“No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is brought to perfection in us.”
—1 John 4:12
What do you see when you look into the eyes of the homeless woman pushing a cart down the sidewalk in front of you, the guy who cut you off in line at the grocery store, or the office colleague who just took credit for your hard work? Do you see someone to pity, to tolerate, to despise — or do you see the face of Christ?
If we’re honest, most of us would have to admit that seeing Christ in some of the people we meet in the course of a day is beyond challenging, and yet that is exactly what we are called to do, what Jesus Himself told us to do: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But He didn’t stop there. Jesus gave us an even more difficult teaching that goes hand-in-hand with the second part of the “greatest commandment.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He said, giving us a Gospel challenge that flies in the face of our human instinct for self-protection and society’s admonition to look out for number one. How can we learn to see Christ not only in the innocent face of a newborn baby or in the eyes of a beloved spouse or in the touch of an elderly parent, but also in the people who make our lives difficult in one way or another?
“It’s challenging to see Jesus in an ‘enemy,’ someone who may be attacking us, ridiculing us, or who has harmed us in some way. Where could Jesus be in that person? we wonder,” says Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, EWTN Television host and Catholic author. “I believe the only possible way we can discover Jesus in our ‘enemies’ is through God’s grace and an effort on our part to act upon that grace and further, to commit ourselves to finding Jesus in everyone. This can only happen through prayer.”
O’Boyle, who is the author of “Rooted in Love: Our Calling as Catholic Women” among many other books on Catholic spirituality, says the most profound instance she’s ever had of seeing Jesus in “the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor,” as Blessed Mother Teresa used to say, was when she encountered a crippled homeless woman sitting on the side of a street in Rome, Italy. Numerous tumors poked out of the woman’s sparse gray hair.
“My heart was intensely affected at the sight of her and I wanted to scoop her up off the street and save her from her homeless life. Instead, through tears, I kissed her hands, prayed with her, and gave her a blessed Miraculous Medal. I overwhelmingly saw Jesus in this woman and I wanted to love and comfort Him in her,” she recalled.
Many of us will never have that kind of dramatic “Aha!” moment, but there are still plenty of opportunities in the course of a typical day to see Jesus in the eyes of a spouse or child or friend who might be causing us unhappiness or discomfort, even if they are not an “enemy.”
“I can’t merely look for Jesus in a crippled homeless woman. I need to discover Him within the ones I love who might not be acting very loving. I firmly believe that we grow in holiness when we choose to serve Jesus in our spouses and family members when they are acting out or are in rare form. During those difficult moments when we respond in love, many graces are to be found and our hearts and their hearts are transformed,” says O’Boyle, who is quick to stress that we are all works-in-progress and so we will not be able to live up to the Gospel ideal at all times. Still, with regular prayer, we can move ever closer.
“We must trust Him to present the opportunities for grace in our lives — the people, the situations — and we must pray that we will respond to His grace to serve everyone with love. It doesn’t just happen. We have to pray and tenaciously use our will for the good — always,” O’Boyle says.
“Whenever I meet someone in need, it is really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” –Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Beginning with Prayer
In her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes about one particular nun who got under her skin, saying the woman irritated her no matter what she said or did.
“As I did not want to give way to my natural dislike for her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but should show itself in deeds. So I set myself to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly,” St. Thérèse wrote.
Every time she met this nun, she prayed for her. She did things for her day after day, and when she thought she might say something unpleasant about her, she smiled instead.
“And after all this she asked me one day with a beaming face, ‘Sister Thérèse, will you please tell me what attracts you so much to me? You give me such a charming smile whenever we meet,’” St. Thérèse recalled. “Ah! It was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul who attracted me, Jesus who makes the bitterest things sweet!”
St. Thérèse, Blessed Mother Teresa, and so many other saints and holy men and women remind us by their words and example – by their very lives – that seeing Christ in others isn’t always easy, but it is always necessary for those who strive to live out the Gospel. They provide us with a template for making this beautiful ideal a practical reality in our lives.
As St. Thérèse shows us, it must begin with prayer and with an understanding that the sayings of Jesus are not just pretty platitudes but a “to do” list for those of us who call ourselves His disciples. The first step could simply be to pray for a person who irritates us whenever we find ourselves upset by that person, or even to pray for our children rather than yell about juice spilled on the clean kitchen floor or forgotten homework that now must be driven in to school.
There’s another key element to our success in seeing Christ in others, however. Let’s go back to the second part of the greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot recognize Christ in others if we don’t first recognize Christ in ourselves.
We need to claim our belovedness, accept into our hearts and souls the reality that we are loved by God beyond measure just as we are at this very moment, flaws and all. And that same God who loves us so completely loves the guy who stole your parking spot at the mall just as much. That’s true love. Often times we don’t consider ourselves worthy enough for that kind of total and all-encompassing love. If we don’t see ourselves as worthy, it’s very hard to see anyone else as worthy either. So this work begins with us, right where we are.
An Interior Revolution
“The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” – Dorothy Day
Lynn Goodman-Strauss is known as “The Egg Lady” on the streets of Austin, Texas, because for years she was out on the day labor corner at 7:30am every day handing our hard-boiled eggs, tortillas and hot coffee to those who were hungry, worn out, and losing hope. She also happens to run Mary House, the Catholic Worker residence in that city.
When she’s not handing out food, Goodman-Strauss drives homeless people to AA meetings, lets them shower or even live at Mary House, gives them clothes, and offers them prayers. She reaches out a hand where many would recoil in fear. She told the story once of how one man she’d been helping stole her car. She said it without a hint of anger, without an ounce of regret. Then she boiled more eggs and went back out to the streets.
Most of us are not called to that kind of drastic life of service, but we are called to do what we can in our corner of the world, even if it’s just a cubicle in a busy office, or in a classroom of a local school, or in the kitchen of our home.
Of course, Goodman-Strauss is following in the footsteps of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, now on the road to canonization. Dorothy Day’s faith was lived out in service to – and in solidarity with – the poor. She showed us that true Gospel compassion requires a deep recognition of the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, all deserving of the same dignity and love.
Service to the poor, then, isn’t so much generosity as it is our duty as followers of Jesus — and this duty is something that is never to be resented or forced but embraced because we understand in a very practical way the words of Jesus: “Whatsoever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it for Me.” (Mt. 25:40)
“I believe in person to person. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment. I see Christ in every person I touch, it is as simple as that.” – Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Walking the Talk
Even with the best of intentions, even with prayer and grace and self-acceptance, it can still be hard to look into the eyes of someone who is hurting us or someone on the margins and see Christ there. It requires a certain amount of detachment — to not take things personally, to forgive when we want justice to be served, to see past a rough or disheveled exterior.
Becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others is really a lifelong journey, one that may take us two steps forward and one step back. But as long as we are always focused on the end “goal” and rooted in prayer, we will keep moving forward, however slowly, and in doing so we will transform our hearts, transform our lives, and transform our world.
“All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’” – Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53
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