Have you ever felt like you are being stared at? You know, you are waiting in the line at the grocery store, or perusing the shelves at the library, or sitting in the subway, and you sense that someone is looking at you from a distance. Then you turn your head and realize – Aha! you were right! Someone was looking at you.
The biologist Rupert Sheldrake has come up with a scientific theory proving that humans have an inherent “sense of being stared at.” Sheldrake claims that our minds can “extend” toward others through “morphic fields” which can connect people (including animals) at a distance. He even set up an experiment where tens of thousands of people were blindfolded and asked to discern whether they believed that someone was actually staring at them.
I have no qualifications to judge the scientific claims Sheldrake makes. (He certainly has a lot of critics in the scientific community.) Yet I cannot help but wonder if there really is something to a “sense of being stared at.” If I previously had any doubts, living in L’Arche proved this intuition to me in a profound way.
I remember the first time I went out with Buddy, a person with a disability who lives at L’Arche Cape Breton. We were going out for dinner, a very special occasion in rural Nova Scotia. The restaurant was connected to a mall, and so because we had some time we took a brief stroll to look at the stores, an activity Buddy enjoys.
I will never forget the stares that came our way – it was like the feelings of fear, shock, and disgust truly “extended” from the consciousnesses of people in the mall. The strength of those visceral reactions meant that they felt almost physical and tangible.
For you see, Buddy is someone who is different. And not just someone who thinks differently than most of us, or has strange political views, or wears eccentric clothes. Buddy has a radically different body than most of us, and there is no way for him to avoid making it seem less odd. And if I or Buddy ever forgot this, the reactions we received acted as a constant and stark reminder of it.
Let’s call this look the “stare.” It is what Jesus spoke about when he taught about the “unhealthy” or “evil” eye (Matt 6:23). If the healthy eye sees “single” (Matt 6:22) or with oneness, then the “evil” eye sees “double.” When our eyes are unhealthy they see not one but two, looking upon someone as an “other” completely separated from us. The foreigner becomes the “abject,” the one we “cast off” because their difference frightens and disturbs us. Through his travels throughout the world, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier asserts that this fear of people with developmental disabilities is deeply “imprinted” in every human culture. Jesus calls this “othering” nothing less than “darkness” that fills the whole body.
While I remember this moment with Buddy particularly well, I experienced it many times with other people I lived with in L’Arche. And while I learned to love going out to places with my friends with disabilities, I never fully got used to the “stare.” For all of those looks of fear and revulsion reminded me that I too had given those same stares to those I considered “others.” I also had been infected with the “evil eye” before I came to L’Arche and was transformed through my relationships with core members.
But there is another way of looking that does not “cast off” but brings near in love and friendship. Let us call this the “gaze.” This is the healthy or single eye, the one that Jesus calls “full of light.” It is the eye which looks at the rich young man “and loved him” (Mark 10:21), or the one which looks upon Jerusalem and weeps for it (Luke 19:41). In his experience of encountering God in prayer, the poet John of the Cross wrote about the how God’s gaze fundamentally changed him through an indescribably mysterious love. “When you looked at me your eyes imprinted grace in me….you have looked and left in me grace and beauty” (“Spiritual Canticle,” stanza 32, 33).
These are the kinds of eyes I found in Angela, another core member from L’Arche Cape Breton. A deeply contemplative woman, the community had helped discern with her a calling to pray for L’Arche and the world. In that contemplative vocation, Angela’s vision had been so transformed by God’s gaze that she could sometimes look with God’s eyes on the “other,” the person no one else could truly see.
One Sunday morning Angela was caught in the middle of a violent outburst by another core member in her home. Although she was unhurt in the incident, the harm that Bob threatened Angela with made her (understandably) very shaken and afraid. When the immediate crisis had passed the assistants present wondered what they should do next. It was Angela who then said, “We should pray for Bob.” In disbelief the assistants asked how she could do such a thing. All she said was, “We should pray for Bob.”
Even in her fear and vulnerability Angela could gaze upon Bob with God’s eyes, seeing him not as incorrigibly evil but fundamentally as someone in need of Christ’s love. Bob was unfortunately not able to stay in L’Arche. But Angela’s non-violent intention of prayer for him remained a witness not long forgotten, and even became an intercession taken up by other core members in the community.
So how will we look at people with intellectual disabilities, with a stare or with a gaze? May we as a community of God’s people learn how to receive that imprint of grace which Jesus continually showers upon us. And through the power of the Holy Spirit may we then pass on that gaze of communion and friendship to all whom society marginalizes and despises.
Jason Greig was a Student Associate with Anabaptist Disabilities Network when he wrote this article in 2012.