My dog Gracie frequently holds my gaze for several moments at a time. She peers directly into my eyes.
Researchers have found that extended eye contact between dog and companion affects the secretion of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that regulates neural activity associated with social bonding, including infant-mother bonding. And, yes, I do talk baby-talk with Gracie.
Eye contact conveys a range of meanings for us humans. The writer Mark Manson blogged a funny and yet instructive piece on the levels of eye contact.
He writes that there are unintentional glances. We accidentally meet another person’s eye at a store or at a coffee shop and we each just keep our eyes moving. No big deal.
Sometimes we intentionally sneak a peek at other people and they catch us in the act. Or, we notice another person doing the same to us. Lots of us look away and hope for plausible deniability. Every now and then, one of us smiles in acknowledgement. Still not a big deal, but our hearts flutter a bit.
Manson goes on to list lascivious ogling, dreamboat eye-to-eye gazes, and creepy relentless stares by strangers. We realize that we’re being looked at and read what kind of look we’re getting. And those glances, gazes, and stares evoke a range of emotional responses.
When someone looks us in the eye, we may feel heard and appreciated. We may also feel judged or threatened. Eye contact shrinks the personal space between me and another person to the zero point. We slip beyond the exterior into each other’s interior life.
Eye contact opens us up to each other. Makes us vulnerable. We see each other. We experience being seen. We experience the other’s response to our gaze and to our souls.
When direct eye contact goes well, we experience what the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called recognition. We know our own dignity as human beings by virtue of another’s acknowledgment of us and of our simultaneous acknowledgement of that other person. A deep connection occurs. I becomes We.
Like all things human, eye contact can go wrong. We can objectify others. Intimidate them. Debase them. Humiliate them. Reject them. No wonder making eye contact can be difficult for some people even if they do not suffer from physiological or psychological conditions associated with aversion to looking others in the eye.
Nevertheless, most of us—maybe all of us—yearn for the kind of recognition that eye contact has the potential to provide. The affirmation of our deep worth. Of our infinite and eternal value. Of our unshakable loveability.
I suspect that this is why we Episcopalians pray these words from the Book of Common Prayer when we celebrate The Epiphany:
Lead us … to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face. (BCP, 214)
In other words, we ask our Maker that we may gaze directly into each other’s eyes. To see and to be seen as we really are. To be drawn into a breathlessly intimate union with God.
The Gospel text for Epiphany is Matthew’s familiar story of the visit of the Magi. In response to seeing a star, these foreign sages had come from their distant, unnamed homeland. Their intention, they say, is to pay homage to the baby king. More literally, they have come to lay prostrate before him.
Stretching oneself out onto the floor in abject obeisance might have been what an Asian despot would have demanded of their subjects. Royal protocol would not have included direct eye contact. Instead, visitors to the king’s chamber may have professed their lowliness and inferiority with eyes cast down, maybe even their face in the dust.
Matthew tells us that, in fact, the Magi initially approached Herod in Jerusalem. Herod would have been just the sort to require servile homage. He was obsessed with power and would have stood for no slight to his perceived greatness.
Cunning and ruthless, he would say and do whatever it took to maintain his status. In fact, even as the Magi visited his palace, he plotted Jesus’s assassination.
And in his abortive attempt to kill his presumed rival, Herod eventually slaughtered every baby and toddler in Bethlehem. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph barely escaped with their lives by crossing the border into Egypt as refugees. In other words, Herod was the sort of king one grovels before.
When the Magi finally pulled into Bethlehem, they found not a pompous ruler in a gilded royal chamber but a baby in a humble dwelling. And, ironically, what babies happen to like about human encounters is eye contact. Studies have shown that babies prefer the faces of people who are gazing into their eyes.
One of the scandals of the Incarnation is that God in God’s fullness was a baby. No less than Jesus on the cross, Jesus in a diaper reveals the divine. God comes to where we live. Comes to meet us fact to face. Comes to make eye contact.
In the divine gaze we become who we truly are. The beloved. And as the beloved, our very lives are an act of resistance against every sort of coercive, dehumanizing power.
Herods of one stripe or another still hold sway in the halls of earthly power. Like in Bethlehem long ago, children no less than adults still fall to Herod’s sword, drown in the sea seeking refuge from his violence, and languish in his holding cells.
Christian spiritual practice does not withdraw us from this world. On the contrary, sacramental worship and contemplative practice help us glimpse the face of God. God’s loving gaze then sends us into this world as agents of God’s own healing, peace, and justice.
It is because we have seen the face of God in Christ, that we seek it tirelessly in the face of our neighbor.
Kind words about my latest book:
“It made me remember what kind of human I long to be—and why I can’t quit Jesus. Read A Resurrection-Shaped Life and fall in love again with God—and with hope.” —Diana Butler Bass, author of Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks