After one of the Masses, a parishioner came to me and said, "I never knew, Father, that you could bring coffee to church!"
Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there. Thank you for all the times you looked down into our eyes with love, so that we would learn how to look up to God.
Twenty-five years ago, a mother wrote a book about raising a young daughter who’d been diagnosed with autism. Early signs that something was out of the ordinary were when her parents realized that their daughter never imitated them, as little children do, or called out to them for help. She had a hard time focusing. She didn’t pick up clues from body language. She preferred to be alone. In fact, the mother tells of how her child never really seemed to look at her; instead, she seemed to look right through her.
In particular, this mother outlined the lengths to which she and her husband went to help their little girl recover. What she describes is an intensive course of behavioral therapy—some of it involving therapists, but much of it dependant on mom and dad. The cornerstone of this approach was nothing other than eye contact. We don’t usually stop to consider the critical role something as simple as eye contact plays in the brain development, emotional stability, and social awareness of children. Every deliberate drill, every casual interaction, began exactly the same way: “Look at me!”
This treatment plan—still in use today—doesn’t waste time trying to diagnose the causes of a child’s autism; instead, it works to correct whatever went wrong. The constant repetition of, “Look at me!” and the associated techniques to help the child do exactly that, are a means for replicating a crucial experience in a child’s early development: the experience of his or her mother, while nursing, looking into her baby’s eyes—immature eyes that can only focus back on hers, because anything closer or farther away is just a blur.
After a little over a year of this behavioral therapy, the couple’s daughter acted no different than her peers. They took her to her doctor for a reevaluation. The doctor knew she’d made a full recovery as soon as this little girl walked into his office; he could see it in her eyes.
“Look at me!”
I suspect I’m not the only one who wants to repeat those same words to many people—adults and children alike. I’ve been out to dinner and seen families seated around the table, or walked past mothers pushing strollers down the sidewalk, or waited in line with others at the grocery store—and everyone’s bent over their own little glowing screen. These devices claim to revolutionize communication, but quite often they pull people away from those who are right there in front of them. This technology is having real effects—much of it frighteningly similar to autism. It’s shortening our attention spans, impairing our ability to focus, and ruining our social skills. It’s altering our patterns of thought, and studies are now revealing how it negatively affects a child's brain development.
We’re becoming people who no longer know how to make eye contact.
There’s a spiritual impact to this, too: as we forget how to look into one another’s eyes, we can’t help but forget how to gaze upon God.
This Sunday’s gospel reading comes from St. John’s account of the Last Supper. After Jesus has washed the feet of his Apostles and taught them at length—as we’ve heard the last two Sundays—we now come to what is known as his “priestly prayer.” It’s the prayer of Jesus before he willingly dies on the altar of the Cross; it's the prayer of our great High Priest before he offers his perfect and living sacrifice.
Notice how the passage begins: “Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed…”
Jesus looks up to his Father when he speaks to him. As a man like us, he’s more than his mind, and so his prayer involves both body and soul, the physical and the spiritual—his whole person. Jesus is praying to his Father for us: praying that he will guard and keep us; praying that we will be consecrated as he was consecrated—set apart for God and holy. But as we listen to the tender, intimate way in which Jesus speaks to the Father, it becomes perfectly clear: this is not the first time Father and Son have made eye contact.
What a lesson this holds for you and me! In Jesus Christ, God is pleading with the human race: “Look at me!”
Our ancestors in the faith understood this well. They enshrined this posture of Jesus at the Last Supper in the texts and rubrics of the Roman Canon—the most ancient of our Eucharistic Prayers—as it directs the priest himself to look upward as he recounts the way Jesus prayed “with eyes raised to heaven, to you O God, his almighty Father.” And we see it in the way they built their churches, too: facing east, oriented toward the rising sun. From the earliest days of Christianity until fairly recently, priest and people at prayer all looked in the same direction, awaiting the dawn of that great day when we will behold the face of God—when we will finally be able to look the Lord in the eye.
“Look at me!”
This Sunday, we’re going to tap into that great wisdom. I will offer this Mass standing on the opposite side of the altar from what we’ve become used to. Let me be clear: this is not—and never has been—about the priest turning his back on the people; it’s about all of us looking together at God.
Now, you and I both know that God isn’t literally up there in space just beyond the sun and moon, or hanging out somewhere along the east coast. Looking up and facing east are both ways of indicating that God is far beyond the confines of this world he has created, surpassing the distant horizon and the highest heavens.
I recently offered daily Mass this way. A parishioner who’d never encountered it before made sure to tell me that the Mass had been “special” for her: “It made me focus just a bit more than usual.” I know it certainly does that for me. Rather than concentrating on how best to “perform” the rituals, I can instead more easily pray the Mass—especially when I’m not distracted by folks in the pews reading the bulletin, sipping on coffee, clipping their finger nails, or texting on their cell phones.
When I’d done this in another parish several years ago, someone there said, “Father, you feel so much closer to us when you stand on our side of the altar.” She recognized that this really does help to restore proper eye contact. Mass is not something that the priest does for the people, as it would appear when you and I spend the entire time looking at each other. No, Mass is something that priest and people do together for the Lord. It’s simply a matter of good manners, just like we teach our kids: Look at someone when you speak to them.
Rest assured: this is not a permanent change (I haven’t moved any furniture); I’m not attempting to turn back the clock or saying there’s anything wrong with the way we’ve been doing things the last 50-60 years (that’s the Mass I grew up with); and I’m not breaking any rules—this has been a legitimate option all along—so don’t call Bishop LaValley or write to Pope Francis (who, by the way, offers Mass this way himself every once in a while). This is just a physical means—behavioral therapy, you might say—meant to assist us in recovering a spiritual skill we rapidly seem to be losing: how to gaze upon God.
Most of us (thank you moms!) had the vital developmental experience during our very first days outside the womb of looking into our mother’s loving eyes. May the ancient wisdom of our Holy Mother, the Church, help us to fully recover our spiritual sight: raising our eyes to heaven with Jesus, together gazing into the eyes of our eternal Father, only to realize that God was already gazing upon us, his children—looking at us with the greatest love.
This homily depends heavily on the article, “Look at Me,” by Patricia Snow, in the May 2016 issue of First Things.