Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
–Words & Music: Helen H. Lemmel, 1922
I admit it. When this particular spiritual practice was first explained to me, I thought it was a joke. Its potential for weirdness is such that you don’t find it in anthologies of spiritual disciplines. But I’ve been practicing it lately and I’m finding it helpful, so I thought I’d introduce you to it. What is it, you ask?
Gazing into the eyes of Jesus.
Yes, I know. I feel your inward cringe. I am all that and I thought this was a really stupid idea, but several things convinced me otherwise.
First, I have a long history of avoiding eye contact and at various points in my life have worked to improve that, first in high school, then later in my single era when I was doing a lot of social dancing. Even without a spiritual angle, I’ve had a sense that improving eye contact with others would help me relate better in social situations.
Second, my own spiritual director has delved into much of the science behind Immanuel Prayer practices, including gazing. At a retreat a couple of years ago she had us practice gazing into the eyes of another retreat participant, explaining how this helps activate and build the relational circuits in the brain. (This article summarizes some of the current understandings about how eye contact affects our brains.)
Thirdly, I’ve long had a picture of Christ standing beside me on the rocks near my childhood home in Maine. Recently, he moved to stand in front of me–and I realized I was having a hard time looking into his eyes!
Think about your most beloved friends, family, spouse. What happens when you gaze into their eyes? Sometimes it brings shame–we have wronged them and we need to make amends. We cannot hold their gaze. But when all is right in our relationship with them, we gaze into their eyes and our love for them grows, simply by looking into their eyes and seeing the love they have for us.
My husband John and I were recently at the Bristol Renaissance Faire when we were accosted by a wandering minstrel. The bard sang a song of the lovely maid, whose cheeks were fair, whose hair was red (in this case, artificially), whose hands were shapely and eyes like brown pools, He kept directing us to be looking into each other’s eyes and prompting John to admire whatever it was that he (the bard) was taking note of at the time. I have often had a sense of my love for John as a steel rod, strong and resilient within me, but after the song it was as though the love had flesh on it, which, I grant you, is important for us human beings.
I often forget that Jesus is flesh and blood just like me, that he is the bridegroom and in some mysterious way all of us–the church–are his bride. He does woo us to him and it is appropriate to think of that with eye contact attached!
How can you practice gazing? I am a beginner, but here are some suggestions:
- Find a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted.
- Do you have a favorite scripture passage, image or icon of Christ that helps you to feel loved by him? Spend some time meditating on that. You can also remember something recent that you appreciate and express that appreciation to him.
- Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Imagine him standing in front of you and look into his eyes. Notice what comes up for you. Can you hold his gaze? When you look away, why is that? What is his facial expression like? Why do you think that it is so?
- If you keep turning away from Jesus or his expression is disapproving, ask yourself if there is some unconfessed sin or reason you cannot hold his case. Have a conversation with him about it if you need to.
- Sometimes it is easier for us to run into Jesus’ arms rather than gaze into his eyes. That is certainly OK!
- As your time is drawing to a close, talk to Jesus about that. Let the time close gently.
- Make plans to meet again.