Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. — Pope Benedict XVI
The face is a living presence; it is expression. The face speaks. — Emmanuel Levinas
I was praying this morning and recalled this story.
Back in 1991, when I was volunteering at a Missionary of Charity hospice and homeless shelter in D.C., there was a man I was paired with to care for who had been found in an abandoned car during mid-winter, nearly dead, with severe frostbite that required amputations. He had also had a seizure and was unable to speak clearly.
His was a tragic life of suffering.
Yet he retained an irrepressible sense of hope and the will to live. Undoubtedly in part because he had been received by the Sisters into a home filled with love, that alone sustains hope.
I got to know him well over the months I was there, and we developed a manner of communication that allowed us to bond in a profound way. Most of what I would intuit about what he was trying to say to me was gathered by studying his eyes as he spoke. He had very expressive eyes.
The day I had to leave for good, I was afraid to tell him I would never see him again. But the Sister supervising me insisted that I tell him very directly. When I did, he averted his face from me and refused to look at me. After around five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to meet his eyes, I finally said: “Please, please, give me one last look as a last gift to me.” He did, begrudgingly.
When our eyes met, I said something to him I had never said to him before: “I love you.”
It was as if a bomb had been detonated inside of him. He wailed and sobbed, heaving and trembling as he cried out. It was awful to watch. I could tell that my words had gone from his eyes and ears into the core of his soul. He was naked with trust before me. The defenses he had put in place over the years, I imagined, he had lowered with me and he had allowed me deep within.
What an absolutely terrifying power to have.
After a period of time, even as he continued to sob, I said farewell. A Sister attended to him as I walked away. The sound of his cries down the hallway haunted me for months in my memory.
But as I left the building, Sr. Manorama took me aside and said: “I know that was hard, but you had to do that. If you left without telling him you would never see him again, he would have felt betrayed. But today you gave him a gift he likely has never received before. You said, ‘I love you,’ but first you showed him you meant it. Words are cheap, but action is not.”
Every human being longs to have those three words spoken to them by somone who has loved them in deed, and have those words penetrate the center of their soul. We exist to receive those words, and we exist to speak them. With our words. With our eyes. With our lives — because we are made in the image of the God whose essence is pure actuality, and whose pure actuality is captured in a two-word sentence: “I love.” And when we see the Face of God one day — in hope we are saved! — He will complete this sentence that He began at creation and punctuated by His Word on the Cross: