looked up” when he said those gentle words of forgiveness and repentance. Before he conveyed his message of divine love with words, he conveyed it with a look.
This look—the same look Jesus gave the rich young man, and the look Mother Teresa gave to her poor—is the look all of us can strive to give to our loved ones and to each person we encounter. A look that reflects God’s endless mercy. A look that delights in each of his precious children, one at a time. A look of infinite, unconditional love.