The Face of the Others

Love: Week 1

The Face of the Others
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

In Jesus, God gave us a human heart we could love. While God can be described as a moral force, as consciousness, and as high vibrational energy, the truth is, we don’t (or can’t?) fall in love with abstractions. So God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands” (1 John 1:1).

Jesus taught us what God is like through his words, his actions, his very being, making it clear that “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16). If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is indeed a benevolent universe—at its very core.

The brilliant Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), said the only thing that really converts people, the ultimate moral imperative, is “the face of the other.” He developed this concept at great length and with great persuasion. [1] When we receive and empathize with the face of the other (especially the suffering face), it leads to transformation of our whole being. It creates a moral demand on our heart that is far more compelling than the Ten Commandments. Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like a personal encounter can.

So many Christian mystics talk about seeing the divine face or falling in love with the face of Jesus. I think that’s why Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) often used the image of “mirroring” in her writings. We are mirrored not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the face we can’t give to ourselves. And, of course, the ultimate and perfect mirror is the face of God.

The early mirroring we receive from our parents is particularly important. Neuroscience now shows that the gaze between a newborn and his or her loving caretaker creates “mirror neurons” that help a person become compassionate and have empathy for others. Moreover, although none of us can demand or expect absolutely unconditional divine love from another human being, we can experience very real aspects of it. This helps us be able to imagine what God’s love is like and keeps us open to God’s love.

James Finley offers a fitting poetic image for this idea:

When God eases us out of God’s heart into the earthly plane, God searches for the place that is most like paradise, and it’s the mother’s gaze. In the mother’s gaze, she transparently sacramentalizes God’s infinite gaze of love, looking into the eyes of the infant. And when the infant looks into her eyes it is looking into God’s eyes, incarnate as her loving eyes.

When caregivers and infants gaze at each other, their brain activity increases; parts of their brains literally light up. Similarly, Finley says:

When God gazes at us and we gaze at God, both of us light up. God lights up in the sense of the joy of being recognized by the one that God created in his own image and likeness for the very sake of this recognition. For us it’s a moment of visceral, intimate communion or oneness that feels like homecoming. [2]

References:
[1] See Is It Righteous to Be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, ed. Jill Robibns (Stanford University Press: 2001) for an introduction to his work.

[2] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 19, 31.

Image credit: Man praying on sidewalk with food, Sergio Omassi.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Every act of complete self-giving in the name of the fullness, even though you feel like you are isolated, ignored, unconnected, and meaningless, connects you immediately and becomes a sacrament of the manifestation of that dance of perichoresis [the circle dance of the Trinity], the fullness of love. —Cynthia Bourgeault

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