Growing up in the days of AIM, one family computer in the middle of the living room presented challenges. Not only did my siblings and I need to compete for coveted screen time, but we also faced a test requiring catlike reflexes and a ninja’s hyper-awareness of their surroundings - the parent over the shoulder.
“Who is QTpie87?”
“Are any of those chats with boys?”
“Why does that say ‘bitch’?”
We mastered the art of minimizing screens, of keeping more innocuous chats up long after that friend had logged off, of listening intently for footsteps on the kitchen floor. By average teenage standards, I wasn’t messaging about anything too crazy. Still, I wanted my privacy, and there was always the fear of being misunderstood. As the oldest child and a fairly obedient one at that, disappointing my parents generated shame.
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. As exciting and important as this is, this feast can be intimidating. Great…three cheers for being conceived without original sin and never screwing up. In contrast, many of us have experienced fault lines running through our hearts for a long time. Maybe it’s discomfort with the sex of our birth. Maybe it’s a tendency towards anxiety or irrational fear. Maybe it’s a nearly-neurotic perfectionism. Maybe it’s a nagging lack of purpose and meaning that just won’t go away.
If we celebrate Mary simply because of her absence of flaws, we’re missing the point. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we aren’t just celebrating Mary. We’re celebrating God and the way He looks at us.
“You regarded me.”
If you’re a Liturgy of the Hours deep tracks kind of person, you’ll have come across the midday antiphon for today’s feast: “The Lord will take great delight in you; your God will look upon you with endless joy.” It can be easy to think that God looks on Mary some special way because she’s sinless. But that’s impossible. God’s love isn’t a meritocracy, where we receive more affection points the more sin we avoid.
We don’t always have the best examples of the gaze of God. As human beings, we tend to attribute our own human experience to the divine. I don’t know about you, but I’ve received the “look” of other people a lot of different ways in my life. I’ve been proud and wanted acclaim. I’ve been afraid of being spotted doing something wrong. I’ve been ashamed in getting caught. I’ve been moved to tears by the love, forgiveness, and welcome of others right when I needed it.
When human experience is spotted with imperfections - which it inevitably is - it can easy enough to compare the “look” of God to the parent over the shoulder as we frantically type on Instant Messenger. God sees us all right, and we better make sure to close out certain windows when He comes around.
It wasn’t always this way. God didn’t intend for us to have false impressions of Him. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of a God who is love (c.f. 1 John 4:13). In the beginning, human beings were meant to experience the “look” of one another without shame. In his work Man and Woman He Created Them, St. John Paul II writes that this look contained “an original depth in affirming what is inherent in the person … [which] corresponds [to] the ‘interior’ fullness of the vision in man in God” (12.5).
When is the last time you felt looked at that way? That someone saw you, knew you, and affirmed everything inherent about you as a person? The truth is, Someone already does.
“The reciprocal vision of each other is … a share in the vision of the Creator himself - in that vision about which the account of Genesis 1 speaks several times, ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’” (13.1)
“You regarded me.”
I stumbled across something recently that gave me a new sense of God’s gaze for me. It’s in the Spiritual Canticle by St. John of the Cross. He wrote the cry of his longing heart in forty stanzas, imitating the call and response nature of the Song of Songs, but this time more specifically between John and God. Throughout the poem, John is absolutely caught up and captivated by God Who, as it turns out, seems to feel the same way about him. Here are some of John’s words:
By that one hair
You have observed fluttering on my neck,
And on my neck regarded,
You were captivated;
And wounded by one of my eyes.
When You regarded me,
Your eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
For this You loved me again…
Since You have regarded me,
Grace and beauty have You given me.
What does it mean to be seen by God? To fall under his gaze? The word “regard” - to look, to heed, to appreciate - has the same linguistic root as the word “guard” - to watch over, to guard, to preserve, to protect. When the eye of the Lord falls upon us, it is a gaze of protection and of love. It is the gaze of perfect innocence.
In the Spiritual Canticle and in Theology of the Body, we see spousal imagery. On a deep, even mystical level, Christ is the new Adam and all of us - male or female - are His bride, the Church. At the dawn of creation, Adam’s role included “the guardian of the mystery,” the one destined to “defend this freedom [to be received] from any reduction” (19.2). The bride has been “entrusted to his eyes, to his consciousness, to his sensibility, to his ‘heart’” (17.2).
“You regarded me.”
Your personhood is entrusted to the very heart of God. Before you were mocked for your effeminate voice, before someone touched you a way they shouldn’t, before you first clicked the pornography link, before you accused yourself for longings you didn’t understand, you are regarded. You are seen with the gaze of original innocence. You are beheld without shame. He sees you outside of the imperfections wrought by time. He sees you spotless and clean.
“We can say that inner innocence … consists in a reciprocal ‘acceptance’ of the other … it is a question, therefore, of ‘welcoming’ the other human being and of ‘accepting him’” (17.3).
As this gaze falls upon you today, can you meet it? God is not ashamed of you. God does not disregard you. His gaze is not a blatant affirmation of all the mess and the tangles, but an invitation to pass through to the inner grove, the “garden enclosed” where God already regards the deepest things. Don’t be afraid of your shame, your anxiety, your past. Sit with Him today - sit with Him everyday! - in the snatches of silence and stillness and let yourself be seen. Allow Him to peel back the layers and scrub off the shame. Allow Him to see you in the gaze of innocence.
He’s regarding you.